How to help co-worker grieving death of loved one

When Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg unexpectedly lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, many of us read the beautiful tributes she wrote about him, their children, and their lives together. Many of her colleagues and others were touched by these tributes and tried to figure out what to do and say to provide comfort. When a colleague loses a family member we may feel at a loss as to how to respond. Sometimes, we awkwardly avoid the person, yet we want to say the right thing because we care.

Here's some suggestions for how to help your colleagues during a difficult time of loss:

• Respect that individuals cope with grief in different ways. Don't let your views of how you would react if you lost a child or parent dictate how you respond to what your colleagues do. Saying things like "You should do or you should not do ..." are not helpful.

• Be patient. There is no timetable for the grieving process. It is impossible to predict when a person will "be better." There are many responses to grief: emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological. People may experience anger, frustration, guilt, confusion, pain, loneliness, fear, sadness and isolation, among other feelings. Don't get frustrated with individuals for "still being sad" or "taking too long to get over their loss," wondering when they will get back to working normally again.

• Reach out. Immediately send a note or wait a little while until after all the notes and calls die down. Often, they will be swamped and may feel overwhelmed. Consider sending a short note and then follow up later. Personalize your note - "I'm sorry for the loss of your mother" is more powerful than simply, "I'm sorry for your loss."

• Be there. If you can, attend the funeral or funeral home to show you care. Allow other employees time off to do this. It sends a powerful message that the "work family" cares. Consider starting a donation for the family if it seems like they will need assistance. Provide other support as needed (help with work tasks, phone calls, child care, meals, cleaning, etc.). Being specific is more helpful (e.g., have colleagues take turns preparing meals so that every night is covered for the week). If your firm has an Employee Assistance Program, offer it to help with counseling or dealing with grief.

• Be a good listener. If they want your advice, they will ask for it. Provide support and a listening ear. Don't be afraid to ask them about the person; just let them talk openly and honestly about their feelings. Don't deflect the focus to yourself. Often, we slip and say, "I know how you feel," but we can't possibly know because we are not in that exact situation. Though well-intentioned, don't say things like "everyone has to die at some time;" "they lived a long time;" "they are in a better place now;" "it's good you have other children;" or "you are young and can always remarry" - that does not help the person at all. Sometimes it is best to say little and just listen.

• Cover for them. Assure your colleague that the work responsibilities will be handled, and for them to take care of themselves.

Colleagues spend a lot of their time with us. So much so, that they often consider us their work family. Provide the support they need when they experience the loss of someone close. How a firm handles these types of issues tells a lot about the culture of a workplace. Remember, when in doubt, the best thing you can do is listen, listen, listen. Be a supportive presence. It will make a difference.

• Russell is the vice dean at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of its Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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