How to offer support to a grieving colleague

Mum died two weeks ago.

It was expected. But I’ve been startled at how the grief has gripped me.

Welling up in the supermarket when I saw her favourite brand of gluten free biscuits yesterday. Waking at 3am, betumbled from a dream about her when I was five years old. Bone deep exhaustion at 1pm every day, when I should be at my desk working, but can only face a couch and a cat on my lap. Feeling completely fine one day and then most definitely not fine the next.

This grief is a dense, persistent fog, gently encircling my heart.

But along with this heart-heavy mist, love and compassion have arrived too. I’ve been enveloped not only by the care of whānau and friends, but also by people in my professional life.

The flowers from a colleague and a candle from another. The understanding and flexibility of a client when I cancelled my speaking engagement at the last moment. The way my team sprang into action during my rebrand launch when I was bedside with Mum in her last days.

It’s got me thinking…

How can we support a colleague (particularly if you’re their leader) when they experience grief and loss?

Bereavement and loss is a universal experience. But it’s something that many of us aren’t sure how to navigate at work. As far as difficult conversations go, it’s up there with the most challenging.

So, as someone who is in the grips of it, here’s what I think helps. These tips are based on both my own current experience and what the research says:

  1. Support them to process grief in a way that feels right to them.People grieve differently. Apparently, there’s even different grieving styles: Intuitive grievers are more likely to visibly show how they’re feeling and may feel more comfortable expressing or discussing their emotions. (That’s me, btw.) An Instrumental griever, on the other hand, is less likely to outwardly express their emotions. They may not display the ‘expected’ signs of grief, like crying or becoming visibly upset. They’re more comfortable expressing their grief by doing something – like taking on physical work, beginning a new project or throwing themselves back into their work. (That is most definitely my husband!) Just because they look different, doesn’t mean both of these people aren’t experiencing loss.
  2. Reach out. It goes without saying that if you’re their leader, when you first hear of the news, immediately reach out. Acknowledge the situation and offer to support them in any way they need. In those early days, sending something like flowers (or a meal delivery service or voucher) from the team lets that person know you’re all thinking of them. Rather than asking questions, it might be better to say something like: “I’m thinking of you”, “I’m holding you in my thoughts”, and “I’ll check in from time to time.” Don’t expect a response in those initial days.
  3. Let them keep a locus of control. The day after Mum died, I chose to keep my commitment to a long-term executive team client and facilitate their workshop in Wellington.  The CPO was surprised and let me know that there was no pressure from them, but that they “would support my decision and welcome and care for me if I decided to go ahead”. Actually, this helped me. They are a team I know well and love working with, so I knew I was amongst a supportive group. The day enabled me to get away from the deep grief that I had been experiencing the week prior as Mum died. And I appreciate how they supported my decision.

    Enabling the person to have a locus of control might look like:

    • Working with them to form a plan to return to work. (Phased? Part time? Increased flexibility?)
    • Asking them what ideal support for them looks like both now and when they return to work.
    • Checking whether they actually want colleagues to know about certain aspects of the bereavement (Some may wish to keep it private.)
    • Proactively working with them to consider how they can manage difficult moments at work where they may need to take time out.
    • Looking at whether there is a designated colleague who they are close to, or who they trust, through which important information could be communicated so that they can avoid multiple communications from different sources.
  4. Listen. Deeply and with empathy. Just being with someone when they are in this state and listening with empathy can be hugely comforting. I love this short sketch with Brene Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Image

Some things that are less helpful include:

  1. Ignoring them (especially if you work closely with this person). You might worry that you’ll say the wrong thing or that you don’t know what to say. You might feel uncomfortable with the difficult emotion of grief. Don’t let that stop you from reaching out. Take your cues from them.
  2. Comparison. Going into a long description of what helped when you lost someone. Saying “I know how you feel” will probably make them think, “No, you don’t.”  Even my own experience of grief has differed depending on who I have lost. The grief of losing my father has been quite different to that of losing my mother.
  3. Platitudes. “Time heals all wounds”, “They’re in a better place”, “This too shall pass” and other common, meaningless platitudes about grief can invalidate that person’s feelings. It’s better to keep it simple: “I’m so sorry for your loss and I’m thinking of you” or “I’m so sorry. My heart goes out to you.”
  4. Rushing them through the grief. This grief thing is a mad ride. It follows different timelines, comes in waves and is never really over. There should never be any pressure on anyone to work through the stages in any particular pattern or timeframe.

Effective leadership means encountering and supporting others to move through the full range of human experiences. Grief is among one of the most challenging emotions a person will experience, but what other people around us do and don’t do during this time can make a significant difference. And I am grateful to those in my professional world who have done just that.

18 Comments

May 22, 2024 AT 8:01AM

Suzi,

Grieving is individual & daily. Progress is step-by-step. Some proceed linearly. Others of us step forward & feel like we're pulled back. Anticipatory grief isn't necessarily a preparation for final loss. Whether people return to work physically, mentally/remotely or both, they may be back to deep grief the next day.

I hope this article is therapeutic, it expresses some progress. You can hold onto progress & possibly celebrate a bit, but unfortunately grief hold us roughly. Please be gentle with yourself.

Suzi McAlpine
May 27, 2024 AT 10:06AM

Thanks Dennis. I like your comment that "anticipatory grief isn't necessarily a preparation for final loss."

Stephen Adrian Bridgman
May 22, 2024 AT 8:07AM

Suzi, thanks for this. Very helpful.

My father died in January 1986 the day I sat my surgical exams.

He had been a very good friend.

From a poor background he had worked his way up to be head of R&D at British Aerospace.

He had a long illness with some misdiagnosis

My sister and mother were having a nervous breakdown.

I was working 500 miles away.

I took two weeks off to be with them.

I was a junior surgeon. Two years later my reference was "lacks committment".

Surgeons are not supposed to cry of be upset was the culture

I am still extremely upset when I think about this, nearly 40 years later.

So thanks for sharing your story

Suzi McAlpine
May 27, 2024 AT 10:07AM

Hi Stephen,

I'm sorry to hear of your experience all those years ago. That sounded super tough. I'm glad my post resonated for you. Take care. Suzi

May 22, 2024 AT 8:47AM

This is so valuable and thank you for sharing your experiences. Grief is one of those things that his so hard to confront and so many people are worried they'll say the wrong thing, so many say nothing at all. Super helpful in understanding what is good, bad or indifferent.

I'm really sorry to hear of your loss of mum.

Sarah Deans
May 22, 2024 AT 8:49AM

what a wonderful article Suzi - I am very grateful for you to share this experience. I'm going to tuck this away for whenever it's needed.

Sending aroha to you and your family.

xxx

Sarah.

Sally Collins
May 22, 2024 AT 5:17PM

These are such great tips Suzi.

I'm so sorry to hear of the passing of your Mum. Take care of yourself Xx

Paula Wells
May 22, 2024 AT 7:55PM

Sending heartfelt aroha Suzi. Bless you🙏 Thank you for sharing the personal experience of losing your Mum in a way that is helpful to others in leadership. Classic you x Go gently...

Stephanie Vincent
May 23, 2024 AT 2:07PM

Suzi so sorry to hear you’ve lost your mum. When my dad died suddenly 18 months ago the shock and grief felt something like a constant ringing in my ears for the first week - so tiring. I hope you and your family are doing ok.

Suzi McAlpine
May 27, 2024 AT 10:10AM

Thanks Stephanie and I am so sorry for the loss of your dad. It is like a constant ringing in your ears, isn't it. Take care, Suzi

Leave a comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.