How to Support Coworkers When Tragedy Strikes

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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.)


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Bryan Thompson is a life development coach and co-founder of ElevationLife, a blog dedicated to helping people to dream big and to take massive action toward their goals. As a pastor for ten years, Bryan has helped many people pursue their passion. He lives with his wife and co-blogger Kristin and their three daughters in Springfield, MO.

Discussion

  1. Bryce Christiansen on the 6th January

    My favorite point you make is to not say “I know how you feel.” It’s really just an easy out and solves nothing.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      Bryce, thanks for the comment. I am surprised how many people still say the dreaded “I know how you feel” line when something like this happens. Even if they don’t intend it as an easy out, it still solves nothing. Thanks again! Have a great day!

    • Chuck on the 10th November

      I think I have to respectfully disagree. I think it is INCREDIBLY situation dependent. I know when I went through a time in my life when I was suffering a difficult loss, many friends tried to comfort me and yes some used this line and it failed because I knew they did not mean it. There was one close friend, however, that I knew had gone through a very similar situation and when he said that line to me in a strange way it made me feel better because I felt I could actually vent my ‘real’ feelings to him, because I knew he had been there too. With other friends, whom I knew had no idea what the loss was like, it was hard expressing the emotions I really wanted to express to them, since I didn’t think they would understand.

      Just my personal opinion, I still would never say those words unless it was to someone I knew quite well and I was sure it would help, and I think it would be in the form of an offer: “I too have felt similar pains and if you want to know how I dealt with them just have ask, I would be happy to share.”

  2. Rudy Hiebert on the 6th January

    Assuming Bryan’s article has the background of experience, I concur. A good employer will make stress management seminars and workshops available to his/her employees. Grief, ie. loss, is a real stress and should not be ignored.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      Rudy, you are absolutely right, grief and loss seminars absolutely should be addressed in the workplace, and we could get off on a whole list of other subjects. The sad reality is that many workplaces do not. I hope this won’t be the case for most people who suffer a loss of some kind. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Jennifer Brown Banks on the 6th January

    Bryan,

    What a classy, compassionate piece. Thanks for shedding some light on a timely topic.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      Jennifer, thank you for the kind words! I recently experienced it with a friend of mine, and honestly, much of the time I’m still at a loss for words. Maybe that’s okay. :)

  4. Erin on the 6th January

    This is a really thoughtful and compassionate post. Thank you.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      Erin, thank you for reading it. I really appreciate it!

  5. Jennifer Brown Banks on the 6th January

    Great article with great insight and compassion.

  6. TrafficColeman on the 6th January

    Its hard to know what someones feeling..so you should put yourself in their shoes and think of the things you need to make the days better..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      TrafficC, thank you my friend. Sometimes it’s more important what’s not said.

  7. Ana da Silva on the 6th January

    Less than a year into my last office job we lost 2 co-workers within a month of each other and the company did absolutely *nothing* regarding counseling (though later I found out we were all eligible for free counseling sessions!) or even as little as providing transportation for us to go to the wake. Fortunately there was a group of us who were rather close so we were there for one another and that made a huge difference.

    However, losing the co-workers, one of whom was close to many of us, was already very difficult but dealing with the heartless pieces of s*** who were the managers was somehow even harder because they acted like nothing had happened. We all thought to ourselves how worthless we were to that awful company, which added anger to our palette of bad feelings.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 6th January

      Ana, wow. I’m speechless. I mentioned this above in my reply to Rudy, but there are still a lot of workplaces that don’t do anything (or almost don’t do anything) to help their workers when a need comes up. But to lose 2 coworkers to death. That is awful. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that.

      Thank you for your comment. I hope you are in a better work environment these days.

  8. Jk Allen on the 6th January

    Bryan, I’m glad you brought this topic to light.

    One thing I’m so glad you made mention of was the devastation behind “I know exactly how you feel”. It’s never true…no two situations are alike – and even if they were, emotions flow differently for everyone.

    Advice like this is what the world needs more of. Amazing!

    • Bryan Thompson on the 7th January

      JK, thank you for your thoughts, man. It’s one of those things I’ve had to remember when I wanted to just say something that would help. But there’s nothing you can say that will help. Thanks for your feedback!

  9. visitor on the 6th January

    thank you very much for sharing. this is was a very helpful and thoughtful post.

    tragedy has struck a few close friends this year – and i was often at a loss as to how to react. sometimes the subtle responses: silence, not pushing it, offers for help – really make a difference.

    thanks again!

    • Bryan Thompson on the 7th January

      Thank you so much for responding. I’m glad you were able to be there for your friends. It means more than you know.

  10. Angelee on the 7th January

    My parents have been running a small boutique shop and I’ve been supporting them too. We had 5 employed assistants (including me, since I consider myself as one of them). While I was about to take a nap in the afternoon of January 1, one of the assistants called up. I thought she was going to greet me ‘happy new year’ but she started to cry and told me the bad news that her dad died around 4am that day. What a ‘new year’ for her family, tragedy stroke amidst new year! We really felt sad about it and my parents did everything they can to help them out especially financially. Until now, she’s still on leave.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 7th January

      Angelee, wow. I’m so sorry for your coworker. What a terrible thing. I hope and pray you’re able to be an encouraging source for her. My thoughts and prayers are with her. I hope others will join me in that. Thank you for your comment.

  11. Brad Shimomura on the 7th January

    Bryan,
    As someone who has been on both sides of this equation, you nailed it! You guys lived this one out for us when we went through our stuff. Thanks for being there for us through the hard times, and being there to rejoice this last week!

