Why do we have so much trouble comforting colleagues who’ve suffered a loss?
One reason is we’re afraid of death, and when it touches a colleague, it’s a reminder of our own mortality. Because death is such a taboo subject, we aren’t sure what to say when we’re faced with a grieving person. Coworkers who’ll freely discuss intimate relationships become tongue-tied for fear of saying the wrong thing.
So they do nothing. And, sadly, this is the worst choice, because it sends a message that they don’t care.
Imagine how you’d feel if your parent died, and nobody at the office where you’ve worked for years said anything about the loss.
Blunders such as these are costly, personally and professionally. It’s particularly important that supervisors are knowledgeable about the grief process and show sensitivity and compassion for the bereaved. Most workers feel that bosses, rather than a company policy, set the tone for a workplace response to grief.
Here are some key points for supervisors:
Communicate. Notifying staff is critical. Managers who learn about a death in a coworker’s family should ask permission to notify colleagues and of any information the family wishes to disclose (passing along the importance of resisting the urge to probe for details). You may want to designate a person to disseminate information about memorial services.
Why should you avoid leaving notification to the grapevine? Picture this lunchroom scene that was recently described to me: A person tells a colleague who’s been off on maternity leave, “So show us the baby pictures” – only to learn that there are none, the newborn died.
Acknowledge the loss. It’s important to personally acknowledge the death has occurred. This can be a simple “I’m sorry,” a handwritten note on a desk or flowers. It shows you care about your colleague as a person. Also, permit coworkers to attend the funeral, organize whatever company support is available and arrange for flowers of other appropriate acknowledgement from the office as a whole. These gestures are never forgotten.