Reflections

What to Say to a Bereaved Co-worker

If you’ve ever wondered what to say or do when a bereaved co-worker returns to work, you’re not alone.

Rachel Blythe Kodonaz, author of “Grief in the Workplace,” knows this as much as much as anyone. Her husband, who worked for the same employer as she did, passed away suddenly at work. Kodonaz writes: “The hardest part is people don’t know how to interact. Untimely deaths, homicides and unfortunate diagnoses at a young age shock everyone.”

However, there are ways to ease the transition back to work, regardless of who passed away and how. Legacy.com author and contributor Florence Issacs suggests the following tips:

Tips for the First Day Back

You’ve already been attentive by showing up at the funeral and writing a personal note. Others may acknowledge the loss by making a donation in memory of the deceased or sending food to the family. Such actions help minimize any awkwardness when the bereaved returns to the workplace. Other useful steps:

  1. Plan ahead. Consider how you want to greet the person. You can simply say “It’s good to see you” or “I’m so glad you’re back.” Coworkers who haven’t already expressed sympathy, as you have, can offer some variation of “Please accept my condolences” or even “I don’t know what to say to you.”
  2. Be prepared to listen.Resist the urge to talk immediately after your greeting. Instead, allow the person time to respond in his/her own way.
  3. Recognize differences in how the bereaved react to work.It’s a healing experience for some—a relief and distraction to be immersed in the job. Others can barely function. In the latter case, try to be as helpful and sensitive as you can.
  4. Be aware of workplace grief counseling.Many employers (especially large ones) offer such help in cases of devastating loss, such as the death of a child. Think about questions you may want to ask if and when a counselor does arrive. Do you dread that the bereaved will break down and sob? It’s less scary if you anticipate it may happen and accept that you can’t “fix it.” But you can touch the person’s arm or give a hug and just be there.

Although nothing can change the loss, human kindness and community make a difference.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes. She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

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