How to support a grieving colleague

11 September 2023
A close-up image of two people's hands, one pair gently holding the other in support

Grief can be one of the most challenging experiences we must go through – not least because it doesn’t stick to a set time frame.

This means that if a person is grieving, they are often forced to go on with the practical aspects of life while the grief is still very raw. This can include returning to a workplace after the death of a loved one.

Supporting your grieving colleague can help make a very difficult time easier, but it can be very hard to know what to say or how to help. These are our tips.

What it feels like to return to work after a bereavement

Grief is different for everyone – there is no right or wrong way to feel. It is sometimes described as having five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, according to Beyond Blue, these stages can be felt in any order and don’t necessarily describe the whole experience of grief.

Your grieving co-worker could be feeling many emotions. As Grief Australia explains, they might seem fine one moment, but then suddenly seem very upset. Some days, the grief may be more challenging than others.

What to say when someone returns to work after a death

When a colleague loses a loved one, it is important that we acknowledge the loss. It can be hard to know what to say, but open and honest communication can help the bereaved feel heard and understood.

When your co-worker returns to work, try acknowledging the situation, making sure to use the name of the person who has passed away. According to Grief Australia, this can help tell your grieving colleague that you acknowledge just how significant of a loss this must be.

It’s ok to tell your colleague that you don’t know what to say, but that you care about them and are thinking of them. This can be better than not speaking about the loss at all because you are afraid of causing more hurt.

What not to say to a grieving colleague

Sometimes it can be tempting to make the situation feel more positive for your co-worker by finding a silver lining in their grief. However, as Grief Australia explains, musing that their loved one is “in a better place” or “no longer suffering” rarely helps. This is because it can seem insincere or trivialise their loss. If you are attending the loved one’s funeral, knowing what not to say ahead of time can be helpful.

Other ways to support a colleague through grief

There are other things you can do to support a co-worker suffering from bereavement in the workplace. For example, you could:

  • Attend the loved one’s funeral (if it’s appropriate).
  • Be aware of any special anniversaries like birthdays, or Mother’s or Father’s Day, and understand that holiday periods may be particularly challenging.
  • Be prepared to provide extra support on the first anniversary of the loved one’s death.

Be patient if you find that they’re not performing to their normal standard in the workplace; with time and support, this will change.

If your colleague is also a friend, you may be able to help in more practical ways, such as supporting with cooking or cleaning. When offering help, it’s often more useful to offer something specific – “Can I bring some dinner to you on Friday?” – rather than just asking, “What can I do?”. This can make it easier if your co-worker is feeling overwhelmed.

What is an appropriate sympathy gift for a co-worker?

You might wish to acknowledge your colleague’s loss with a sympathy gift. What is most appropriate to give will depend on the relationship you share with each other, but you might like to consider:

  • Flowers, especially if you do not know your colleague well. Flowers can be a thoughtful gesture, and a good florist will be able to tailor an arrangement for you to suit your budget and preferences.
  • A sympathy card with a meaningful message.
  • A framed photograph or written message describing your memories of their loved one, if you know your colleague well.

Supporting a colleague in the weeks and months after a loss

Helping a grieving co-worker does not reduce the depth of their loss. Nothing can. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.

As weeks and months continue, it can feel comforting for your colleague to know that you are on their side. It’s a good idea to see how they are feeling regularly – often, phone calls and well-wishes can dwindle after a few weeks following their loved one’s death.

If your colleague feels supported, they may not feel that they need to worry about putting on a brave face or being misinterpreted. This may, in turn, help lift some of the burden they are feeling. As Grief Australia mentions, your co-worker may wish to talk about their loved one or even specifically about their death, and sometimes multiple times. Repeating the story may help them process the death, so it’s important to be patient.

And finally, thank you

You have taken the time to search for this information, which shows that you are already a supportive colleague. Thank you for making the effort to learn how to help your co-worker in a very difficult time.

If you or your colleague would like further support, please don’t hesitate to contact the organisations below, or refer to their resources.

Beyond Blue
1300 224 636

Grief Australia

1300 78 99 78

1800 650 890

Lifeline (24/7)
13 11 14

13 92 76

Suicide Call Back Service (24/7)
1300 659 467

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