Your coworker is grieving. What can you do?

When anyone experiences grief, it can be tough to know what to say. Different people have different needs when they face grief. Also, the unique relationship between coworkers can vary in levels of closeness based on your workplace environment and field. In the workplace, it can be tough to figure out how to best offer support.

Here are some steps you can take if you want to know how to help when your coworker faces grief. 

First, try to understand your coworker’s grief

First and foremost, try to understand your coworkers’ situation. Grief can occur due to a variety of circumstances.

Maybe, your coworker is currently going through a divorce or separation. Perhaps, they recently lost a loved one who passed. These are both examples of situations where a person might be experiencing grief and where you may want to help or offer support.

To put yourself in someone else’s shoes can aid you as you work to understand their situation. This is relevant for many life experiences, including grief. 

Questions to ask yourself (and–maybe–them)

Though it’s important to reach out and ask a question or two, it’s often better to reflect, yourself, before you ask your coworker questions about what they need or what they’re going through.

You may already know the answers, or have an idea. Since energy can be limited when one experiences grief, this allows you to gain sincere empathy for the situation, all while allowing your coworker to preserve said energy. Here are some questions to think about: 

  • How has this experience changed their day-to-day life?
  • What supports/habits/routines have been disrupted?
  • What might this situation feel like to them when they lay their head on the pillow at night?
  • Does any part of work remind them of what they’re grieving?
  • Who are they staying strong for?

Once you engage in self-reflection, you will be able to scope out which questions you do need to ask your coworker in order to best support them. For example, you may be able to think enough about how this experience affects their daily life to understand, but you may not know, and of course you can’t assume, what exactly another person will want. 

Some people need more support, whereas others need some time alone. Some people want to talk about how they feel, whereas some people don’t but may want certain forms of tangible support. 

Next, take action to help your grieving coworker

Often, when a grieving coworker is in the midst of a challenging time, it may be best to simply take the leap to help–without asking how. If you want to help with meals, either just bring a known favorite food to them at the office, or offer a limited list of options so that they don’t have to think too hard. Consider whether you can include extra portions for their family/kids. If you do this, you may ask about food allergies, etc. This is only one example of the tangible help you may be able to offer. Ask yourself:

  • What other responsibilities can you help with? Are those responsibilities they have at home, at work, or somewhere else? Are they having to support other people during this time, and might they be missing the support they need themselves? 
  • What other needs might they have? For example, might they be lonely? Could they crave or need social connectedness?

Other actions you can take may include but aren’t limited to taking on the burden of a specific responsibility at work, taking time to meet up (you may ask if they’d like to take a walk or get coffee) if, upon reflection, you realize that they might be lonely, or to help out with childcare. If you’d like to take over a reasonable work duty temporarily, make sure to ask them and give your supervisor(s) a heads up. 

Beyond the actions you choose to take on your own, consider organizing others’ efforts to help. For example, create a “Meal Train” or stand-in childcare schedule and ask everyone at the office to volunteer if possible.

Remember, it’s about them – not about you

While your intentions are undoubtedly good, take caution not to make yourself into a hero. Make sure it’s clear that you know your grieving coworker is capable – that they probably don’t need help – but that you’d like to help free up some brain space for what they’re going through.

Ask how they’re doing. Respect how much or how little they’re willing to share, engage in quiet acts of kindness, and let them know that you are there, but try not to be overbearing and take into consideration how the person reacts. Don’t hesitate to ask if certain things help, check in with regard to if your coworker wants to talk or needs space, and listen to the response. When you talk, remember that no two people are the same, and focus on active listening. 

Keep in mind that grief lasts 

Often, people rush to help when an event first occurs. As the weeks go by, those who dropped off meals, asked how the other person was or what they needed, and so on, may stop doing so. However, grief doesn’t last for those few weeks alone. 

You can continue to offer support, and it may actually touch your grieving coworker even more that you remember after the fact–especially in a society where so many people want grief to be fast and clear-cut. The fact is that the stages of grief can endure; they may flip back and forth from one to the other, and they may impact different people at different times. 

Be understanding of the emotional changes a person might go through, and the ups and downs they might face. 

What if I don’t know my grieving coworker well?

Whether you are friends with a grieving coworker or know them casually, it is okay (and an excellent act of human kindness) to offer support. You don’t have to know them well already to offer these things, though the way that you approach the conversation may change based on your existing relation to the person. 

Respect their needs and what they say, but don’t let a lack of existing emotional connection hold you back from the acknowledgment of what’s going on or the capacity to offer support to someone else. The truth is that we are all people and we all need care at times. This person could be very touched that you offer these things to them. This is social support and humanity. You don’t have to know the ins and outs to care. 

In conclusion…

Regardless of your connection with a grieving coworker, there are various ways to help when someone you work with experiences grief. If you experience grief yourself, need a space to talk about work, or something else, it’s important that you reach out for support as well. 

Supportiv, an anonymous peer support network, is available 24/7, whenever you need to talk. You can get it for your company, or you can get a day pass for yourself. We all go through tough times, and we all need support.