Dealing with tragic news is hard enough on its own, but confusion and awkwardness are added to the mix when you face people each day from 9-5 who know about it. It’s difficult to compartmentalize emotions and fears when they take a turn for the worse. And if you’re on the other side of the water cooler and work alongside someone who has received tragic news, it’s difficult to know how to respond to them. Fortunately, there are ways to show support to our coworkers and be there for them when they are in need of friends.
Coworkers become a special breed of friends. They may not be the people you hang out with at “happy hour” like some people’s television friends on The Office, but over time these people become close to us in ways those friends may not be. We share our daily work experiences with them, share funny YouTube videos with them, and celebrate birthdays and promotions with them. In many ways, we see these people more than our own families and friends during the week. They’re our business partners. This puts us in a very delicate situation when tragedy strikes one of our coworkers.
So, how do we show our support to coworkers in a tragic circumstance? A number of studies show that people who rise out of tragedy and go on to lead happy, healthy lives are people who surround themselves with groups of friends who will support them. Community is vital to our existence, and it can save us when we feel we can’t save ourselves. Yes — we can be there for them, and it’s important to keep some things in mind as we are.
Show Them You’re Approachable
This may seem like a given, but the first thing you can do when a devastated coworker returns to the office is let them know you’re there if they need to talk to someone. Don’t push too hard, and don’t appear nosy. Just show yourself sympathetic and approachable. There’s no need to ignore the elephant in the room – if he made the news public, he’s aware that you know about it. Ignoring the tragedy doesn’t help; it just shows you aren’t available.
On the other hand, asking too much about it is just rude and won’t get you far. You’re likely not his best friend and you’re certainly not his counselor. You are, however, a coworker who shares his floor with him and therefore are a big part of his life. All it’s necessary to say is, “I was so sorry to hear about your situation. I’m here if you ever need to talk about it.” Then, allow him the freedom to get back to their work, change the subject, or talk about it when he wants to.
“I Know Exactly How You Feel”
As pure as your intentions may be, please — please — refrain from saying, “I know exactly how you feel” or anything that may sound similar (“I’ve been there”, etc.).
You haven’t. Even if you have experienced the same tragedy or one just like it, you can’t possibly know what another person feels like. Her chemical makeup is different than yours. She processes information differently than you do. Perhaps it was a very similar feeling, but saying something to this effect will put the focus on you instead of her.
Just Show Up
The best way to show your support is to just be there. If you’re embarrassed that you don’t know what to say, this is good. You don’t have to say anything. In fact, sometimes it’s nice just to have a warm body in the room to know you aren’t alone when you’ve been devastated.
In our twenty-first century fast-paced culture, many people are uncomfortable with silence. This is a shame when silence can be one of the best forms of therapy. Of course, you don’t have to be silent. Just don’t go on endlessly about the incident. Offer your ear and support, and then stick around.
Be a Healing Community
There aren’t many things better than a positive work environment where people come together to support one another. And there aren’t many things worse than a negative work environment. Offer your listening ear and comforting support again in the days and weeks ahead. The initial shock may be over for your coworker, but chances are, the tragedy is far from it. Check in every few days or weeks on your friend. Things like, “Hey, man, just wanted to check in. How are you holding up?” may not get you into a huge conversation. Your coworker may not want to talk about it, but more often than not, he will appreciate your willingness to talk and your support. And if he does talk, by all means, listen.
Life is lived best when it is lived in community, and people live best when they’re not alone.
(Image courtesy of pennajoe123 under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)