Personal Tragedy in the Workplace – Showing Support While Respecting Privacy

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When you spend 40 hours a week with the same people, you share success and stress, trials and triumph. You get close. But when someone experiences a personal tragedy, it can be hard to know how to react.

When a co-worker experiences a death in the family, divorce, serious illness or other difficult circumstance, you want to show you care, but you also don’t want to overstep boundaries. They may take some time off, but that’s not long enough to heal from a crisis. Here are tips for showing support.

Stay Away from These Phrases

When you don’t know what to say, it’s tempting to use phrases you’ve heard before. Avoid statements like the following:

  • I know exactly how you feel.
  • At least now he/she is in a better place.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • You can always try again.
  • God never gives us more than we can handle.

Your goal is to be supportive and say the right things, but those statements minimize what they’re going through. Plus, they’ve probably heard the same clichés from others, and it gets harder each time they’re repeated.

Avoid Comparisons

There may come a time when you can share what happened to you, but immediately after the tragedy, try not to compare what happened to your co-worker to what you or someone else you know experienced. Also, try not to offer advice unless your co-worker asks for it.

Every loss happens differently, and mourning is an individual process. You can let them know you experienced a similar loss and you’re available if they want to talk, then just leave it at, “I can’t imagine what this is like for you.”

But Don’t Avoid Your Co-Worker

Every time you see them, you hurt for what they’re going through. You don’t want to say or do the wrong thing, so it’s tempting to try and stay away. There’s nothing you can do to “fix” what they’re feeling, but you can let them know they’re not alone and that you care.

When you have a chance to talk in private, make eye contact and offer your condolences. Listen if they want to talk, and if not just be there. Send them a text every so often to let them know they’re in your thoughts.

Mail a Card

Tangible evidence of support matters. Buy a greeting card with an appropriate message and give everyone at the office time to write a brief message, then drop it in the mail. That allows everyone to express their concern and willingness to be available. Written words get read again and again. They end up as keepsakes that later, when the person has had time to heal, are evidence of the people who were there for them at the very worst times.

Start a Meal Train

It’s almost always helpful to bring food, and believe it or not, there’s an app for that. Meal Train has a free plan that allows you to create an online meal calendar, designate where co-workers should drop off food, warn about food allergies or meal preferences and send invites through email or social media. People who don’t cook but still want to participate can show support with a gift card or restaurant meal.

There’s no timeline for healing from a tragedy, and the process is difficult. Your co-worker will appreciate your support and concern throughout the process.

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