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When a Bereaved Coworker Returns to the Job

by Legacy Staff

If you worry about what to say and do when a bereaved coworker comes back to work, you’re not alone.

Q.  My colleague’s 19-year-old brother died in a freak biking accident. I attended the funeral and sent a condolence note, but worry about what to say and do when the bereaved comes back to work next week. What is your advice?

You’re not alone in your concerns. “Coworkers and managers don’t know what to do with someone who has had a significant loss,” says Rachel Blythe Kodanaz, who coaches the bereaved, colleagues, and managers for Fortune 500 companies. Kodanaz, author of the guide “Grief in the Workplace,” knows from personal experience. She was widowed when her husband, who worked for the same employer, died on company property. “The hardest part is people don’t know how to interact. Untimely deaths, homicides, unfortunate diagnoses at a young age shock everyone,” she adds.


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Yet there are ways to ease the transition back to work, regardless of who died or how.

Tips for the First Day Back:

You’ve already been attentive by showing up at the funeral and writing a personal note. Others may acknowledge the loss by making a donation in memory of the deceased or sending food to the family. Such actions help minimize any awkwardness when the bereaved returns to the workplace. Other useful steps:    

1. Plan ahead

Consider how you want to greet the person. You can simply say “It’s good to see you” or “I’m so glad you’re back.” Coworkers who haven’t already expressed sympathy, as you have, can offer some variation of “Please accept my condolences” or even “I don’t know what to say to you.”

2. Be prepared to listen

Resist the urge to talk immediately after your greeting. Instead, allow the person time to respond in his/her own way. 

3. Recognize differences in how the bereaved react to work

It’s a healing experience for some—a relief and distraction to be immersed in the job. Others can barely function. In the latter case, try to be as helpful and sensitive as you can.

4. Be aware of workplace grief counseling

Many employers (especially large ones) offer such help in cases of devastating loss, such as the death of a child. Think about questions you may want to ask if and when a counselor does arrive. Do you dread that the bereaved will break down and sob? It’s less scary if you anticipate it may happen and accept that you can’t “fix it.” But you can touch the person’s arm or give a hug and just be there. 

Although nothing can change the loss, human kindness and community make a difference.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes. Have a question for Florence? Send her an email.


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