How to talk about grief in the workplace, according to a therapist

When grief therapist Dr. Patrick O’Malley lost his infant son, he said it completely changed how he thought about the “stages of grief” training he had been taught. As he wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2015instead of thinking of grief as stages to overcome, he realized  that “when loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve.”

O’Malley discusses how we can grieve more compassionately in his recently released book, Getting Grief RightLadders talked with O’Malley about how to apply these lessons in the workplace and his advice for those grieving, their coworkers, and their managers.

What to do if you’re experiencing grief

The U.S. does not mandate paid bereavement leave, so those who experience a loss may have to go back to work abruptly after the news. The person experiencing grief may feel heartbroken, exhausted, disoriented — and may be pressured to push those emotions away at work.

That’s normal, O’Malley said. People sometimes engage in social splitting, acting differently than how they feel, at work after a loss, he said.

“They have to keep this energy up where they don’t have it,” he said. “It just increases the stress because of this tension.”

His advice? Don’t punish yourself for feeling sad, and don’t criticize yourself for not being at the top of your game.

If the grieving person works in an open, trusting work environment, O’Malley advises them to keep open lines of communications with their managers and be honest about what they can or can’t do.

But O’Malley recognizes that not all of us have this luxury at the workplace.

“There are some folks who are smart not to talk about it because their work culture views grief as weakness and not as strength,” he said.

If you can’t be open at work, make sure to find time where you can show your authentic self outside of the office, he said. 

What to say to a grieving coworker

People often feel anxious about how to act when a grieving coworker returns to work. How do we talk to them?

Instead of thinking about what to say, O’Malley says we should reframe the question as: “How can I be available? How can I be present? How can I listen?”

People often worry that acknowledging a loss will make the grieving person feel sadder, but multiple surveys and studies show that it actually makes people feel better. Not having their grief recognized can increase grieving people’s feeling of isolation in the office.

“You’re rarely going to be wrong if you offer some acknowledgment,” O’Malley said. “It doesn’t need to be long or complex, but it needs to be said. It can be as short as ‘I’m sorry you are going through this.’ It will make a difference.”

Once you acknowledge it, move from talking to listening, he said. Take your cue from the grieving person about what they’re willing to talk about. If they want to open up, ask them about the person or pet they lost. Ask them what they miss most. But don’t push.

“The goal is to be half a step behind and not to lead them anywhere,” O’Malley said.

You can also acknowledge your coworker’s grief more than once. People’s needs change. Emails on the anniversaries of loss a year later can be just as meaningful as words said right after the loss.

Instead of offering a vague “How are you?” try being more specific. The question “How are you doing today?” acknowledges that levels of grief change from day to day.

What not to say to a coworker

Avoid the temptation of cliches. We sometimes revert to platitudes because we want to have a ready-made script in a fraught situation. But cliches minimize loss and aren’t helpful to the bereaving person.

Cliches like “Time heals all wounds” or “I hope you find closure” put unfair pressure on the bereaved person because they imply that there’s a deadline to grief.

Grief is circular and disorienting; it doesn’t follow a timeline. And statements like “Sorry for your loss” have been said so much that they’re “a little worn out,” O’Malley said.

The number one rule is to not make assumptions or compare your experience with loss to theirs. Everyone’s loss is unique. In other words, if your co-worker just lost their mom, don’t talk about losing your own mom.

“This is their story, not yours,” O’Malley said. “If you keep making comparisons, it’s not focusing on the acknowledgment.”

And if you do say a bereavement faux pas, know that you can self-correct and try again. You could say something like, 
“I’m hearing myself make these canned answers, but I just want you to know how sorry I am that you’re going through this,” he said.

It’s better to try and fail than to assume that the bereaving person doesn’t want to talk, O’Malley said.

What management should do

The grieving person often doesn’t know what they need when they return to work. They may be fine one week and not another. A good manager recognizes this and makes checking in with the grieving person a priority.

O’Malley said a good script for managers to follow is: “Tell me how it’s been in the last week. What can we do differently? What are we not providing?”

Even if a manager cannot give the grieving person everything they need, by asking the questions, they acknowledge that their grief matters.

On a structural level, O’Malley said more companies should follow Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s lead and extend grief leave beyond the standard few days for close family members.

“I would love to see the management side grow in understanding that grief is not an illness, it’s not a diagnosis, it’s not something to rush through, it’s not something to get over or to get beyond, that it is the most universal experience we have,” O’Malley said. “We have grief because we had attachment. Grief is about love; grief is not an illness. The power that management folks have to help that transition for somebody working would make community and society better.”