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Grief at the Office: How Ninjas Can Support a Grieving Co-Worker

Grief, as we all know, works in mysterious ways and is an individualized experience. Grief for you may be bawling in the bathroom during breaks; grief for me may be staring into space. Many of us, unfortunately, have grieved for a loved one. And depending on where you are in your career, you’ve probably had to grieve at work.

It’s a shame that our society expects a person to grieve in the few days you get off following a death, but it’s an unfortunate reality for American workers. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Employees are allowed up to three consecutive days off from regularly scheduled duty with regular pay” if the loved one sat close on the family tree.

It’s hard to imagine that amount of time sufficing for anyone. As such, grief seeps into the office when a co-worker’s loved one has passed. Many companies have policies for loss, but those are often tailored to the individual experiencing the pain, not the whole team. Dealing with a private matter in public doesn’t come with a game plan, but being a supportive co-worker can help navigate the situation for both sides.

What You Should Do Before Your Co-Worker Returns to Work

Though HR can help keep up with the bereavement policy, a resident Office Ninja may be in charge of gifts, donations, and communications.

Whether you’re the Ninja in charge or just a concerned deskmate, the first step is contacting the funeral home for appropriate observance information. Some religions and/or cultures may welcome flower arrangements or gifts, while others may not. Perhaps instead of flowers, the family has requested a donation in the person’s memory.

Whatever the case, arrange for the flowers, a donation, or small gift to appear at the funeral. Exchange public event details through email so the office can show support without nagging the person for logistics.

It’s also appropriate to send care packages and food. Again, your company may have a policy in place for this, but if not, it’s nice to pull the office together. A service like MealTrain can organize the process and schedule deliveries to keep your office pal well fed. Since the first week is usually packed with casseroles, consider waiting a bit longer to deliver your lasagna.

What You Should Do After Your Co-Worker Returns to Work

When someone comes to work fresh on the heels of tragedy, they’re probably not prioritizing that proposal like they did a few weeks ago. It’s safe to assume your co-worker has a lot on her mind. Though you may empathize with the situation, it’s not your place or time to insert your own story to help sort out the complicated, paradoxical emotions of grief.

That said, when your co-worker returns, you do need to continue working with them. Grief experts insist that the office must acknowledge the loss, no matter how awkward it may be to address. Following her husband’s sudden death, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg wrote a statement on Facebook saying, “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

On your co-worker’s first day back, it’s important that the office allows the mourner to set the tone for how to talk about what’s going on. Take cues and reserve the heartfelt “how are you”s for private moments. Publicly, you can say something kind—“Good morning. We’re all thinking of you”—or leave a small note behind on their desk. Other potential thinking-of-you knick-knacks include a nice-smelling candle, a book on daily meditations for working through grief, or something new for the cube. Each of these suggestions also fall perfectly into the “simple pleasures” category, which are considered essential for the grieving process.

Spreading out these thoughtful acts over time—from food packages to cards—is important too. It’s important that the office gives ongoing support and empathy well beyond those three days of leave. By following these steps, you’ll help create as comfortable an atmosphere as possible during a painful time.

Do you have experiences dealing with grief in the workplace? How have you comforted a co-worker, or been treated after your own loss?


  1. Grief is very difficult to know how to handle in the workplace. When my father passed a few years ago, I got a very sweet note from a co-worker and a little plant on my desk. It was a simple and lovely gesture.

    1. It is super tricky to handle, but it sounds like your co-worker’s approach was perfect :)

  2. This is so important. Thank you thank you thank you for posting this.

    1. I’d like to add that it’s wonderful seeing all the fun posts and cool stuff to buy, but these difficult situations are just as important to maneuver.

      1. We completely agree. This space is for ALL things Ninja, and sometimes that includes the tricky stuff too.

  3. Thank you for this article. I have experienced loss one too many times and yes it’s something trying to work and go through grief at the same time. Grief will over shadow what ever you are doing at the moment. I’m going through it right now, I really appreciate seeing this much needed article here in Office Ninjas.

    1. We’re so sorry to hear that you’re in this position now, but are glad this post gave you what you needed to read today. Hang in there, Pat!

  4. Oh my goodness. This is so timely. This just happened to me. My team was dealing with the unexpected death of a team mate due to cancer, and my brother also passed away at the same time. The repetitive explaining of “what happened” gets tiring and it’s taking weeks to get my brain Back-In-The Game. I realize this is just a bad time, not a bad life. I’ll get through it and I know that I can count on my team to support me. I am also keeping clear and open communications with my principals, manager and HR, so there are no surprises.

    1. RocketMom, you said that so perfectly. We’ll send you some positive Ninja vibes, but it sounds like you’re doing everything right!

  5. Well said; grief is an individual experience. Here’s what not to say. “Let me know if I can help you.” A grieving person is not going to think about calling or asking for help. Instead always say this. “I’m very sorry for your loss.” If you are close to the grieving person you will know what to do.

    1. Considering your relationship to the person is a great point to make, Nancy. Thanks for sharing that!

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