When a colleague returns to work after a family members’ death, you may worry about what to say. The worry can lead you to avoid your colleague, which leaves you feeling guilty and regretful.
Our helpful tips ensure you are a compassionate companion for your colleague by offering your support after loss:
1. Read the obituary. (If there isn’t an obituary, please skip to No. 2.)
When you connect with your colleague after his or her bereavement leave, smile from your kind heart and share something meaningful you learned by reading the obituary.
You can say:
“I read the obituary. Your family member led such an interesting life.”
“I read the obituary. Your (insert relationship) sounds (lovely, so interesting, truly committed to family, a great member of the community).”
“I read the obituary. I loved learning that your (insert relationship) accomplished (so much in her career, in our community, in her life).”
“I read the obituary. I’m grateful for your (insert relationship) and her/his service to our country.”
2. If there isn’t an obituary, smile from your kind heart and say:
“I was so sorry to hear about (insert relationship). What was he/she like?”
3. If you’d like, you can extend an offer of support.
“I’d love to connect over lunch. When’s a good day for you?”
During lunch, you can ask:
“How has the return to work been for you?”
“Who’s been most supportive to you?”
“What’s been most helpful for you?”
“What’s most challenging right now?”
“What can we do at work to continue to support you?”
4. Try to avoid the following question:
“How did he or she die?”
It’s the death and loss that matters. The circumstances don’t. If your colleague wants to share the circumstances, then simply listen.
5. At times, you may struggle to find the right words or worry that you’ll say the wrong words. Acknowledge your struggle.
When you don’t have words because the family member’s death was a terrible tragedy, you can say:
“I just don’t even know what to say. This is just tragic.”
“I’m just at a loss for words. This is just awful.”
When you feel out of words, you can say:
“I want to use words that feel helpful and comforting to you. What words of support do you like to receive?”
6. You can check in on your colleague on a regular basis if you’d like. You can say:
“I was thinking of you and wondering how your day is going so far.”
7. When your colleague is obviously struggling, you can say:
“Today seems to be taking its toll on you. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Today’s a tough one, I think. How can I help?”
Smile from the heart. Your smile feels warm to the receiver and provides comfort.
Listen with quiet, focused attention.
About Wrong Words
Even with our best intentions, we may inadvertently say something that we later regret or that seems to upset our colleague. If that happens, simply apologize.
“I’m so sorry I misspoke yesterday.”
You can give thanks to your colleague for coming to work, for sharing and for being honest. Your gratitude will be appreciated. You can say:
“Thank you for being here today.”
“Thank you for sharing about your (mother, father, sister, etc.). I’m grateful to know her/him through you.”
“Thank you for telling me how you’re doing. I hope it helped to talk it out with me.”
Thank you for your kindness and compassion. You will make a difference to your colleagues returning to work after loss. Please share the words of comfort you like to receive in our comments section, below.