Two years ago my father passed away suddenly. It was four weeks to the day that I had started a new job. I was still finding my feet and getting to know people. I came back to my desk after a meeting. I had 17 missed calls from family and knew something dreadful had happened.
I can still remember every detail of that day. To this day, I am so grateful to the colleagues who helped me cope in the immediate aftermath of receiving the news. And for the support I received in the following weeks and months.
Since then a number of friends and coaching clients have lost close family or friends. So many people experience bereavement and yet it is a situation that people can feel very awkward about at work.
When a colleague comes back to work after a bereavement, workmates are unsure whether they should say anything or not. Perhaps they don’t know their colleague on a personal level. They may be afraid of causing upset. Some people feel they are generally ‘bad at that kind of thing’. So they say nothing.
When I came back to work people were very awkward around me. I didn’t know people all that well. But some people I did know actively avoided me. They looked down when I walked into the canteen and some turned and walked in the other direction when they saw me coming.
I thought this was just my experience. But I have heard so many people sharing similar experiences on returning to work after the loss of a loved one.
So what should you do when a bereaved colleague returns to work?
If you don’t feel comfortable saying this face to face, then an email is better than saying nothing. Include in the email that you didn’t want to put them on the spot but you just wanted to drop them a note.
If you know the person well, speak to them in person. Even though you might feel very upset or awkward facing their pain, you need to acknowledge their loss. Be less concerned about how they might react or if they will get upset. They are upset anyway. They will be upset for a long time to come.
If you are not sure about what kind of support they need, offer to go for coffee / lunch or ask them to let you know when they want to talk.
If you are a manager and one of your team is bereaved, make sure you make it a priority to talk to them as soon as they return to work. Put your awkwardness to one side and focus on them. Ask them to let you know if they need any support. Check in at the end of the first day and regularly.
And most of all remember, its not something that somebody will get over in a few days or a week. It will take time and support. But its the kind of support that people never forget.