When asked if you like your job, you might consider the three components that make it up: The work you do, who you work for (your boss or clients), and who you work with. Who you work with can make up a big part of your job satisfaction, even if your boss is Ebenezer Scrooge, and you only do the work to pay the bills. Often we end up spending the majority of our waking hours at our place of employment, and coworkers can become incredibly close; even if time isn’t spent together outside of the office. If a coworker is grieving a loss, it might affect you as well given your close proximity. Showing up for them might look the same as it would a close friend, or maybe this person is more of a workplace-only acquaintance and you’re wondering how you can help.
How to best support your co-worker:
#1. Accept that you may not get it right.
As a therapist I hear frequently, “I want to help but I don’t know how!” and, “I wish I knew what to say to them.” It seems that the biggest contributor in not reaching out to someone grieving is not disinterest, but discomfort. The discomfort may not even be with the grief itself, but with the fear of “getting it wrong” and saying something that makes it worse. However, you making an attempt to ask how to support them right now will mean so much more than if you remain quiet out of fear of upsetting them. If you barely know this coworker but still make the effort to show them you care by acknowledging the loss, it can be a bit of healing balm in them feeling less like they have to compartmentalize their grief while at the office.
#2. Follow up with specific offers of support.
How likely are you to actually call someone who says, “I’m here if you ever need to talk”? Being given space can be appreciated, but it also contributes to the isolating emptiness of grief. A specific offer of support a coworker is more likely to take you up on might be, “I’m taking my lunch today at 1 pm, would you want to sit and share with me how you’re feeling?”, or “my kids are going to the same birthday party this weekend as yours. Why don’t I carpool them and you can have the afternoon off?” Depending on what relationship you have with your coworker, and what is appropriate in your work environment, an offer of extra food, picking up shifts, and specific times you’re available to listen, is more effective at helping then the generic platitude of “being around if they need it.”
#3. Don’t try to “silver lining” it.
One of the big factors that makes Experience Camps such a place of relief for the youth, is to be around other kids who have experienced the death of a family member and don’t try to minimize that loss by offering a bright side. Some of the youth told me that after the death of a parent or sibling, people actually told them, “Well at least they’re not suffering anymore!” or, “This experience must have made you so strong!” Showing your grieving coworker that you’re not uncomfortable with their pain by offering, “That sounds painful. Is there more you’d like to express?” will help them process their pain rather than hide and repress it.
#4. Avoid speaking on behalf of the deceased.
This is one that many of my close friends who had a parent die have expressed they wished people would do. To encourage your coworker to return to their pre-loss self it could be tempting to invite them to happy hour by saying, “Wouldn’t your spouse have wanted you to be happy?”, or to throw out that, “They’d have encouraged you to move on and live your life!” Especially if you never met the person your coworker is grieving, it isn’t your place to voice what the departed may have wanted. Even the seemingly uplifting statement, “They would be so proud of you!” might sting when it comes from someone who did not know them. Try instead, “I am so proud of you!” if you want to share affirmation.
#5. Keep including them.
Even though Eeyore is synonymous with depression, his friends still invite him to the get togethers. Your grieving coworker may need time to withdraw, but an office holiday party or team-building picnic may be a welcome distraction. Extend the invite, and let them decide what’s right. Even if the coworker doesn’t attend the event, the invite conveys that their sadness doesn’t make them unwelcome and that the office won’t abandon them because of their grief.
And when co-grieving a workplace loss:
Occasionally you might be grieving the same person your coworker is, especially if the person who died was also a coworker. I experienced this when at a pre-shift huddle before waitressing, my manager announced that a coworker had died the night before. As I struggled to process my own gut punch of grief, I remembered that amongst my other coworkers was a family member of his, as well as some of his closest friends.
To offer support, some of us covered those coworkers’ shifts so they could attend the funeral and have some space, while later I acknowledged my own grief by taking a train trip up the coast. Group support can be healing, such as all contributing a small portion of a paycheck to the bereft family. My coworkers who arranged specific meet-ups outside work to process the loss made a big difference in us not feeling like we carried the grief alone. Some people coped by finding different jobs without reminders of him; others of us found comfort in acknowledging the anniversary of his passing to discuss our feelings, and keep his memory alive. Figure out which feels right for yourself, and gauge where your coworkers are at when you’re considering mentioning the person.
Coworkers often spend more time in each other’s company than with any other relationship. Hopefully you find purpose and joy in the work you do, and feel respected by who you work for; but in the absence of those, your coworkers can be the strongest pick me ups. Checking in on those people can make work a place you look forward to being at.
Kat O’Malley (She/her) is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Pasadena, California. She received her Master’s Degree in Psychology from Antioch with a specialization in LGBT+ Affirmative psychotherapy. Kat enjoys working with neurodiverse populations (autistic people and those with ADHD), teens discovering their gender identity or sexual orientation, and anyone who is looking to return home to themself. Outside of work, Kat loves crafting, swimming, hosting book clubs, visiting turtle ponds, and spending cherished time with her lizard Monterey Jax and seven guinea pig sons (six are hairless!).