Someone at your office is grieving a death right now. How can you help?

May 19, 2024

It’s a topic we get asked about a lot at Grieve Leave: Grief can feel particularly tricky to navigate when it’s a colleague or a manager who’s going through a loss. Is it appropriate for you to acknowledge their loss? Do you know them well enough to reach out? What are appropriate workplace and personal boundaries? What do I say to my boss who’s grieving? Is it weird to report to someone who’s going through a terrible time? Do I pretend like it’s not happening?  Do I write them a note? Do I leave it on their desk? Is an email ok?

You want to show you care without crossing any lines or making your coworker or manager feel uncomfortable.

Remember: Saying absolutely nothing to a griever is one of the worst things we can do to them. Grief is hard enough, but when you add isolation to the mix, it can feel even worse 

So, first things first: acknowledge the loss. It might feel awkward, intimidating or just…weird to talk about personal things, depending on your workplace culture. But saying something (or calling or emailing or messaging) is always better than saying nothing at all. 

When it comes to writing a condolence message in a card, keep it short, kind, and authentic. Don't feel like you need to write a novel if that doesn’t feel authentic to you and your relationship with the griever, or with the person who has died. A few lines expressing your sympathy and support are more than enough.
Some ideas: 

  • A simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" can mean a great deal to someone who is grieving.

  • "I’m so sorry about the loss of your [insert loss here]. Please know that I'm thinking of you during this difficult time. I am ready to listen and to provide any helpful support– I’ll check back in on you. ."

  • Avoid platitudes or cliches like "They're in a better place now" or "Everything happens for a reason." These sentiments, while often well-intentioned, can often be minimizing of a griever’s feelings. 

When it comes to workplace-appropriate sympathy gifts, think practical and helpful. Food is often a safe bet - you could organize a meal train with coworkers to provide dinners for the grieving family, or send a gift card to a local restaurant or a meal delivery gift card for takeout.

If you're a close colleague, you might consider offering specific help with work tasks, or other tasks if you’re comfortable. This might sound like:

  •  "I know you have a lot on your plate right now. I'd be happy to take that [e.g. client presentation] off your hands, if it would be helpful." 

  • Keep in mind: be sure not to overstep or make assumptions about what your coworker needs - always phrase it as an offer, not an expectation.

Most importantly, remember that grief doesn't have a timeline. Your colleague might seem "back to normal" a few weeks after their loss, but that doesn't mean they're done grieving. Continue to check in, offer support, and be patient. 

Here are a few more tips for navigating workplace condolences:

  1. If you're unsure what to say, err on the side of simplicity. "I'm here for you" is always better than an overwrought message that might miss the mark.

  2. Be mindful of your coworker's privacy and personal space. Don't push them to talk about their loss if they don't want to, and respect their need for alone time or quieter days at work.

  3. If you're in a leadership position, consider flexible work arrangements to support your grieving employee. A little understanding and accommodation can go a long way.

  4. Remember that everyone grieves differently. Some people might want to throw themselves into work as a distraction, while others might need more time away. Avoid judging or making assumptions about how your colleague "should" be coping.

  5. If you're also grieving the loss (perhaps it was a mutual coworker or client), be honest about that. Sharing your own feelings can create space for more authentic connections. 

Unsure what to say to a grieving coworker or manager? Our 
Work Grief Cards are a great place to get you started, with images that feel down to earth and support that feels authentic.


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