Dealing with grief is a very personal and challenging experience that can have a big impact on an individual's emotional wellbeing. Grief can be difficult to talk about and, at work, it can often feel like an awkward and uncomfortable topic. However, colleagues can play a huge part in supporting coworkers during difficult times by providing empathy, compassion, and practical assistance – and that support will be appreciated.
How to talk about your colleague’s bereavement
It can be daunting talking to a colleague about their bereavement. You might be afraid of saying the wrong thing or you might not even know what to say. You might be worried about bringing it up and upsetting them. Whatever your worries, it’s important to put them aside and acknowledge what has happened.
These can all be good things to say but there’s no rule book. Think about how they must be feeling and talk to them with empathy.
Practicing empathy at work means understanding your colleague's feelings and experiences and providing a non-judgmental space for them to express themselves.
It doesn’t have to be a big, deep conversation. The key thing is to acknowledge their experience and not ignore it. If they would prefer not to talk about it – that’s fine. At least you will have acknowledged it and shown that you care.
If your colleague does choose to open up to you, compassionate listening can help them feel supported.
Compassionate listening involves actively listening without interrupting or offering solutions immediately. Instead, allow them plenty of time to talk, focus on validating their emotions, and let them know that you are there for them. Listen to what they tell you they need from you and respect their wishes.
Offering practical support to a grieving colleague
Supporting a colleague practically can make a big difference during grief.
They are not likely to have their ‘head in the game’ completely at first. If you can, offering to share their workload, help with daily tasks, or to temporarily cover responsibilities shows care and support. If that’s not practical, simply making them a cup of tea or bringing in their favourite biscuits can be a comforting gesture.
By providing practical support, you not only help your colleague navigate their grief, but also create a supportive work environment that values teamwork and strengthens relationships.
What not to say to a colleague dealing with grief
When supporting a grieving colleague, avoid making insensitive comments or comparisons.
Unhelpful comments such as “I know how you feel,” or “everything happens for a reason” only minimise the other person’s feelings. You can’t know how they feel, and platitudes offer no comfort when faced with the magnitude of grief.
Instead, offer your presence and a listening ear without judgment. Be patient – everyone experiences grief differently and it's essential to respect that.
Long-term support for grieving coworkers
It’s important to provide sustained support beyond the immediate grieving period. Certain dates or events such as birthdays and anniversaries of the death can be particularly challenging. Check in regularly, offer a listening ear, and be understanding of time off or flexible working arrangements. If appropriate and your colleague agrees, you could organise activities or events that honour the memory of their loved one to show your colleague that their loss is acknowledged and remembered by the team.
If you’re a line manager supporting a member of your team through grief, it’s important to keep communication open and let the person know you are there to support them. It can be helpful to schedule regular check-ins and offer any workplace bereavement support services such as counselling or employee assistance programs if available.
There are also free bereavement support helplines available in the UK:
Cruse Bereavement Care: 0808 8081677 https://www.cruse.org.uk/
Marie Curie Bereavement Support Service: 0800 090 2309 https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereavement
By creating a safe space, offering emotional support, and providing practical assistance, you can support your colleague as they navigate their grief at work.