Workplace Sensitivity:

Helping Colleagues Cope With Grief

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

For foreman Rafael M. Montes and his fruit picking crew the day began like many others. There was a lot of joking and laughing as laborers picked. Montes recalls that he was surprised to see one of the crew workers picking that day: he knew this worker's mother had recently died. It fell on Montes to tell the picker. But how? Montes finally gathered up the courage to say something. "Your mother has died, I'm so sorry," he told the picker. The laborer began violently weeping and then embraced the tree he had been picking. Another crew member, not aware of the situation, mocked the grieving employee.

In an attempt to find answers to difficult questions surrounding how we treat the death of an employee's family member, I conducted a small study, mostly through participants who read our local paper. We received a little over a hundred very touching, warm responses. Over half lost a parent, while the rest were divided among those who lost a spouse, child, unborn child, or sibling. Several had to deal with more than one death at a time. One explained, "It took over six months to actually realize I was not sure which person I was grieving over."

For the most part, employees did find support from the workplace. Co-workers and supervisors attended funerals, provided food, sent flowers or cards, helped with travel and other arrangements, reduced work loads, provided a good listening ear, offered to transfer employee closer to family, collected cash, gave a book on grieving, made phone calls, visited homes and provided time off.

"Our policy is very simple. We give employees the ability to take as much funeral/bereavement leave as they need, for any death, even non-family members. And if, 3 weeks after the death, they are having an especially bad day trying to cope with grief, they can pack it up and leave. They are adults and we treat them that way. Our experience has been that few people try and take advantage of our flexibility."

The least amount of support came after the initial period of mourning. Employees who found little or no support in the workplace (or from those whom they expected to receive help) were deeply hurt, even several years after the loss of a loved one. "No one asked how I was, no one cared," wrote one. Another said, "One person totally ignored me and I had worked with her fifteen years." Several commented that people pretended that nothing had ever happened. Some did not even receive a note or a flower. Others felt that co-workers avoided the subject by bringing up their own illness, or the poor health of their parents.

Several employers did not want to give employees time off. One asked, "Do you need all three days off?" Another did not want to pay for the time off. One employer reprimanded the employee for taking time off to attend the funeral.

"I was with my Grandmother when she died. I was the only one there with her and it meant the world to me to be there. When I came back to work the next day--I needed to get back to work and a normal routine until the funeral--my boss told me I couldn't take funeral leave time for that day because I wasn't attending a funeral. I was not going to take the maximum of three days allowed, anyway. It was not the time for her to confront me about this. It didn't matter one bit to me how the day got charged. That was over five years ago and I've never forgotten the experience. The manager sent me a nice condolences card with a long letter apologizing for her insensitivity, but the damage had already been done."

Likewise, a focus on technicalities in terms of who is immediate family, or for whom one can grieve or be concererned for in times of poor health is not helpful. "My own parents died when I was a young child and I was raised by an aunt and uncle. A few years ago my aunt had a stroke and it was like pulling teeth to get the time off I needed from the company I worked for then, to go up and help take care of her. If it had been my mom the whole thing would have been no problem."

At times employees will want to attend the funeral of a neighbor, or person who may not be immediate family. One way to provide reasonable limits that protect the employer, and yet give employees more flexibility, is allowing them to take sick leave for that purpose. Such a measure is more likely to reduce abuses, however, only if sick leave is designed to encourage employees to accumulate it over years of service.

In a number of instances, the lack of support ended up with the employee quitting or being fired. Some had difficulty concentrating, others needed more time off. "[Those I worked with] let me grieve for about 2 weeks and then I was expected to give 100% and act like nothing happened. I thought I would receive more support from [co-workers] ... I resigned my position three months later." Another explained, "Grieving is a long process, I had to quit my job."

I suspect that those employees who were allowed to fully grieve were more likely to return to work sooner and concentrate better than those who lacked support.

When held locally, attending funerals (or other memorial services) is an important way to show support for the grieving employee. Another excellent type of support that is almost always appropriate includes sending flowers, plants, cards, and personal notes of condolence. Flowers, plants, and notes are appropriate not only during the initial period of condolence, but also after. These are good ways to show concern without being intrusive.

One person, upon return to work, was touched by finding on her desk a "blooming violet and a note." Notes are more effective when they are more personal. "I'm sorry about the loss of your father," for instance, is better than "I'm sorry about your loss."

It is preferable to do something concrete for someone than just offering to help. For instance, food is often welcome. One special person "made dinner every Tuesday night for a month." Perhaps an offer to take care of young children may be welcome.

Sooner or later you will have a chance to have personal contact with the grieving employee. One co-worker said, "I do not know what to say," and then proceeded to give the respondent a big loving hug. Several talked about how much they appreciated hugs, such as the person who "held me in their arms and let me cry."

