Helping a colleague cope with loss

Helping a colleague cope with loss

Helping a colleague cope with loss

Our society has become so violent that just about every one has either lost a loved one or knows someone who did. The loss not only impacts close family and friends but also the colleagues of both the deceased and the survivor.

Understanding the typical stages of grief that such a person will move through will not only enable you to lend a compassionate, helping hand but will also help other colleagues to offer practical support.

Typical stages of grief

Losing a loved one is one of the most devastating ordeals anybody can experience and it usually causes profound personality and behavioural changes in an individual. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, renowned expert, researcher and author on death and dying, identified five typical stages that those who are experiencing loss move through.

  1. Shock and denial is usually the first reaction upon hearing of a death. It has been described as feeling frozen, blunted or in a trance while performing daily activities mechanically and without thought. What you can do is to just be there for the bereaved and to support and encourage him or her in a quiet, gentle way.
  2. Bargaining is often just another way of trying to come to terms with loss. Trying to “bargain away” the loss is a normal and very human reaction. Be sympathetic and pray with the person; it often helps bring acceptance and peace.
  3. Anger and resentment are normal reactions to a loss, so do not be alarmed when the individual seeks someone to blame such as the doctors and nursing staff, the dead person, someone close at hand or even God. These emotional outbursts are part of the bereavement process. This is not the time to lecture and condemn or try to rationalise the loss but the time to show that you care and sympathise.
  4. Indescribable sadness usually sets in soon afterwards and if not monitored may develop into full-scale depression. The person is now confronted with the full reality of his or her loss and everything − sights, sounds, smells, anything − may remind him or her of the deceased and evoke floods of tears, weeping and even wailing. This is a crucial time in the grieving process and entails facing and feeling the pain of loss. Encourage the person to express and not suppress emotions and feelings and don’t tell him or her to “be strong” or “stop crying”. Be available and stay close. Allow the bereaved to talk about the deceased and listen, cry and pray with him or her. The person will thank you later!
  5. Although it may take quite a while, acceptance and hope do return. However, no one can predict or force a person to stop grieving. Time doesn’t really heal, it only makes the loss slightly more bearable. The best you can do is to comfort the bereaved and talk about death and the deceased person in a natural way. Also encourage the person to share his/her thoughts and feelings.

What can colleagues do to help?

Try the following:

  • Acknowledge the loss and extend your sympathy. “I’m sorry for your loss” and a hug or handshake is all you need to say. Send flowers or a donation and if possible attend the funeral. It will be highly appreciated
  • Offer practical help such as making a meal, transporting the children or temporarily taking over job duties
  • Don’t ignore or leave the person alone when he or she returns to work. Pretending that nothing has happened can be very hurtful. If you don’t know what to say, say it with flowers, a card, a hug or a pat on the back
  • Make allowances for the person, especially in the beginning and offer help if he or she have difficulty concentrating on the job or getting through the day
  • Watch for signs of depression and inform your supervisor if you notice changes in appearance, behaviour or job performance
  • Don’t be fooled when the bereaved person suddenly becomes an overachiever or workaholic. This is often a form of denial to help control and keep his or her feelings of loss and pain at bay.

Brite, Mary. 1979. Triumph over tears. New York: Thomas Nelson
Expert commentary: when a colleague loses a loved one. 1998. Retrieved from://
Hybels, B. Grieving with hope. Joy, vol.20, (08) pp48-50
Spies, Karen. 1993. Everything you need to know about grieving. New York: Rosen