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When a Co-worker Suffers a Loss

(Permission from National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization)

Death and taxes are two certainties in life. So it is natural to expect that co-workers may experience the death of someone close to them.

Many of us feel awkward when someone dies. We don’t know what to say, what to do, or what to expect from ourselves – or our co-worker. A better understanding of the grieving experience can help you know how to support and work with someone who is grieving.

The Grieving Process

Feelings and symptoms of grief can take weeks, months, and even years to surface. People don’t learn to cope with a loss on a timetable, but over time the emotions do ease. The brief time given to attend the funeral only touches the beginning stages of grief. Experts describe the experience of grief in various ways.

Broadly speaking, the responses and emotions of grief may include: shock, denial, anger, guilt, anxiety, withdrawal, spiritual distress, sleep disorders, exhaustion, overwhelming sadness, and concentration difficulties.

Generally a person feels several of these emotions at the same time. The grief process will depend on how close people were to the person who died, the circumstances of the death, and their own life situation. It is important to remember that different cultures and populations may express grief and emotions in a variety of manners. Learn the customs and traditions before any assumptions are made regarding the expression of a coworker coping with loss.

Things are never the same after we live through a major personal loss. Across time, people regain their balance in life and can discover meaning in the loss. For example, a daughter who acted as a caregiver for her father may find that the personal rewards of caregiving were life changing. Losses influence the people we are and the ways we can positively contribute to our world.

What to Say

A simple word means a great deal when a person suffers a loss, yet many people say nothing for fear of saying “the wrong thing.” However, often it is more hurtful to ignore the person or pretend nothing happened than it is to make a mistake and say “the wrong thing”. It is important to acknowledge the loss.

Helpful words include:
“I am sorry to hear about your loss.”
“I heard about your loss. I don’t know what to say.”
Remember the story you told me about...[the deceased].” A simple shared memory is helpful.

Avoid these phrases:
“I know just how you feel” Each person’s loss is unique.
It was God’s will,” or “God never gives us more than we can bear.”
“At least she isn’t suffering.”
“At least you have another child.” Or “You are still young enough to have another child.”
“You’re not over it yet? It’s been six weeks, two months, etc.”
“You’ll get over it.”

What to Expect

A person who experiences a loss may seem exhausted, withdrawn, absent-minded, short-tempered, or depressed. Grief creates a tide of emotion that can’t always be controlled. Expect it. Remember the grieving person’s reactions are not directed at you. Just being supportive and understanding will help. Also, be prepared that the grieving person may appear to have coped effectively for several months, and then hit a “slump” period around an anniversary or special occasion they shared with the deceased.

Creating healthy memories is part of healing. So your co-worker may want to talk about the deceased.

Your desire to be sympathetic should not keep you from your work. Set limits by suggesting that you talk during a break, at lunch or after work. Example: “Jim, I know this is a difficult time for you, but it’s hard for me to listen right now. Could we talk during lunch?”

Expect that 3-6 months after the loss the grieving person may still not be “his/her old self.” Grief doesn’t heal on a timetable.

What You Can Do

Be aware of what your co-worker is experiencing. Listen, but know you can’t relieve the grief. You can help, but each person needs to find his/her own way to integrate the loss.

Ask if you can help out. Perhaps taking over a simple task such as answering phones or preparing a weekly report once or twice can help during a difficult period. Be specific in your offer and follow up with action.

Include the grieving person in your work life. He/She may want time alone – but staying away to “spare painful feelings” may only add to your co-worker’s sense of loss and isolation. The grieving person may decline your offer, but will appreciate that it was made.

Alert your supervisor to concerns. If the grieving person seems to be getting worse, exhibits severe, continuing signs or talks about suicide, h/she may need professional help. Covering for them will not help. Some signs to watch for:

  • Increased absenteeism.
  • Indications the person is not sleeping or eating.
  • Changes in personal habits, such as clothing, hygiene, arriving to work late, or going home early.
  • Inability to work. The person may continue to be distracted, be overly absorbed or make repeated mistakes.
  • A major personality change, e.g., the person is extremely argumentative, or becomes unusually passive.
  • Substance abuse.

Supervisors can help by structuring measurable and reasonable goals and expectations for the grieving employee across time.

Ask occasionally about the deceased.

You may think that being reminded about the person will be painful. Grieving people don’t forget their loved one, they are probably thinking about them often. Asking helps your colleague to know that you haven’t forgotten about their loss either.

Suggestions and Resources 

If your office has an employee assistance program (EAP), refer your co-worker to it, or obtain information from that office. Many organizations in the community offer grief support services. Area hospices work with individuals and families before and after death, and are experienced in helping with workplace grief issues. Hospices conduct grief support groups, and most are available to anyone in the community who has suffered a loss. Hospice grief counselors are also available to come to your place of business to talk about your grief issues. 

Remember, death is hard to discuss – but facing it and the grief it causes will help you and your co-worker during a difficult time.


For more information or to discuss employee or workplace concerns please contact Partners Employee Assistance Program at 1-866-724-4EAP.

In case of emergency, please call 911 or your local hospital emergency service.


This content was last modified on: 02/11/2016

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