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?