Dear Manners@Work, 

A colleague in my team has had a bereavement in his family—his Mum passed away. I am not that close to him, but we do sit near each other and we usually say good morning and goodbye and have a social chat each day. I’m not sure what I should say to him? I don’t want to upset him at work by reminding him about it. 

Regards,
Probably-won’t-say-anything 

Dear Probably-won’t-say-anything, 

The one thing we are all absolutely, inevitably going to have to deal with in life is death. Given that, you’d think we’d be given lessons somewhere along the line on how to manage it. But we’re not. In fact, we’re so eager to avoid even thinking about it, when it does (inevitably) happen, we’re not only coping with the emotional repercussions, we’re all left feeling awkward and shocked and out of our depth because we have no idea what to do. 

When it comes to the workplace, there’s an extra layer of complexity. You’re absolutely right—sometimes that person could be trying to ‘keep it together’ and maintain their professionalism. Grief is very personal and unique, and everyone experiences it differently. That means there are no 100%-guaranteed-right ways to handle things. 

Your colleague will appreciate knowing that you care. Don’t let your discomfort stop you—be ‘probably-will-say-something’ instead. Just be considerate in how you go about it. 

Here are a few ideas: 

  • Buy a card and sign it—perhaps even get other members of the team to sign as well. You could leave it on the person’s desk if you feel too uncomfortable to hand it to him. Wait until the end of the day to give him the card, so if he’s upset, he doesn’t have to pull himself together for the rest of the workday. 
  • Catch him in a private moment (when there are no other people around) and say something like, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it demonstrates that you care. Take your lead from his response. If he brushes you away with a ‘thanks’, then maybe that’s all he’s comfortable with. If he starts to open up and tell you more, then the very best thing you can do is listen.  
  • Follow up with an offer of help. It’s a good idea to make this specific rather than a generic ‘Let me know what I can do’. Grief is exhausting and confusing and sometimes even trying to think about what someone might be able to do for you is tough. Offer to take some work off his shoulders if that will help free up time for him to be with family. 
  • This is a perfect opportunity to practice random acts of kindness. Buying him a coffee, or a snack, or taking on some simple work tasks shows that you care without make a big deal of it.

If you had  worked together a long time and/or you had a closer relationship than you indicate in your letter, I’d also be advising you to seriously consider attending the funeral. I remember reading some advice (probably one of those Facebook quotes) that said, ‘Always go to the funeral’. Why? It demonstrates respect, it reinforces community, it reminds you of the preciousness of life. If the bereaved person is someone who is important to your life, and there aren’t substantial obstacles in your way (like travel), then yes, the quote got it right. Always go to the funeral. 

One last suggestion—grief isn’t over in a few days. Or even a few weeks or months. Check in with him again in two weeks, and again in a month. Just a quick ‘how are you?’ could be so valuable in helping him feel that his struggle is recognised and that someone cares. 

Kindly yours,
Manners@Work

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash