Ways to Understand and Help the Grieving Process in Others

The Grieving Process 

Grieving is a process that can take weeks, months, and even years. People don’t heal on a timetable. The brief time given to attend the funeral only touches the beginning stage of the process. Experts describe the stages of grief in various ways, but broadly speaking they include:

  • Shock and denial: a numbness and disbelief that the event has occurred.
  • Anger: at the deceased, at doctors, co-workers, etc.
  • Guilt: about things not done or said.
  • Depression: about a loss that feels overwhelming and sadness that seems never-ending.
  • Acceptance: of the situation and life’s new reality.
  • Growth: Readiness to move ahead with one’s life.

Some people experience the grieving process in this order. Most often a person feels several of these emotions at the same time, perhaps in different degrees. Eventually, each phase is completed and the person moves ahead. The extent, depth, and duration of the process will also depend on how close people were to the deceased, the circumstances of the death, and their own situation. Some deaths, such as the traumatic and those involved never fully “get over” the loss.

What to Say 

A simple word means a great deal when a person suffers a loss. Saying the “wrong” thing hurts less than saying nothing at all.

Appropriate words include:

  • “I was sorry to hear about your loss”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “I heard about your loss. I don’t know what to say.”
  • “Remember the story you told me about…(the deceased).” A simple shared memory is helpful.

Avoid these phrases 

  • “I know just how you feel.” Each person’s loss is unique.
  • “It was God’s will,” or “God never gives us more than we can bear.” “At least she isn’t suffering.”
  • “At least you have another child.” Or “You are still young enough to have another child.”
  • “You’re not over it yet? It’s been six weeks, two months, etc…”
  • “You’ll get over it.”

What to Expect 

  • A person who suffers a loss may seem depressed, withdrawn, short tempered, absent-minded, or exhausted.
  • Grief creates a tide of emotion that can’t always be controlled. Expect it. Remember the grieving person’s reactions are not directed at you. Just being supportive will help.
  • Creating healthy memories is part of healing, so your co-worker may want to talk about the deceased.
  • Your desire to be sympathetic should not keep you from your work. Set limits by suggesting that you talk during a break, at lunch or after work. Example: “Jim, I know this is a difficult time for you, but it’s hard for me to listen right now. Could we talk during lunch?”
  • Expect that 3-6 months after the loss the grieving person may still not be “his old self.” Grief doesn’t heal on a timetable.
  • Be prepared for emotional feelings yourself.

A death generates questions and fears about our own life and our own mortality. “It couldn’t happen to me” just happened to your co-worker’s husband. A death close to home, such as when a child dies, can evoke particularly strong emotions. These are all normal feelings.

What You Can Do 

  • Be aware of what your co-worker is experiencing.
  • Listen, but know you can’t resolve the grief. You can help, but not heal.
  • Ask if you can help out. Perhaps taking over a simple task such as chairing a meeting or preparing a weekly report once or twice can help overcome a difficult period. Be specific in your offer and follow up with action.
  • Include the grieving person in your work life. She may want time alone — but staying away to “spare painful feelings” may only add to the sense of loss and isolation. The grieving person may decline your offer, but will appreciate that it was made.

Alert your supervisor if the grieving person seems to be getting worse, talks about suicide, or exhibits severe, continuing dysfunction. Covering up will not help. Some symptoms to watch for:

  • Increased absenteeism.
  • Indications the person is not sleeping or eating.
  • Changes in personal habits, such as clothing, hygiene, coming to work late, or going home early.
  • Inability to work. The person may continue to be distracted, be overly absorbed or make repeated mistakes.
  • A major personality change, e.g., the person is argumentative or becomes unusually passive.
  • Ask occasionally about the deceased. You may have forgotten, but the grieving person hasn’t.


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