Wednesday, April 24, 2024

     Grief is a natural response to loss – and loss is something we all face at various times. Loss includes the death of a loved one, but there are many others that lead to grief, including divorce, substance use struggles, or receiving a life-changing diagnosis. The experience of grief is often very personal and private, but most of us also need to navigate working through our losses in public spheres, like the workplace. 

In health care, where I work, we witness the fragility of life regularly, and accompany others—patients and their families—as they walk the line between healing and heartache. As professionals, we, too, experience heartache and bear our own losses, both in our personal and professional spheres.

When the healer or helper among us is the one mourning, it can be difficult to know how to support them, especially in the new terrain of a fresh loss, early in the grieving process. We struggle to find the right words to balance between the normalcy of the workplace and the solemnity of the loss.

Supporting a grieving colleague can involve thoughtful actions, such as sending a card, attending a visitation or funeral, providing a meal, or offering to help with errands or chores. But we are human beings, not human doings, so it is also important to focus on how to be present with someone in their grief journey.

While each person and each situation will be different, here are ideas from grief experts that can help us feel more skillful when supporting a grieving colleague. I learned the SPIKES mnemonic for delivering challenging news in medical school. The same topics are relevant in supporting a grieving colleague. I will adapt the SPIKES mnemonic to organize these tips.

S—Setting: Think about the setting that your grieving colleague will be in at work. Is there anything your team could adjust to make it better for them? Consider modulating the work dynamics and atmosphere out of respect. Minimize loud conversations and laughter if your colleague needs quiet space for a few days. Be aware of your body language, facial expressions, and mannerisms. A sense of normalcy is often helpful at work, so changes do not need to be drastic. Make tissues and hand sanitizer handy, but not obtrusive. Recognize that cultural norms influence grief expression. Some cultures and individuals encourage open displays of emotion, while others value stoicism. Don't be judgmental or generalize from small bits of behavior.

P—Perspective: Ask for the perspective of the person grieving. Consider checking to see if they have any concerns about the transition back to work, or if they have preferences about what might be helpful for their colleagues to know or do. Check in periodically. Grief does not follow a predictable timeline. A coworker may have times when they feel better, and then have another wave of sadness. Don’t push them to “move on.” You are not there to solve their problems or tell them what to do. They may want a sounding board or some guidance but trust them to find their own answers. This is their life story. 

I—Invitation: Invite them to share with colleagues as much or as little as they would like, and to customize their individual approach to talking about their loss. Some people may choose to give updates at meetings, others may want to give updates individually, and still others may ask someone else to share information on their behalf. Some may want to be private about their personal lives, or to only share with a few individuals they know well. It is helpful to ask their permission before sharing with others any details they’ve told you. Avoid intrusive questions. Instead of prying into details, express your sympathy genuinely, and if you would be comfortable having them talk more with you about the situation, let them know you are available if needed.  

K—Knowledge: Knowledge fosters understanding. Exchange information that could be helpful to the grief process. If your colleague has cultural practices that are different from yours, learn about them from resources such as CultureVision and, most importantly, from the person grieving if they would like to share. If you are their supervisor, tell them if there are work expectations, resources, or benefits relevant in their situation. Remember that grief affects sleep, attention, concentration, memory, mood, emotional lability, and how one feels physically. While it is typical to experience these things, it does not feel normal. Grief comes in waves, around meaningful days like birthdays and anniversaries, or out of the blue. This may affect work performance and relationships with colleagues. Be sensitive about the effect of grief on performance and interpersonal interactions and speak to your supervisor if you have concerns.

E—Empathize: Be a listening ear. What is most helpful is not having the perfect thing to say, but sitting quietly with someone, letting them talk, allowing tears to flow when needed. Pay close attention to what is being said and do not interrupt. Give space after they finish talking to see if they want to add something else. Silence is a crucial component of supportive presence. It is OK to say what is on your heart, like “I don’t know what to say – this is just so hard. Can I just sit with you for a while?” Avoid cliches— “Everything happens for a reason” or “At least now she is in a better place”—unless you are reflecting back what the griever uses to find comfort. Don't try to give advice or share personal experiences unless asked. Everyone’s grief journey is unique, and comparisons are usually not helpful. Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” Instead, say, “I’m here to listen,” or “Tell me what this has been like for you.” 

S—Summarize: After you have a conversation with someone at work who is grieving, summarize the key points to make sure you have understood them correctly, and to see if they have anything to add. For example, you might say, “Thank you for telling me what things have been like since your daughter died. I’m so sorry this happened to your family. It seems you want me to update our team that your son is struggling, so you may need to respond to his texts while at work. You will share more information with colleagues as you feel comfortable. Since her birthday is next Friday, you would like to take that day off and we will arrange coverage for you. I will check in again next week. What else can we do to support you? I’m here to listen.”

Each of us brings our losses to work because they are part of who we are. You don't have to solve all your personal problems with death, divorce, substance abuse, etc., before being helpful to others. It is important to be aware of which problems are theirs and which are yours. If we can navigate the delicate terrain of supporting grieving colleagues with skill, it allows them to do the work of grief, incorporating a fresh loss into their life story. As we incorporate compassion, empathy, and cultural sensitivity into our workplace, it becomes fertile ground for growth, professionally and personally. 

Cover image by Liz Summer.