Sounds like a book out of a mystery series, doesn’t it?
I wish that’s all it was, but frankly, death is a part of life and everyone – family, friends, co-workers—experience loss at one time or another. And if you’re like me, you really don’t know what to do when it happens, especially when it comes to a co-worker who’s just experienced a devastating loss.
We recently experienced this situation at work, where a co-worker lost her adult child unexpectedly. Even though I have no children of my own, I have to think that this is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a person. My heart bled for her, and thoughts of her situation, her hell-on-earth, followed me around for days.
But when I next saw her, I was tongue tied. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to say all the right things to make an awful, horrible situation a little better. Still, a dozen different thoughts raced through my mind. If I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” would she start to cry? Would she say, “Thank you, I had just stopped thinking about it for a second and now I’m thinking about it again and it’s all your fault”? Would she say, “Sorry?! You have no idea
My feelings are not unusual. It can be hard to deal with emotional situations when someone you love is suffering. But when you have a working relationship with someone who’s experienced a loss, you can’t always offer a hug or a kiss, or any kind of loving human contact. You don’t necessarily hug and kiss people you work with. And this situation is a part of your co-worker’s personal life, not his/her professional life, which makes it all the more awkward. So how do you deal with the emotional response your comments might illicit?
Easy! You avoid saying anything!
(Yeah, that’s what I told myself, but I couldn’t pretend that it didn’t happen, that’s just not right!)
So, here are a few tips to get you through this difficult situation:
Express verbal condolences to those co-workers you don’t know well when you need to speak with that person for other reasons – Start out the conversation by saying, “I’m here to talk with you about X, but I wanted to let you know that I heard what happened and I’ve been thinking about you. I’m so sorry for your loss.” This gives the mourner the chance to say thank you, and then jump onto another subject. If he wants to talk about his loss, it gives him the opportunity to do so.
Drop a card at the co-worker’s desk if you don’t know that person well – This is a great way to express condolences to a co-worker you don’t know really well. At your next interaction, you can ask him how he is, he can thank you for the card, and you can move on to a conversation that’s the subject of his choice.
If you know the person well enough or work closely enough with him, express condolences and ask him about his work load – Your mourning co-worker might not have the level of concentration necessary to tackle everything he has on his plate at the moment, or might need help catching up.
As a Revolutionary Assistant, make a plea for your manager to be flexible with your mourning co-worker – Some find work a great release that helps them navigate their loss, but others will find even the easiest work tasks an unbearable burden that’s layered on top it. Everyone reacts differently, and you’ll help your manager maintain a strong working relationship with the mourner if she can be flexible with his needs.
Avoid saying things like “This happened to me” or “I understand exactly how you feel” or “At least you have_____” – Again, everyone processes loss differently. Saying that it happened to you or that you know how the mourner feels marginalizes what he might feel, and furthermore makes the conversation about you and not him. Telling him, “At least you have another son,” or “It was God’s will” just minimizes the huge effect that death has had on this person.
After you express your condolences, just listen – Sometimes, that’s the best gift of all.
If you’re really having a hard time approaching this person, think about the last time you experienced loss and what was most helpful to you. It’s a rotten thing, having to live through something like that, but sometimes a new bond is formed, a new friend found, and a new point of view understood. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Next Post: Wednesday, July 29