We will all experience loss, and we will all witness others experience loss. In those moments, we need each other. Yet, supporting someone who is grieving can feel like a minefield of never feeling sure of what to say or do, avoiding bringing it up (which can make it worse), and not wanting to be dismissive. If you have ever felt trapped in a similar paradox, please read on. This article will explore how leaders, managers, and coworkers can be there for one another during difficult times.
In 2020, I lost three family members in the span of seven months: my mother-in-law in April, my mother in August, and my grandmother in November.
My mom’s death hit me particularly hard. Despair pulled me down like quicksand. I agonized over a future I had imagined that would never be possible now. Painful scenes from the past replayed over and over again like a glitch in my brain. I so badly wanted to fast forward through the most painful periods and was baffled by how the world could keep spinning when I was frozen in one single moment. It was a dark and confusing time.
I may not be fully on the other side of those challenges; however, I am on another side. In solidarity, I’d like to share what I have learned about the support that has helped me throughout my grief journey, as well as what has been less effective.
What You Can Do to Support a Grieving Employee
1. Say Something
At Newmeasures, we often tell clients “Doing something is better than doing nothing” when discussing acting on survey feedback. The same is true for supporting employees through grief.
If you find yourself waffling between “to reach out or not to reach out”, your choice to connect will likely mean a great deal. Some of the most comforting gestures were from those who could have easily gone about their day thinking “she won’t care if I reach out, it’s not really my place to comment” but chose to connect anyway. To me, it demonstrated that compassion can cross any boundary, and it helped me feel just a little less lonely.
2. Offer Specific Support
We’re good at saying “Let me know how I can help.” or “What do you need?” However, I found that I was often unable to articulate the support I needed. Those that offered something specific unloaded my burden slightly. Your colleague may not take you up on the proposal, but the thoughtfulness of offering something specific and relevant goes a long way.
How to Offer Specific Support
“Is it alright if I block off your calendar for the rest of the week and reach out to the contacts of existing meetings to cancel/postpone? We can work together when you are ready to determine next steps and leave planning, but for now, let’s make sure you don’t have to think about these items.”
“Hey, I know grief can be mentally exhausting and overwhelming. Do you have meetings coming up that I could sit in on and take notes for you? That way you can focus on just being present and not keeping track of all the details.”
“I know Project Z is in a high intensity phase right now. Can I help coordinate additional resources on that? If there is anyone you have in mind that might be a good fit, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll connect with the team and get back to you with support options.”
Errands & Everyday Tasks
- “I’ll be at your end of town grocery shopping tomorrow night, can I drop some things off at your door? How about a few frozen pizzas, a salad, and brownies?”
- “Since our kids attend the same school, I’d love to help with pick up or drop off. Would that be helpful?”
- “Can I take your dog on a walk this weekend? I could pick him up from the backyard if you don’t feel up to chatting.”
3. Remove the Grey Areas in Leave of Absence (LOA) Expectations
As a manager, one of the kindest things you can do is remove the ambiguity surrounding leave policies and expectations of your employee.
Despite having an incredibly supportive supervisor, I still fell into the trap of thinking I needed to minimize my leave to be less disruptive to my department. If I was told directly “Taking a week off is not a problem,” that would have alleviated many of my concerns and guilt around what was acceptable. You may not have the autonomy to change organization-wide policies, but you can clarify the available options and your expectations.
What NOT to Do
Some of the approaches I did not find helpful or comforting included:
- Ghosting: Coworkers who avoided me or never acknowledged the losses I had suffered. Despite being one of the most universal human experiences, grief can feel unbearably isolating. Amidst it, I needed connection not shut outs.
- Minimizing the impact: I had a well-intended coworker say to me, “As someone who understands death as part of the cycle of life, I am not bothered by death and loss – we just have to accept it.” That gutted me and made me feel shameful about my grief journey. Forest fires are also part of the natural cycle of life. However, that does not make losing your home in one any less devastating.
- Toxic Positivity: Pretty much any sentence that starts with “At least…” or “On the bright side…”. Unless I lead the conversation with levity or positivity, proposing silver linings is generally not a productive practice.
- Comparisons: In competitions of tragedy, no one wins. We all experience challenges. Use that to connect and empathize, not compare.
What I Wish I Knew Then
Though everyone navigates grief in different ways and on varying timelines, I have learned so much through my experiences. If I could talk to 2020 Molly, a 20-something gal lost in the haze of despair, I would tell her:
- Your grief does not need to be convenient for your employer.
When my mom died, I was working at a university. It was August, one of the busiest months in higher education. I was pretty concerned about this. I have learned though, no matter how inconvenient it is, you cannot schedule your grief. Resist the urge to minimize your needs to fit a business priority.
- Your time off does not have to be productive or visibly healing to be important.
I remember thinking, “What’s the point of being sad at home, fully immersed in my grief, when I could be sad at work with at least some distractions. If I’m going to take time off, it should be worth it.” Instead of positively impacting my work life, this decision led to intense feelings of burnout and ultimately led to my resignation the following year. Your healing may not be visible for a while, but that does not mean taking time away from work to rest is an insignificant piece of the grief process.
- Being around people all day will be hard.
As an academic success coach, 80% of my day consisted of meetings and teaching. Having to be “on” for most of my workday was exhausting. I would literally curl into a ball under my desk in the five minutes between meetings for a quick cry before having to reset and “perform” what I thought a functional human was supposed to look like. For the record, I think I played a very convincing functional human. However, I wish I had requested to reduce my student caseload temporarily and focused on internal projects until I was mentally and emotionally able to reintegrate these interactions into my daily routine.
- Grief will weirder, longer, and less linear than you think. Stop worrying if you are doing it “right”.
Because I am a bit of a nerd, I jokingly refer to this concept as the Time vs. Sad Polynomial Paradox. Despite having a master’s degree in counseling psychology, I was convinced that if I could just grieve super “well” up front, I could skip through those pesky grief stages and be healed in no time.
Spoiler alert: that did not work.
Throughout my personal grief journey, I have spent so much energy simmering in guilt for either feeling too much or too little. I have become utterly exhausted trying to construct a road map to smoothly navigate it all.
There are no maps, no report cards, and no gold stars here.
You are where you are.
You need what you need.
If you have read this far, you possess the innate patience and empathy vital to supporting a colleague experiencing grief. Policy changes and budget approvals are not required; all that’s needed is your attention, compassion, and perhaps a dollop of courage. So, when those moments arise, I invite you to acknowledge the loss and grief, say something, and offer specific support.
In one way or another, grief is sure to impact you and your team’s work life. My hope is that this article helps illuminate effective tools you can utilize in preparing for and delivering support to your employees when the time comes.