The Grieving Employee
by Dave Opalewski and Dr. Joel Robertson

Grief is one of life's most difficult journeys. The death of a spouse, child, parent or close friend - no words or actions can "fix" or change the situation. But there are things that people closest to a grieving person can do to support the grieving co-worker during this trying time. Here are a few:

Understand the need for grief

Before healing can take place, there must be pain, which is the grief reaction. Grief is normal, grief is to be expected. Anything that delays grief, shortens the grief reaction or prevents it from being expressed may actually create problems for the grieving person later on.

Say something, anything, but don't be silent - Co-workers are an integral part of an employee's support system. Unfortunately, many employees who've had a loved one pass on say co-workers treated them as though they had the plague. Perhaps either co-workers don't know what to say or don't want to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing. Irrespective of why it happens, the grieving worker will view this "cold shouldering" as indifference. Letting a co-worker know that you are standing with him/her is better than saying nothing at all.

Don't let your comforting drop off - Experts say the grief cycle lasts roughly 24 months with the hardest time lasting from the fourth through the 24th month. They also say that people tend to forget the tragedy their friends experienced by around month four - exactly the point at which grief hits hardest. be a true friend by showing support for the co-worker long after the loss. Consider marking the anniversary of the tragedy in your planner and sending the grieving person a "Thinking of You" card on that day or on holidays, which are hardest, especially in the early years following a tragedy.

Practice Patience - Many people become frustrated when a grieving person hasn't come to grips with the loss after a year or so. Grief is a unique, individualized experience. Comparing one person's grief to another's, or expecting recovery to last a given length of time, is absurd and unfair. Be sensitive to the fact that people grieve differently.
Offer to help - Ask if you can do something specific for the grieving person like run errands, baby-sit, make phone calls or cook. "If you need me, call me" won't work because the grieving person may forget or may not have the energy to call when s/he needs help.

Keep co-workers informed - Out of respect to both the grieving person and his/her co-workers, supervisors should notify employees of the situation soon after tragedy strikes. Co-workers can only be comforting or supportive if they know about the tragedy. Also, supervisors should handle this task as professionally as possible. Employees will be sensitive to the way the announcement is handled because the next announcement could be about someone close to them.

Consider setting up a crisis response team - A team of employees and supervisors could be called together in the event that tragedy strikes an employee or supervisor. Team members could place calls to employees or identify workers closest to the deceased for a targeted intervention. If a trauma debriefing takes place, it should only be conducted by a trained professional. But team members can be trained in listening and empathy skills and can monitor employees to determine those needing further interventions.

Break the isolation that many times surrounds people who grieve - If you see the co-worker sitting alone at lunch or on a break, sit with him/her. Ask how surviving family members are doing. Because all family members need a strong support system, consider inviting the family over for dinner, cards, a picnic, or other activity.

It's impossible to make grief just go away, but compassion and friendship can help the healing process. Grieving people need a special touch from people in the workplace. Make yourself a blessing to people who are hurting.

Dave Opalewski is the president of Grief Recovery, Inc., of Saginaw, Mich., a consultant and co-author of Crisis Response Planning: A Procedure Manual for Schools and The Crisis Response Planning Video In-Service Program. He is also co-author of Suicide Prevention for Schools and Communities. He can be reached at 989-249-4362.

What to say - and what not to say - to a grieving person:

Statements like "I heard what happened, and I'm sorry," "I want you to know that I care" or "How can I help?" sound cliché, but they work, which is why they're used as often as they are. Expressing your feelings honestly and showing your sincere support by going to the funeral home or offering a listening ear is what the grieving person needs most.

Don't say, "I know how you feel." The truth is, you don't. Remember, even if you may have experienced a similar tragedy, grief is a unique experience.

Don't say, "It was fate" or any other statements that only minimize death.
Don't look for something positive in the loss. Statements like "You can always have another baby," "At least you have other children" or "At least he didn't suffer" minimize the loss and may trigger more grief.

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