When a coworker loses a loved one — what to say and how to help.
Workplace conversations almost always revolve around small talk and don’t go any deeper.
However, when someone at work loses a loved one, it’s hard figuring out what to say. Making the transition from small talk to bereavement is difficult at best.
In this article, I’ll talk about what to say to someone who lost someone at work. I’ll give you 11 things to say and do, in order to break the ice and offer your support.
Know this: your coworker will thank you for it.
11 things to say and do
1) Pick a really good time
Timing is everything. This is especially true when trying to bring up such a sensitive subject as the loss of a loved one.
It might be best to pick a time where you can be alone, or at least without interruption. Talking about loss should be treated with the respect and decency it deserves.
That’s best achieved at a time and place without interruption.
That way, you can clearly say what you need to and they can feel comfortable expressing emotion without the fear of being interrupted or being seen by a large group of people.
2) Don’t avoid them if you’re not sure what to say
The awkwardness you feel when you aren’t sure what to say to your coworker isn’t something that you’re alone in feeling.
In other words, they feel awkward about it too. They’re not sure how people are feeling, they don’t want to be the subject of too much attention.
Furthermore, they don’t want the grief or the loss to get in the way of any relationships. The last thing they want is to feel isolated even more than they already do.
Grief is felt differently by every person. In that way, they’re already on a very lonely journey, despite the support they do have.
With that in mind, then, it’s important to make sure you don’t avoid them. If you haven’t said anything yet, don’t just ignore them.
When it comes time to give them your condolences formally, they won’t have felt isolated or ignored up to that point.
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3) Acknowledgement is the most important thing
Along the lines of the last point, a simple acknowledgement that something happened can go a really long way.
What that means is this:
You don’t have to come up with some long-winded and eloquent speech for a coworker who’s lost someone they love. A simple acknowledgement of their grief and their loss will go a long way.
You might have a lot to say or a lot of experience dealing with loss. However, you don’t have to bring it all up at once, or right away.
A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is better than avoiding that person or avoiding the subject like it hasn’t happened.
4) Make a thoughtful gesture
It’s important to note that this point doesn’t say “make a grand gesture.” It says “thoughtful,” for a reason.
What’s the difference?
Well, a grand gesture might not be a good idea. Your grieving coworker doesn’t need a hero or someone to step into the light to give their condolences. That could lead to embarrassment, stress, and could even isolate them even more.
On the other hand, a thoughtful gesture could be something small, a simple hand-written note for instance. Or perhaps a tasteful bouquet of flowers, homemade cookies, and so on.
A thoughtful gesture could be an invitation to lunch.
There really is no end to the kind, simple things you can do to help out someone after a loss. Just remember, it’s the thought that counts, not the grandiosity.
5) Include them in an activity
As I’ve already touched on, dealing with the loss of a loved one is in many ways also dealing with feelings of isolation.
There’s no one in the world who can feel or know exactly what it is you’re going through when you’ve lost someone you love. So no matter the support you feel and have, it’s still going to be a struggle of loneliness.
So with that in mind, then, it’s important to make your coworker feel included. There’s any number of ways you can do this. It could be as simple as inviting them to sit with you in the break room or next to them at a work meeting.
It could also be including them in after-work plans, whether it’s going out for drinks or anything else.
The point is this: it doesn’t necessarily matter how you include them, as long as they feel included.
6) Don’t pretend it didn’t happen
There’s definitely a balance to be struck with this point, and let me explain.
On the one hand, you could treat them entirely differently after a loss, as if the relationship, or even your coworker, were somehow fundamentally different because of it.
This is a bad idea. They’re still the same person, and they don’t want to be treated differently.
On the other hand, though, you might be inclined to act like nothing has happened at all. This isn’t a good idea either, because they’re clearly going through something big.
Pretending like it didn’t happen is going to make them feel uncomfortable and could make you look callous or inconsiderate.
A balance is necessary. As I’ve mentioned, acknowledgement is vital, even in the smallest of ways.
7) Be honest and genuine
One of the hardest things is figuring out what exactly you should say. You don’t want to presume or upset them, but you don’t want your coworker to think that you don’t see what they’re going through.
One of the biggest keys in deciding what to say has, ironically, nothing to do with what you say, but how you say it.
Are you nervous about approaching them? Tell them that.
Are you unsure of what to say? Let them know. If you’ve lost someone, let them know you’ve been there. They’ll appreciate the support.
The bottom line is this:
What you say matters far less than being honest and genuine does.
When you show your coworker that you aren’t afraid to connect with them and be honest, they’ll immediately feel closer to you because of it.
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8) Respect their space if they ask for it
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is overwhelming enough.
Think about it: Their entire life is suddenly and irrevocably changed. Then they have to deal with the proceedings, the family drama, the finances, and so on. Furthermore, there’s the reaction of everyone in their life.
Yes, as a coworker of someone who’s lost someone, that includes you. So don’t be upset if your coworker asks you to leave them alone for a while. If they need space, be respectful of that.
Remember: they’re going through a lot.
It might be hard to understand, and you might feel the tendency to tell them to “look at the bright side,” or to “cheer up”.
However, that can do more harm than good. It’s okay to be sad and to grieve. These emotions aren’t bad.
In fact, they’re just as important and valid as happiness. Here’s a really fascinating article about toxic positivity and how to be more emotionally agile.
9) They need to feel supported
Each scenario is going to be different, there’s no overstating that fact.
So when it comes to figuring out what you want to say or how to say it, remember that they need to feel supported.
They don’t necessarily need advice, nor do they need someone who “knows exactly how they feel”. What they need is to feel validated, accepted, and supported.
There’s a number of ways you can help them to feel supported, but this should be the focus.
Even something as simple as “I’m here for you,” can mean the world. The more specific the better, as a vague offer of help could be more stressful.
Here’s what I mean: Saying something like “Let me know if you need anything,” puts more obligation onto your coworker versus saying something like, “If you need me to get you groceries, I’d love to.”
Here’s a long list of great quotes which bring inner peace and comfort that you could share with your coworker.
10) Don’t pry, they may not want to get into details
It’s important to not pry when being friendly with a coworker.
The entire trauma is still very fresh to them. It could be that they don’t want to talk about it, and just want company.
So when you’re figuring out what to say, sometimes less is more. There’s no need to attempt some morbid version of small talk.
It’s often more than enough to briefly acknowledge the event and your support, and then move on.
In other words, they might not want to dwell at this point. It’s good to be aware of that. Give them their space.
11) Never claim that you “know how they feel”
Even if you’ve been through loss of any kind, remember that each person reacts to and processes grief differently.
There’s no way that you can truly know how they feel. You may be able to understand what they’re going through, give them helpful advice, and so on.
However, it won’t help anything to say you know how they feel. Frankly, you don’t. And you never will, in the same way, that no one can fully understand how you felt when you experienced loss.
To sum up
Knowing what to say to someone who lost someone at work is difficult at best.
Remember that it’s not about what you say, but the spirit behind it. Be respectful, find a good time, and be thoughtful. They’ll thank you for it.
That way you can help them in the long process of healing from grief.