Helping a Coworker with Grief in the Long Term

A year ago, on July 25, 2017, my partner passed away very unexpectedly. This experience gave me some insights on how, as coworkers, we can help each other deal with grief.

The day my partner died, I was in an end-of-the-day meeting when I received a call from his number. Immediately after the meeting, I returned the call, surprised that he was calling me at work. His cousin answered, crying, letting me know that my partner had passed away earlier that day.

At that time, I had recently moved to Ann Arbor and was working at Atomic Object while finishing my master’s degree at California State University. My partner was still living in California.

The Immediate Aftermath

I let my coworkers know that I probably wasn’t going to be coming back to work for a few days and why. I was offered a ride home and sincere support. A few days later, I was told to take as much time off as I needed.

Even though I was still an intern at the time and had only been there for two months, Atomic gave me two weeks of full-paid funeral leave. It’s likely they would have done more, but I wanted to at least finish up my final few weeks before heading back to California to finish my degree.

I continued to receive some support while working remotely in California. My coworkers at Atomic wanted to make sure I wasn’t overwhelmed and to let me know I had people to talk to if need be.

I definitely appreciated the care and support everyone gave me, even though the situation made it really weird. I was on the other side of the country living in the same apartment—not ideal. Even though I was working part-time while finishing my degree, it helped to keep my mind off of things.

Life Goes On?

Since returning to Atomic, it has seemed as though everything is back to normal. Rarely has anyone asked how I’ve been or scheduled pair lunches just to talk.

Mostly, it’s been me that has had to initiate these or attempt to bring up the topic. This could partially be due to the fact that I appear to be happy and my usual self. Though I’m not putting on a facade, it doesn’t mean I might not be feeling more than one thing each day. Every day, in fact, I think about him, though my grieving passed months ago.

I just find it curious that loss appears to be an off-limits topic. Culturally, this might just be an American thing; I’m unsure.

Through my experience, I’ve wondered how we as coworkers and people could help those who are grieving more.

Supporting Coworkers Who are Grieving

It’s not always easy to know how to help a coworker deal with long-term grief. When the news first comes out, we all have a lot of sympathy or empathy. Over the first few months, we may ask if the coworker is doing all right or if there’s anything we can do to help. But after a longer period of time, we either don’t know what to say or we think everything is all right. So the topic is never approached again.

This is unfortunate because it’s likely the coworker who suffered a loss is still affected by it. They may even want to talk about it, but they don’t feel comfortable asking and don’t want to burden us.

Having gone through this experience myself, here are a few things I can suggest for helping a co-worker who experienced a loss a few months ago.

  • If the person who suffered a loss brings it up, take that as a sign that the coworker is comfortable talking about it.
  • If it has been a while since the event, take them to lunch and ask about it. They are likely to be more relaxed about this over food than at work where they have other things to focus on.
  • Be more cognizant of the coworker on days that would be important to them: anniversaries, the birthday of the deceased, the day the person passed away, etc. If you don’t know or don’t remember, it’s okay to ask.
  • Try to improve your emotional intelligence in the workplace. Consider how you might comfort or talk to a family member or close friend.

Final Thoughts

If you happen to work with someone who is grieving, try as best as you can to support them. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but ask them how they have been feeling and progressing through their grief, and mean what you say.

If you are someone in grief, don’t be afraid to speak up and talk about how you are truly feeling. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable, but that is normal and understandable.

One thing I can add is that, on the anniversary of my loss, I had a work meeting during lunch. I mentioned to the manager that I would prefer eating out that day, and he fully understood and agreed. After I returned from lunch, I found that a coworker had remembered what day it was for me and left a small dessert on my desk. Both showed that they cared, and those small acts helped with my grief.