    Brad

    • Bryan Thompson on the 7th January

      Brad, thank you for joining the conversation, buddy! You should frequent this site (WorkAwesome) more often. Some great material (and then there’s mine). :)

      And for anyone else reading this comment thread, Brad here just became a first-time DAD! Congratulations, Brad. I had to do it. You and your wife have been through a lot and no one deserves this happiness more than you guys!

      Welcome to the WorkAwesome community!

  12. Dia on the 7th January

    Hi Bryan,

    Showing your co-workers that you are approachable is one of the best things a person can do. They will know that they can come and talk to you if they need to talk to someone. Otherwise, if the person is not approacable, they won’t come. Simple as that :) Thanks for sharing

  13. Dia on the 7th January

    Hi Bryan,

    Showing your co-workers that you are approachable is one of the best things a person can do. When they see you are approachable, they will consider coming talking to you when they are in distress, otherwise, they won’t come if they see a person not approchable. It is simple as that :) Thanks for sharing

    • Bryan Thompson on the 7th January

      Dia, thank you for the comment! I would also say that offering support in happy moments as well can prove you to be a loyal friend. And we can never have too many of those! Thank you for the feedback.

  14. Faith Wood on the 10th January

    I’m so glad to see you talking about this. I deal with corporations all the time on things like this, but it’s often hard to get the conversation started. Whether you are a freelancer, a consultant or an employee, there are so many things you can do. Avoiding individuals deeply affected by a tragedy only adds to the pain. Making oneself available for dialogue is a great first step. Instead of “do you need to talk”, try “I dont know what to say but I am a great listener if you want to talk”. This takes the pressure off them and you.

    In the early stages of a tragedy, often our decision making ability is impaired. If someone asks “what do you need”. this may require too much objective problem solving. Something that is diminished in the early stages of tragedy. Just showing up for work could be the toughest part of the whole day (or week).

    If you’re freelancing you might just hear about a tragedy or not hear about a tragedy. You’re “work as usual,” but your vendor is acting all weird because of a death, an illness, an event. If you suspect something, or even if someone blurts out – “Our CEO just had a heart attack/died at work” there are thing you can do as a vendor to show you care or that you’re sensitive to what is happening:

    If the person affected is the one who signed your checks, you need to act fast. Find out who is filling in and express your remorse for their loss. Provide them with important details and help them create a smooth transition of duties. Be patient and considerate – these people are grieving even if work still has to get done.

    If the person is someone you know, liked, hated, dealt with: Remember that when you are supporting co-workers or others who are grieving, you don’t have to insist on being a confidante. Be open to listening if others wish to talk to you, and when you listen, REALLY listen without judgment or without trying to ‘fix’ their emotion. Regardless of whether you liked or knew the person well or not, be sure to honor other’s right to make choices about how they deal with their loss (and how you deal with yours), how involved they want to be in efforts to bring people together, or about whether they attend the funeral or not. Remember, that attending or not attending a funeral is a very personal choice and does not necessarily reflect your relationship with the person who died. Some people cannot attend funerals (eg. First Responders who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress may feel unable to attend a funeral due to the personal impact it will have on them) or simply choose not to go. It is important not to feel guilty if you cannot attend and not to judge someone else who does not attend.

    Sometimes it helps in an organization to create meaningful memorials or new rituals that help co-workers work through their grief. Examples might include organizing a work gathering for the intent of honoring or celebrating the life of the person who died, or inviting people to contribute to a mosaic of pictures or mementos that remind one another of that person, or establishing a charity fund in memory of him or her. Such rituals, including the funeral, allow people to experience a sense of closure and to create meaning around their loss, which facilitates the healing process.

    Continue to talk with each other about your fond memories of the person who died, and their positive qualities, how they made a difference. Find ways to attach meaning to his or her life – meaning that will continue to have an impact on how we live our own life.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 10th January

      Faith, thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful post on the subject. I think you bring up some great points. One thing I like is where you say, “Don’t try to FIX their emotion.”

      Wow.

      How many of us guys particularly feel the need to fix something all the time? Is it just me? We’re often so uncomfortable with instability or silence, so we’re looking for a way to fix it. And tragic circumstances offer no ways to fix it. Thanks so much and I hope you’re having a great week!

  15. K-eM on the 10th January

    Thanks for addressing this topic so well!

    I went through a deeply personal and very traumatic time in my life that involved an extended grieving period of about 2 years. I shared a little to give my coworkers an idea of what I was dealing with and the impact but not too much since it was very personal and I was doing my best to make sure it didn’t affect my work load although there was little I could do emotional and energy levels. All I could do was indicate that it was going to take some time to work through.

    After only a couple of months my boss’ attitude was “get over it.” She even suggested I get a prescription or something. Then she had a crisis.

    I did my best to give her appropriate support and understanding even though she used her situation to solicit sympathy and support almost too much from absolutely anyone who would sit long enough to listen. She’s never apologized for her treatment of me, though.

    When I brought my situation to the attention of our HR department, I got the feeling that they really didn’t know what to do. Fortunately they seem to have changed some of their policies since then and offer more to employees struggling with personal crises.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 10th January

      K-eM, I am so sorry for your grief in the first place. But having a boss who adds to your pain by being unsympathetic or at least understanding is a horrible experience. You did the right thing by being someone who tried to help when she experienced tragedy. Thanks for sharing this experience and I truly hope things are better for you!

  16. Mhairi on the 13th January

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. A wise and sensitive post.

    • Bryan Thompson on the 21st January

      Mhairi, thanks so much for reading and for your comment. I appreciate it!

  17. John on the 20th January

    Thank you so much sharing this post :)

    • Bryan Thompson on the 21st January

      John, thank you so much for reading it. :)

  18. yoursurprise-bellatio-2 on the 11th December

    Superb blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any recommendations? Thanks!

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