A few preferred to grieve more privately. Others did not mind a public display of their grief. Respondents appreciated being able to cry without making others uncomfortable. One thoughtful supervisor permitted an employee to leave the worksite any time she needed personal time. Another person said, "It's okay to cry."

When a grieving employee comes back to work, she or he may not be up to facing everything all at once. One supervisor, for instance, allowed a respondent to deal with a highly emotional situation too soon after returning to work.

Supervisors, long term co-workers, and friends are generally expected to show a more personal concern–beside the flowers and cards already mentioned. One manager found a quiet moment when others were not around to let the employee know how much she cared. Another person wrote, "A best friend listened every day for a long time."

A good listener is priceless. There is a difference between listening when a person wants to talk versus prying and morbid curiosity. A client asked if "my Mom's head jerked as she died," explained a respondent.

The key in active listening is not to pass judgment, nor make gratuitous suggestions. One respondent was asked if her mother smoked followed by a period of silence as if to say "Oh well ... she deserved it." Others felt that after a given period the person should be over their grief. "Odd you haven't got over it yet: it's been 6 months." One boss said, "Let's get back to normal."

Other hurtful comments included, "Go see a movie. Take your mind off yourself," "Get back to work, that is what your brother would have wanted you to do," or "You are young, you can get married again."

Similarly, a person who lost a child was told, "You are young, you can have another child." She wrote, "I could have ten more but there will only ever be one Jonni." A man who lost his newborn baby to crib death was upset at hearing: "It is better the baby died now when young and not after you had a chance to get more attached."

Those who are grieving generally want to talk about the loved person rather than be sheltered from the pain. One person wrote, "friends would not let us talk about our child." Another said, "Virtually nobody initiates conversation about our daughter. It's like she never existed. I think they just don't want us to hurt, but by doing that, we're being robbed of the only thing we have tangible, and that's to talk about memories of her... I'm sure it's awkward for most, but for us, that's what would help."

Some of the less thoughtful comments included: "You were lucky to have a father at all," and "You do not have to be there anymore to take care of her." Another respondent was told, "It was God's will." She lost her husband to an accident, and was left with four young children.

One wrote, a "co-worker forgot why I was off and asked 'Did you enjoy your time off?'" One who was grieving the death of a daughter found insensitive comments about the cost of raising children. "I'd have gladly paid it," she explained. Another, who had lost her husband, found that a person at work talked too much about her spouse.

Avoid telling someone who has lost a loved one, "I know just how you feel." However, those who lost someone often received special comfort from others who had been in similar positions. But those who lost a spouse had difficulty identifying with someone who had lost a parent. Likewise, someone whose child had died only felt another person who had lost a child could understand.

Outside the workplace, grieving employees found support from relatives, household members, religious beliefs, friends, and religious organizations.

Other key sources of assistance mentioned included community support groups, counselors and therapists, doctors, funeral home staff, medical personnel, books, and pets. Some mentioned that filling out the survey used in this study was also helpful.


Special thanks for the cooperation of the Modesto Bee and La Nación. Also, special thanks to Rosa Ibarra, Employment Development Department, who interviewed agricultural workers in Spanish. Ag and non-Ag responses are included, as well as later contributions from others, such as an HRnet exchange February 2000. This article was originally published as: Billikopf, Gregory Encina. “Coping With Grief in the Workplace.” Modesto Bee, January 12, 1994, pp. G1, G3 (Living).


Letters and Opinions:

Helping Colleagues Cope With Divorce

Mary-Jane R. Pelzer
Cornell Cooperative Extension

I am writing in response to your article "Coping with Grief" (April ‘94 People in Ag). Your well written and thoughtful piece dealt with a wide range of personal loss scenarios, but overlooked divorce. The grieving process for divorce is typically ignored in our culture; a flippant "You’re better off without him/her" is usually seen as sufficient comment, but the reality of divorce initiates a complex grieving process.

In divorce the marriage dies, but the spouse survives. While the death of a spouse can plunge the widow/widower into a maze of financial and legal limbo, it cannot compare with the financial and emotional upheaval that occurs when one spouse "is out to get" the other. Under the most civilized of circumstances, divorce is the death of a dream, but when that loss is accompanied by the deliberate desire of a former loved one to create as much pain and disruption as possible, the grieving process is intensified. Death is final, but the process of divorce can drag on indefinitely.

In the workplace, it would be appropriate for co-workers and supervisors to be as sensitive to divorce as to other forms of loss. Ignoring this painful process, or sugar coating it with black humor, is not an effective way to deal with this crisis.

© 2000 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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6 January 2005