What Should I Say?
You walk in to the office and there he is. You knew that Tony’s father had been ill for some time, but Tony had been soldiering on at work often returning phone calls from the hospital during his breaks. You could see the stress he was under and heard how close he was to his father and how difficult things were. Then one morning your manager informed you that Tony’s father had passed away and he was on leave for a few days. You signed the condolence card and put in a fiver towards some flowers the office were sending. But that was almost a week ago. Now Tony’s back at work and you have no idea of what to say.
You start to panic and think, “Should I just be normal and not say anything? If I say something, he might go to pieces and I don’t want to make things worse and upset him more by bringing it up. Maybe I’ll say the wrong thing! Probably best to just avoid the subject. ‘How are you?’ should be ok. Perhaps that will do and then the balls in his court. But then again, he just lost his dad and they were so close. He’s probably not doing so well!”
People who have suffered bereavement may well be sensitive and emotional, although others may have processed their feelings and are coping well. Yet while well-wishers are always well-intentioned, saying the wrong thing could come across as tactless and insensitive. Nevertheless, saying nothing to avoid saying the wrong thing might be even worse. Carrying on as if nothing has happened will invariably appear callous and unsympathetic. It is very important to acknowledge a person’s loss and there are some things that you can guarantee will be well received and others which should be avoided.
Try starting with “Tony, it’s great to see you. I am so sorry for you loss” or “I have been thinking about you a lot.” Be honest with them. If you’ve missed them at work, tell them. The very fact that you have acknowledged and validated their feelings does more to help them feel supported than anything else.
The Big Don’ts
Don’t minimise or philosophise: Their dearly beloved may have had a ‘good innings’ but it is still a loss to them. Those memories will now be tinged with sadness at the thought that they will never see their dearly beloved again. After terminal illness, death may well be a release from suffering, but pointing this out to those left behind does little to help them. They know this already.
The reason that philosophising doesn’t help is that our intellect and emotions are two very different beasts. Rational and logical arguments can never ever mollify emotional pain. Telling someone that ‘it’s for the best’ or that their loved one is ‘in a better place’ is unlikely to help soothe the pain of a loss. All they want is their loved one back and they know they can’t see them again.
Don’t compare: You can’t know how they feel, so don’t tell them that you do. Even if you have experienced the same type of bereavement, everyone is different and everyone grieves in different ways. People also take comfort from different things. If they reveal part of their coping strategy, validate it. While opening up about personal experiences can help them feel that you understand, ensure that it is done in an empathetic way and that the conversation is ultimately focussed on their needs and not your own (see article on Empathy versus Sympathy).
Don’t try to fix it – it’s not broken: It is helpful to understand that grief is not an illness but a natural response to bereavement. In general, emotions don’t need to be fixed but rather acknowledged and validated. Emotions are not right or wrong, they just are. Grief relates to the process of adjustment following a loss and unfortunately is a natural part of life. In truth, it is a function of how much we love and care for those close to us. The greatest gift we can give to others at this time is to try to understand them where they are and not try to force them to get to where we think they should be.
Don’t think they will just get back to normal: The feelings of grief may come in waves, ebbing and flowing over them. Sometimes they will feel they can manage, whereas other times they feel engulfed and overwhelmed. Sometimes those feelings will strike when they least expect it, especially if something triggers a memory of their loved one. Other times they may respond by asking meaningful questions such as ‘Why me?’ or ‘What is the purpose of life?’
Do reach out: While it is not easy to support a colleague experiencing grief, helping them to feel that they can express it at work and not have to suppress their emotions or challenges will go a long way to help the grieving process and help them during that period of adjustment.