Death can be a difficult and embarrassing subject to deal with
at work, particularly if you do not know a bereaved colleague well.
It is difficult enough to know what to say to a close friend, let
alone a colleague whom you rarely see outside the office. Death is
still so taboo in our society that we do not want to think
about it and do not know how to handle it. We use euphemisms like
“passed away” and “lost” and death announcements in newspapers
avoid the words “death” and “died.” You might think there is
nothing you can do to help but bereaved people do find comfort in
kind words and deeds. Every bereaved person is an individual and no
two bereavements are the same, says charity Cruse Bereavement Care,
so there is no simple template for how to help but there are ways,
outlined below, to offer support by being sensitive and
Do not avoid the subject of death because you’re worried about
upsetting the bereaved person. Monica, talking about the death of
her mother, in Bereavement Care in Practice, published by Cruse,
says: “People don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything. I
think just to say anything – even just ‘I’m sorry’ – is better than
nothing.” But do think before you speak. After writer Michael
Rosen’s 18-year-old son, Eddie, died suddenly of meningitis, his
neighbour said “rather you than me” and then started talking about
football. Such crass comments are probably due to embarrassment and
panic about what to say.
You cannot do what the bereaved person most wants and bring back
their loved one but you can be there to listen. You do not need to
be an expert or have all the answers but, if someone chooses to
confide in you, don’t run away. Bereaved people can have a strong
desire to talk about the person who has died, so let them.
Michelle, whose husband died aged 31, leaving her and their
14-month-old son, says in Bereavement Care in Practice: “I just
felt numbed, totally empty and I had this incredible urge to talk
about him all the time.” When listening, do not try to stop someone
crying, just because it makes you feel awkward.
Offer practical help
Don’t say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do”. Try to
think of specific practical help to offer, such as assisting with
funeral arrangements, cooking a meal or looking after children. All
these can be welcome, especially if the bereaved person is
exhausted from hospital visits or from caring for a loved one.
Practical advice and information is available at
uk and www.merrywidow.me.uk, set up by Kate Boydell, who was
widowed at 33, and at
created by Kate Burchill after her father died.
If the bereaved person is someone you meet occasionally in the
canteen or the lift, rather than someone you work with directly,
write to them. An e-mail is fine. It lets them know you care. It
may feel a banal thing to do but it isn’t. Sincere words “often
take on a deeper significance and offer a degree of consolation in
the heightened emotions of bereavement”, advises the IfIshoulddie
Find out more
The following are readable and accessible: You’ll Get Over It
(the title is ironic) by Virginia Ironside, (Penguin); A Grief
Observed by C S Lewis (Faber) about the death of the author’s wife;
If the Spirit Moves You by Justine Picardie (Picador), whose sister
Ruth died of breast cancer.