NEW YORKFor the bereaved caregiver, the workplace can be a
distraction from worries, a structure amidst chaos, and a place for
healing. During a Cancer Care, Inc. teleconference for employers,
managers, and medical and human resource departments, Amanda L.
Sutton, CSW, program coordinator of bereavement services at Cancer
Care, outlined some steps a supervisor can take to promote a grieving
Your task is to help the individual return to the work
environment and function productively. With the realization that they
can function, the persons healing journey begins, Ms.
She outlined several opportunities for helpful intervention. The
first is the funeral. Compensated time off from work can ease
the pain of grief. It also demonstrates that the employer truly cares
and that the employee has value, she said. Many employers have
bereavement policies that stipulate how many days an employee can
take off when a family member dies. A supervisor should be aware of
the policy and be ready to provide it should a bereaved employee
The supervisor should also be prepared to ask the employee if
co-workers should be told about the death and what they should be
told. For example, does the employee wish to receive condolences,
cards, or emails, and does he or she want co-workers to attend the
In talking to the bereaved employee, the supervisor should try to use
the name of the deceased. The bereaved individual is fearful
that the loved one will be forgotten. Using the deceaseds name
helps reassure grieving employees that their loved one is
special, she said.
Easing the pressure of job responsibilities is also a big help.
Expecting too much too soon can adversely interfere with the
normal grieving process, she said. Employees should have
the opportunity to discuss their needs with their individual supervisor.
When possible, the employees short-term needs should be
accommodated with flexible time and work assignments. This flexible
response can actually prove beneficial to the employer in that the
employee often then feels more committed to the employer and the
Fulfilling short-term requests can pay off in terms of
long-term company productivity, Ms. Sutton said.
Supervisors should also acknowledge the additional work that
co-workers may be shouldering during their co-workers absence,
Loss of a Colleague
When a co-worker dies, people on the job may have an especially hard
time. As soon as a supervisor becomes aware that a staff member has
died, he or she should call a meeting to alert the other employees,
Ms. Sutton said. They should be made aware of the funeral
arrangements and given time to attend. One person should be
designated as the contact person with the family of the deceased.
Employees may have a hard time seeing their co-workers empty
place at work. Ms. Sutton suggested that, if possible, the workplace
should be rearranged. Even small changes might be helpful,
she said. The goal is to lessen the impact on survivors,
eliminating the presence of the empty chair without sacrificing the
dignity of the life that was lost.
The area where the person worked may need to be cleared out and
reassigned. Whoever has to accomplish this task will probably
find it awkward and distressing. It may be helpful to assign this
responsibility to two employees to do together, she said.
Ms. Sutton emphasized that grief is a normal reaction when someone
has lost a loved one and that there are no set time frames for
grieving. Each person responds differently, she said.
When somebody is grieving, it is normal to have many different
feelings: sadness, anger, guilt, panic, loneliness, fatigue, relief,
or sometimes nothing. Often people can experience several of these at
once, which can be confusing and add to a persons feeling of
loss of control.
Normally gregarious people can find themselves withdrawing, or
someone may feel overcome with unexplainable emotion, she said. The
powerbroker can find himself bursting into tears for seemingly no
reason or flailing his fists in uncontrolled rage when the wrong food
arrives on the table during the business lunch.
When individuals find themselves having spontaneous emotional
outbursts, it can be a sign that they are not allowing themselves to
express the full range of feelings that are a normal part of any
If a supervisor sees that an employee is suffering from extreme grief
or is having violent or explosive outbursts, he or she should
consider recommending that the person seek appropriate help, she said.
Talking to bereaved relatives can be difficult, Ms. Sutton noted. For
most people, initiating a conversation with a person who is mourning
is an intimidating task and one that many seek to avoid.
Being honest and authentic is a good approach, Ms. Sutton said. But
the bereaved person is the one who should be doing most of the
talking. This could be achieved by asking open-ended questions
such as, how are you really doing? she said. Talk from
the same physical level, orient your body to them. Make as much eye
contact as the person is comfortable with. Avoid giving advice or
suggestions, and do not interrupt.
Ms. Sutton said the point is not to take the grieving persons
pain away. What grieving people are looking for is an
acknowledgment of their experience and to be listened to while they
tell and retell their story.