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What to say (and not say) to a colleague who is grieving

Posted on 04 December 2020

National Grief Awareness Week is 2-8 December, in a year when more people than usual have lost loved ones and will have to navigate their bereavement in difficult circumstances. How can we support colleagues who are grieving, both during the pandemic and after?

It is a tragic consequence of the current pandemic that there will be a larger than usual number of us who will experience a direct or indirect contact with intense grief. 

The problem is that while grief is a natural emotion, most of what society teaches us about it and how to deal with it can be unhelpful. It feels uncomfortable when we don’t know what to say in response to someone we know is struggling. We want to offer our support, but often we are fearful of saying the wrong thing.

So how can we help someone at this difficult time?

Let’s look at a few phrases we typically hear, and how to improve them…

1. “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”

While this is a compassionate and well-intended question, and if you are stuck, it is arguably better than nothing at all, there is an amazingly simple way to improve this question.

Instead, try: “How are you feeling today?”

Adding the word today will differentiate the question, and invite the griever to open up about this particular moment, letting them know it’s safe to be feeling good or bad in that moment.

2. “Keep busy”

Distractions are useful and serve an important purpose in grieving. But telling someone to do this is not necessary.  Maybe they don’t want to do anything that day, or maybe they don’t have any energy left.  Why would keeping busy in that moment be helpful to them? 

It’s best to avoid instructions like this, and instead go with something more neutral like “I’ve been thinking of you. How are you sleeping?”

3. “Don’t feel bad/Don’t cry”

Crying is a normal, healthy response to emotional pain. Suppressed grief can lead to complications. Not dealing with emotional pain can cause it to grow and intensify over time. Bottling it up can lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, insomnia, and more, and crying is an important part of the healing process. It allows the body to naturally release endorphins and toxins, and allows the person to physically process the sadness.

Simply help them by allowing them to cry and saying “It’s okay to be human.”

Just a point here on crying – if a griever isn’t crying, this absolutely does not mean it is any less painful or that they are ‘doing it wrong’. Everyone’s grief is unique.

4. “I understand how you feel”

Grief is unique; no two experiences are alike. A key part of healing is being allowed to vent without fear of being compared to someone else, which causes the mourner to feel judged about their own progress.

A better alternative would be “I don’t know how you’re feeling. But I'm a good listener and make excellent coffee.”

5. “Time Heals” or “It will get better every day”

Time might dull the pain, but it doesn’t heal the pain. And the timeline is not linear or predictable, so there will be good and bad days. What happens over time is a slow adjustment. If we take the right actions over that time we can adjust better. One day they might feel steady on their feet, the next they might feel like they’re back at square one.

A better option would be - “Some days will be better than others. When you’re having a rough day, I’m here to help.”

6. “At least…”

Pretty much anything that follows ‘at least’ is not advisable because it is likely to minimise the importance of the pain being experienced, however well intended it is. Avoid anything that follows ‘at least’ and switch to one of the earlier suggestions instead.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things people say at these times, generally passed from generation to generation, that can unintentionally leave a griever with the impression that their feelings are being ignored.

Going to work while grieving is difficult for everyone. Anticipating reactions and creating a plan of what to say in the moment will help reduce the stress of helping a colleague, whether that is still remotely over Zoom calls, or in a face to face environment.

Many thanks to the author of this piece, Gemma Bullivant FCIPD PCC, who is an Associate at Innecto Reward Consulting.

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