Helping an Employee Who Loses a Loved One

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Last month, my mother passed away. My resilience plummeted and I struggled when I returned to work. Luckily, my manager was supportive and helped me bounce back quickly from my loss. While I am still grieving, I am once again a productive and effective employee.

Everyone suffers death and loss at some point and everyone deals with grief differently. Grief can be all-consuming, an issue that spills over into the workplace long after the death has passed. Managers who support the personal resilience of employees experiencing grief are more likely to find the right balance between being compassionate and maintaining workplace productivity. Managers who ignore the loss or do not respond well may undermine the employee’s healing process resulting in an employee who struggles to bounce back from this significant life changing event.

Here are some tips for managers on supporting the personal resilience of grieving staff:

  • Talk to the employee. Having social connections is critical to resilience so reach out to your bereaved employee as soon as possible after you learn of his loss. Clear time on your calendar, so that you do not feel rushed. Take a moment to gather your own thoughts and offer your condolences. Expect sadness and tears. Listen and respect confidentiality. When the employee returns to work, don’t avoid talking about the loss – many people who are grieving find it comforting to talk about memories of their loved one. Don’t worry that you will somehow “remind” them of their loss; their loved one will be at the forefront of their thoughts. Be cautious of offering platitudes. Rather than asking, “How are you?” offer a more sincere expression of condolence that really opens up the space for your employee to talk.
  • Give your employee time. Be as flexible as possible in allowing your employee to have the time and space to deal with her loss. Some people will want to return to work as soon as possible while others need more time away. Some employees may want the ability to work part-time for a while. Don’t make assumptions about what your employee needs, just ensure that all options are available. Know that the grief journey is rarely linear. An employee may have a very good day followed by a very bad day.
  • Share information: Ask your employee what information he would like conveyed to the team. Proactively offer to draft an email message on his behalf to the team. Later, with permission from the employee, ensure that information about funerals and memorials are shared with colleagues in a timely fashion. Consider attending the service if appropriate. If appropriate, ensure that the office organizes a group acknowledgement such as issuing a card or flowers. Having the support of colleagues will help the employee bounce back.

Here’s a sample message you could send on behalf of an employee:

“I am deeply saddened to tell you that the (family member) of _______________ died on _______________. He and his family hope you will share in their sorrow and loss, but also in the joyful memories of (family member). When I have more information about his return and about funeral arrangements I will share them.”

  • Anniversaries are hard. Even years after someone loses a loved one, there are key dates that may trigger an emotional response. These can include birthdays, anniversaries, the day someone passed, or other significant days. Be sensitive to these days and understanding if the employee is struggling. Again, a simple opportunity for the employee to talk about her loved one is the kindest thing you can offer.
  • Get help: Dealing with grief can be very difficult. Most Employee Assistance Programs have excellent resources for managers and employees. Reach out to them for support and guidance. Remind other employees, for whom this may be a trigger or reminder of their own grief, of the resources available to them.

What advice do you have for managers with employees who lost a loved one?

This blog does not represent official policies of the Department of State or those of the U.S. Government.

Beth Payne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Larry Till

Really thought-provoking post, Beth. A few years ago, a colleague lost his nine-year-old daughter to a particularly ugly form of cancer. The office where we worked had a long-time, stable base of employees, so we’d all watched this little girl grow up before she died. A group of us went to the funeral to show our support, and truth be told, to share common cause in our grief. There’s much to be said for being with other people who share your reactions, or at least understand them.

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Connie Barker

My father passed away this summer. I was not close to him and did not experience grief like others might expect. But the loss I felt was for the father I wished I’d had. It is harder to express this kind of loss or even allow myself to grieve. I wish my supervisors could have been a little more curious about what I was going through. Instead they walked past my cubicle and asked how I was doing. A couple of my coworkers were able to allow some time and space for me to talk before I left on bereavement and when I got back. Management needs to be prepared with resources like this article to navigate their employees’ losses. I must add that the entire office did send a card to my house while I was gone. It helped to know that I was not forgotten, nor was my sorrow ignored.

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