Recently my family went through a loss of a loved one. When I tried talking about it to my coworkers, it was clear that they were wanting to be supportive. However the condolences they gave to us were very difficult to respond to, and at times impossible. I am sure anyone that has been in a similar situation has heard offers of support like. “Good luck” when you know there is nothing lucky about what is going on. “I hope they recover” when you know it’s incurable. “Hope everything is ok” when nothing is.
At that point I realised I too had been acting and saying the same things when my coworkers were going through struggles in the past such as a serious illness, a break-up or a loss of a treasured pet. At the time I thought I was being supportive, but being on the other side made me realise that although that was my intent, I wasn’t really providing the support that they needed. If anything, I probably made them feel alone, anxious and frustrated.
When people are grieving, and especially in mourning situations, they require their support network to offer two types of support, namely ‘doing’ and ‘being’. In a highly functional workplace people are comfortable with the ‘doing’. The company I work for is known for relentlessly delivering and this carried across to the grieving process. For example leave was organised, meetings canceled and responsibilities were shifted and so forth to provide the space to grieve.
However, ‘being’ is much more difficult, especially in the IT industry where feelings and emotions are often ignored or irrelevant to our day to day operations. For those not familiar with it, it can be extremely uncomfortable, especially when dealing with someone who has suffered an unimaginable tragedy. But how does one support a co-worker by ‘being’?
You do this by providing the space for someone to share how they are feeling and do three things; be completely non judgmental, believe their perspective as their true experience and identify and reflect back the emotions they are experiencing. To do this requires creating the space for this interaction to occur, this is difficult at the moment with an unprecedented amount of remote work but can still happen over video call, taking someone out for coffee or in the office.
How they are feeling, in that exact moment you are conversing with them, might not be what you expect. There may be moments of levity as a coping mechanism, there may be a sense of relief when a long struggle has come to an end. Whatever it is, it may not be how you would think you would react in that situation, but we are all different and it is important to not to make someone feel like they are grieving “wrong”.
It is also not a time to challenge someone on their experiences. You may not realise you are doing it but offering support like “It could be worse”, “Man up” or “Try to let it go” can cause psychological invalidation of the grieving person’s feelings. Family dynamics are extremely unique, our own family is so ingrained into our psyche, that it is often difficult to imagine other families being fundamentally different. Some families are dysfunctional and unhealthy, but offering perspective like “You have to forgive them, they are your family” and “Blood is thicker than water” is not always productive and can actually be harmful.
Finally you need to exercise your empathy muscle and be able to reflect back the feelings and emotion that they are processing. If it is sadness, sit in the sadness with them, don’t try and cheer them up with a joke. If it is loss, understand the isolation they are feeling and reach out to them. If they want to sit and cry, pull the blinds down and let them feel what they are feeling. Be comfortable with the emotions, allow them to be raw and vulnerable.
Some quick tips to look out for:
Think before you compare. It might be coming from a place of sympathy, but no two grieving processes are the same. Even if you have lost someone, it could be a completely different set of emotions that they are going through. Instead of projecting what you went through and what may have made your bereavement process easier, instead say “I can’t imagine what this is like for you”. You can share that you have lost someone too, and then your coworker can ask if they want to learn more.
Think before you question. It’s easy to fall into the trap of asking how someone is doing, how they could help or even wanting to know what is happening. Instead flip it around to what you can do, “I’ll call you tomorrow”, covering for something or providing a meal is a much more practical and appreciated way to help. If you don’t know, you can say “I am here for you and want to help, I can do <list things you are willing to do>, just let me know when you are able to let me know what you need”.
Think before you act. It can feel normal to throw out condolences the second you see someone after they return from leave. Please don’t do this, and especially not at the start of a public meeting. Instead you can communicate non-verbally your support such as making eye contact and noticing them. After the meeting you can send them a direct message and let them know you’re thinking of them or welcoming them back to the office. Feel free to ask them if, when or how they’d like you to bring up your support and condolences. If you are unsure, offer your sympathies in private, such as during lunch or a coffee break.
Think before your monitor. Grief may dull over time, but it certainly isn’t linear. Some days they might be feeling more normal and join in a joke or go to a work function. Instead of making them feel uncomfortable and pressing them if they are feeling better, instead just say “It’s nice to see you” or “Glad you are here”. In addition, people’s needs will change through the process. At the beginning they may want to not talk about it, but after a few weeks they might be desperate to share it with people – or vica versa. Don’t just ask what they need at the start and assume that will be forever, instead check in every fortnight or so to see if there is any way you can continue supporting them.
Think before you withdraw. Tech can often be a feelingless environment and for many introverts it can be difficult to sit in emotion with a coworker. However, the worst thing to do after reading this is to be too afraid to reach out at all. Even if you do or say the wrong thing, hopefully they will understand in time that you were being supportive and trying your best. Your grieving colleague will appreciate the support you are giving. Ultimately make your intentions known to be supportive, and respond accordingly to how they react.