by Judy Carole

A bereaved person’s return to work

A separate policy should be in place for the bereaved person’s return to the workplace. Many complain that they are greeted with a wall of silence by their co-workers, who don’t know what to say and, scared of saying the ‘wrong thing’, say nothing at all. When this happens, the bereaved person not only has to deal with their loss, but also with a feeling of isolation at a time when they most need support.

The following procedures are therefore helpful, though the first points are more relevant when the person returning to work is a woman:

  • A welcome back card, flowers and so on, if they have been off work for an extended period
  • Arranging for that person to have their break or lunch with co-workers
  • Showing continued interest in their wellbeing
  • Giving the employee a reasonable amount of flexibility in both working hours and time off, which can help them cope with the combined stress of work and grief
  • Understanding that the grief process takes time and that the worker cannot ‘snap out of it’
  • If you are part of a large company, it may be a good long-term strategy to set up a directory of phone numbers of other employees who have experienced a loss and who are prepared to meet with the bereaved employee during working hours, if needed.

See Men and women react differently.

What to say?

Many people find it very difficult to phone or approach someone who has recently been bereaved, and often put it off until it is too late.

‘I am very sorry to hear of your loss. How we can best support you?’ covers most eventualities. Even saying ‘I don’t know what to say’ or ‘I wish I knew what to say’ is much better than not saying anything at all.

If you have experienced a significant loss, it is possible to say ‘I don’t know how you feel. I just know that when I lost xxx I felt xxxx.’

Men who are dealing with a bereaved woman employee or a woman working with a male bereaved employee can consider the following phrases:

  • Please let me know if I can help in any way
  • If you need to talk, my door is open
  • If there is any way the company can support you through this, please let me know
  • I can lighten your workload for xxxx period of time, if you feel that will be helpful to you.

If the female employee is tearful, passing a tissue or asking her if she wants to be excused for a few minutes is quite acceptable. If appropriate, either the bereaved employee or her associates can make a joke about buying shares in waterproof mascara, or say ‘thank god for waterproof mascara!’, which can lighten the atmosphere without causing offence.

What not to say?

‘I know how you feel’ is definitely out, as is any reference to ‘time healing all wounds’ or ‘you’ll get over it!’