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We spend as many hours each week with coworkers as we do with family, and we often forge relationships and share personal information. Sometimes, we must spend eight hours or more at work with someone who has experienced loss or is going through a period of intense sadness. Here’s how you can help.
Your first challenge is figuring out how much he or she wants to reveal at work. Some people need to feel supported by their colleagues, but others may find work to be the only place they can feel and act “normal.” Take your cue from your coworker; offer a brief expression of compassion (“I heard about your brother. I’m so sorry for your loss”) and let the other person take the lead. If you receive a brief thanks and a clear dismissal, let it go. She probably wants work to remain a neutral haven, someplace she feels in control.
Writer Sabina Nawasz, who in the course of one year, lost her brother, mother, a close friend, and six relatives, says: “Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can support a grieving colleague: doing or being. Mourners need both.”
It might sound counterintuitive, but if you really want to help, don’t ask how you can help. According to mental health experts, people who are suffering will find the idea of asking for help to be overwhelming. Instead, take action without asking. Buy a restaurant or coffeehouse gift card. Bring in healthy snacks or breakfast. Offer to take a shift or stay late. Jump in on a routine task like filing or sorting to make the work shorter.
Don’t expect much conversation or acknowledgment; that shouldn’t be necessary to your motivation. Your presence and help will make a difference in your coworker’s ability to cope and keep up with work during a tough time. And your gift of healthy food may make be the best – or only – nutrition he gets during the day.
If you find your coworker is willing to talk about what she’s experiencing, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Monica Torres, writing for The Ladders, interviewed a psychologist who says that common bromides like “it will get better,” and “everything happens for a reason” simply make people feel bad for feeling bad. Likewise comparing something that happened to you. Torres writes, “Everyone’s loss is unique, and comparing your war story to your coworker’s’ is not empathy because it does not acknowledge their unique pain.” She quotes grief therapist Dr. Patrick O’Malley: “This is their story, not yours.”
Amy Gallo, writing for Harvard Business Review, says when a coworker breaks down and cries, you have several options, but ignoring the tears is not the best one. “What specifically you do — offer a tissue, ask what’s wrong, give a hug, suggest a walk outside — will depend on your relationship, how long you’ve worked together, and the office culture. The key is to engage, and let the tears flow.” Simply closing the door or blinds and sitting quietly with someone while they cry may be the most empathetic response you can make.
Be aware that sorrow may linger or reoccur long after the immediate event. The anniversary of a loss, or the upcoming holiday season may bring up sadness. If someone is struggling with emotions at work and you’re not sure of the cause, start with simple empathy. “I’m so sorry you’re feeling bad. What do you need right now?” Time, space, or simply your presence might help, even if there is no cure for what they’re feeling.