Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What To Say When A Grieving Employee Returns To Work

When someone experiences a death in the family, they very often take time off work. When the grieving employee returns to work, it can be difficult to know just what to say and HR managers and coworkers are often woefully ill equipped to address the loss.

Know that the first few days back to work will be extremely difficult for the grieving employee. Also know that they will continue to grieve for a long time, despite the fact that they are back at work. They may feel like the world is moving on around them and they may feel pressure to keep up. They will almost certainly struggle with a lack of concentration and an inability to focus. Be patient. Grieving is hard work in and of itself. The important thing is not to make the grieving employee feel isolated and emotionally unsupported.

Here are a few tips for things that you can say to your grieving employee or coworker:

1. Express your sympathies.

Grief is not contagious and you should not avoid the person or sit there wondering what to say. Saying something as simple as "I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother/sister/uncle/child" is a way of acknowledging that the person has experienced a significant loss. The worst thing you can do is say nothing or pretend like nothing has happened. Do not communicate with the person in any way until you have sent a card, email, left a phone message or talked to them in person and acknowledged their loss.

2. Express that there is no time limit on their grief.

Grieving is hard work and it is doubly exhausting to be at work while grieving. It will be comforting for the employee to hear that you understand that they are grieving and that it will take a long time before they are back to full capacity. Expect the employee to have diminished energy and difficulty thinking clearly. No matter how badly you need that employee to be at work, pressuring them to perform will not do you or them any favours.

3. Let them know you are there for them.

Express to the employee that you are there and that if they ever need you, your door is open. Even if they never take you up on it, it will be comforting for them to know that they have your support.

4. Continue to check in and ask them how they are doing.

Particularly after they have spent some time back at work, make sure to continue to check in with the grieving employee and ask how they are making out. There is nothing worse than going back to work and having everyone pretend like everything is normal. When a monumental loss has occurred in your life, it is never far from your thoughts. It will not be upsetting if someone asks, even weeks or months later, how you are coping. This kind of "checking in" will help the grieving employee to feel like others haven't forgotten what they are going through.

5. Try to be sensitive to their grief by acknowledging that there will be difficult days.

If someone has lost a child, acknowledge that things like office baby showers will be extremely uncomfortable for them and provide them with the option of not attending. For those who have lost a parent, acknowledge that they will be intensely grieving their loss on Father's Day or Mother's Day. Expect family holidays such as Christmas to be extremely difficult and encourage the employee to do whatever feels comfortable for them, whether that be attending office Christmas parties or participating in gift exchanges, or not.

6. Don't shy away from asking about the person that they have lost.

Most people, as part of the grieving process, will need and want to talk about their loss and the person that they lost. Don't feel that you will upset the person by asking questions. If they lost a baby, they will want to have that baby's life acknowledged and they will want to hear their baby's name spoken aloud. They will still want to talk about their delivery and about who the baby looked like, etc. They need to talk about the experience in the same way any new mother would need to. If they lost a parent or sibling, they will likely have many memories to share and will enjoy talking about those memories. If there are tears, don't be afraid. Just sit and listen. Don't be afraid to ask again or to continue to talk about the person that has died, unless the grieving person tells you that they just can't talk about it at that time.

7. Know that grief comes in waves.

Don't be surprised if the employee seems fine one day and cries all day the next. Grief comes and goes in waves. One day you will feel so strong - like you'll never cry again; and the next day everything sets you off. If you expect and are prepared for these ups and downs, they won't catch you by surprise.

8. Create flexibility.

Allow the grieving employee to work flexible hours if they need to, no questions asked. The more you can do to ensure that they feel in control of their schedule, the better. Losing someone you love is a very "out-of-control" feeling. You are reminded of your own mortality and of the mortality of your other loved ones. Any little aspect of control you can give to the grieving employee will be appreciated and they will re-pay you with their loyalty.

9. Don't minimize the grief

As noted above, it is hurtful and upsetting when no one acknowledges your loss. Comments such as, "How as your time off?" or worse, "How was your vacation?" are even more upsetting than saying nothing at all. The golden rule is to be sensitive and think about what you would like to hear if you were in that person's shoes.

Losing a loved one affects every single aspect of your life. Understand that a grieving employee will need support, compassion and a great deal of time to process their grief. If you have the opportunity to be there for someone who is grieving, consider it an opportunity to strengthen your relationship and to show them how much you care.

Do you have anything to add from your own experience?

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