An Anderson Cooper 360 interview with Stephen Colbert about loss and grief kept surfacing on my social media feeds. I was hesitant to listen due to the loss of my dad earlier this year. When I finally did, something Stephen Colbert said stayed with me: “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.” Another poignant point Colbert made in his interview was the importance of having awareness of other people’s loss.
As a Stratacomm partner with HR oversight, part of my job is to notice when others are uncomfortable. Stratacomm’s open bereavement policy allows employees to take the time they need to be present with family and friends during a difficult time due to a loss. However, the topic of loss is complex, and many times we fall short in giving support to those around us.
We eventually return to work but grief doesn’t get any easier. Although we are able to do our jobs and go on with the day to day, there are moments post-grief when the right touch can help make it a little easier for someone. To help your colleagues adjust after returning to work from bereavement, I share these recommendations on ways to engage with empathy and compassion.
- Say something, anything—If you are uncomfortable giving words of sympathy to someone who has experienced loss, don’t avoid them. Instead, be honest. Tell them, “I have no clue what to say, but I am here if you need me to listen or to get you lunch.”
- Do something—Show in your actions you genuinely care. Buy two coffees that morning and leave one on your colleague’s desk. Allow that person to share memories since that may be a way of coping for them or offer to take a task off their plate for the week. A little extra kindness goes a long way.
- Honor their loved one—Don’t be afraid to mention their loved one for fear of an emotional response. Ask them to share fond memories and let your colleagues express their emotions. And if they cry, be empathetic. Offer a tissue, or if a close relationship exists, ask them if they’d like a hug. Most importantly, do not respond with phrases like “don’t cry,” which can be received negatively by someone who is grieving.
- Don’t expect “time to heal all wounds”— Grief has many stages. If your colleague is having an off day after many good days, be patient with them. Anyone who understands the saying the “first year of firsts” knows that periods of change are always the hardest.
- The holidays aren’t happy for everyone— Try not to default to common phrases like “happy holidays.” Instead take the time to engage by asking “how are you this time of year?” Holidays, birthdays, vacations and other joyous occasions can be lonely for those who are actively grieving.
Grief is a natural process that all of us will go through at some point in our lifetime. Fortunately, we are resilient and will overcome grief in our own way, on our own timetable.
Policies for bereavement leave are not enough. My own personal grief was an obstacle to writing this blog post, but am hopeful that some of these tips will make it easier for someone else to overcome their grief. As you navigate work and life, and the curveballs that are thrown at you, find ways to support your colleagues to create safe spaces in the workplace, offering emotional support that is sensitive and authentic.
Shannon Hartnett is a vice president and partner in Stratacomm’s Washington, D.C. office where she oversees HR, office management and company-wide administrative projects.