COVID-19: Supporting a bereaved colleague
Bereavement is one of the most devastating things any of us will go through. With over 41,000 deaths in the UK as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely that you will know, or will work with someone who has been affected by the loss of a loved one. Naturally, you’ll want to support them. Some people will cope reasonably well at work while others will struggle to manage their loss. It can be difficult to know how to support a colleague who is bereaved, but here is some guidance you can follow.
It’s difficult to know what to say to a bereaved colleague. You might think there is little you can say or do to help them, but people can find comfort in kind words and actions.
No two people are the same, so there’s no simple template that can be used but here are several ways that you can support:
- Try not to avoid your colleague for fear of upsetting them. Saying nothing at all can be worse than saying something simple like “I’m sorry”. These words can provide comfort.
- Don’t panic about talking to your colleague. Panicking and overthinking things might result in you saying the wrong thing.
- If they do start to talk about things that matter to them, encourage them by asking open-ended questions or simply by really listening to them.
- Take your lead from them when talking to them. They may want to talk to you in detail about what happened and how they feel, or they may not.
- At times your colleague may just want you to listen to them. Try not to run away from a colleague who wants to talk to you. They’re not expecting you to have all the answers and be an expert.
- Let them talk about the person who has died as this may be their way of coming to terms with the death. They may want to describe the same thing over and over again – let them do this. It may be their way of coming to terms with something.
- If they cry, try not to stop them. This can create awkwardness so just continue to listen.
- Words aren’t always necessary and some people may not want to talk at all. So just be there. Sometimes, just having someone in the same room and sitting together quietly can be reassuring.
- Make a special effort to check in with your colleague in the weeks and months after the funeral as these can often be some of the most difficult and loneliest times.
- Invite them to join in with social activities. They may not want to join in but will appreciate you offering. Be understanding and continue to offer because at some stage they may be grateful that you asked.
- Consider that sometimes, colleagues will need their space so be careful not to smother them with sympathy and make them feel powerless.
Offer practical help
- Remember that certain times of the year, such as birthdays, anniversaries of a death, Christmas and other holidays, can be especially difficult and be mindful of that. Let your colleague know that you’re thinking of them at this time. It’s OK to say “let me know if you need anything” but also offer specific practical help, for example, swapping shifts with them to a time that’s more helpful, or making lunch so it’s one less task for them to do at home.
- Don’t feel upset if your support is rejected at first. Try again later and remind them that you’re there.
- If you’re unsure about how to help them but want to, be honest about that. Ask them what they need.
What not to do
- Don’t use clichés like, “I know how you feel” and “time is a great healer”. They can seem flippant and make it feel as though you’re minimising the loss. You may feel as though you’ve been through something similar but it’s unlikely you’ll know exactly how they’re feeling.
- Don’t make a judgement on how they’re grieving or when they’ll be able to ‘move on’. Everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way.
- Don’t act as though nothing has happened or avoid talking about the person who has died. It can be very painful when people act as though the deceased person never existed.
- Don’t assume that because someone seems to be coping, they are, or that they don’t need your help.
- Remember, it can be difficult to support a bereaved colleague. If you do any of the above, don’t be too hard on yourself or avoid your colleague in the future for fear of doing the same thing again.
During this pandemic people will have experienced loss while being cut off from their usual support networks. If colleagues are working from home there are still things that you can do to support them. Don’t be afraid to reach out by phone or email.