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What to say (and not say) to a colleague who is grieving

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Posted by Gemma Bullivant on 19 May 2020

What to say (and not say) to a colleague who is grieving

Wellbeing | Mental Health

Many of us are noticing a dramatic change in the way we live our lives through this global pandemic, and for some, this change will have left them feeling a great sense of loss. Alongside this, tragically people will be losing loved ones during this time, and will have to navigate their bereavement through lockdown and perhaps isolation. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, our associate Gemma Bullivant has kindly put together a few ways in which we can all be more mindful in how we communicate with those who are struggling with grief - both during the pandemic and beyond.


It is a tragic consequence of the current pandemic that there will be a larger than usual number of employees who will experience a direct or indirect contact with intense grief.  

The problem is that while grief is a natural emotion, most of what society teaches us about it and how to deal with it and interact with other can be unhelpful, and it can feel awkward and uncomfortable to know how to deal with it constructively and helpfully when someone we know is struggling.
 
So how can we help someone at this difficult time? 

Let’s look at a few phrases we typically hear, and how we can improve them to be more helpful…
 
1. “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”
While this is a compassionate and well-intended question, and if you are stuck, it is arguably better than nothing at all, there is an amazingly simple way to improve this question. 

Instead, try - “How are you feeling today?” 
Adding the word today will differentiate the question, and invite the griever to open up about this particular moment, and that it’s safe to be good or bad in that moment. 
 
2. “Keep busy” - Distractions are useful and serve an important purpose in grieving. But telling someone to do this is not necessary.  Maybe they don’t want to do anything that day, or maybe they don’t have any energy left.  Why would keeping busy in that moment be helpful to them?  

It’s best to avoid instructions like this, and instead go with something more neutral like “I’ve been thinking of you. How are you sleeping?” 
 
3. “Don’t feel bad/Don’t cry” - Crying is a normal, healthy response to emotional pain. Suppressed grief can lead to complications. Not dealing with emotional pain can cause it to grow and intensify over time. Bottling it up can lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, insomnia, and more, and crying is an important part of the healing process. It allows the body to naturally release endorphins and toxins, and allows the person to physically process the sadness. 
 
Simply help them by allowing them to cry and saying “It’s okay to be human.” 
 
Just a point here on crying – if a griever isn’t crying, this absolutely does not mean it is any less painful or that they are ‘doing it wrong’. Everyone’s grief is unique.
 
4. “I understand how you feel.” - Grief is unique; no two experiences are alike. A key part of healing is being allowed to vent without fear of being compared to someone else, which causes the mourner to feel judged about their own progress. 
 
A better alternative would be “I have absolutely no idea how you feel. But I'm a good listener and make excellent coffee.”
 
5. “Time Heals” or “It will get better every day.” - Time might dull the pain, but it doesn’t heal the pain.  And the timeline is not linear or predictable, so there will be good and bad days. What happens over time is a slow adjustment.  If we take the right actions over that time we can adjust better. One day they might feel steady on their feet, the next they might feel like they’re back at square one. 

A better option would be - “Some days will be better than others. When you’re having a rough day, I’m here to help.” 
 
6. “At least…” - Pretty much anything that follows ‘at least’ is not advisable basically because it is likely to minimise the importance of the pain being experienced, however well intended it is. Avoid anything that follows ‘at least’ and switch to one of the earlier suggestions instead.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of things people say at these times, generally passed from generation to generation, that can unintentionally leave a griever with the impression that their feelings are being ignored. Going to work while grieving is difficult for everyone. Anticipating reactions and creating a plan what to say when in the moment will help reduce the stress helping a colleague, whether that is still remotely over Zoom calls, or in a face to face environment.
 


Gemma Bullivant FCIPD PCC is one of our Associate Client Directors. In addition to her HR and Reward expertise, she has a unique combination grief and bereavement training and coaching qualification, and offers a range of proactive grief-related wellbeing interventions and programmes to help employees recover from all forms of traumatic change and loss, including redundancy, divorce and bereavement. More information about her can be found at www.gemmabullivant.co.uk


 

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