Finding the right words, finding the right balance
We never know when a co-worker or one of his/her family members dies. It can happen through sudden losses, like the MH370 and MH17 tragedies, or deaths due to old age and sickness.
As such, we can end up feeling unprepared and inadequate to face a co-worker’s loss and ensuing grief. In fact, eminent historian Philippe Aries concluded in his landmark study that we have distanced ourselves so much from our contact with death that the subject has become more denied and forbidden than ever before.
Not only are we inadequately socialised and equipped by modern society in the issues of dying, death and bereavement, our ethnic cultures can also be unhelpful towards the grieving process.
For example, typically, Malay relatives and friends are only expected to say words to help the bereaved accept death as God’s will. For the traditional Chinese, death is seen as a curse and words that sound like death (for instance, the number four) are avoided. Disclosure of grief to outsiders is considered a betrayal of family honour. The Hindus see death as a transition into a reborn cycle and an 11-day ritual is performed for the deceased’s passage to the other world. Excessive lamenting is also discouraged.
As a result, death becomes a culturally ‘toxic’ subject. Talking about death is often tabooed not only at home but also in the workplace, where most people spend more of their waking hours than anywhere else.
On one hand, a co-worker in grief may upset the other staff in the workplace, hamper the work environment and compromise productivity. On the other hand, some companies expect business as usual from its employees irrespective of what they go through in their private lives.
So it is in the best interest of both management and staff that the grief of a bereaved co-worker is understood, properly processed and contained, and not made worse or prolonged by silent avoidance, unspoken isolation, or pressure for them to relate and work as before.
Indeed, our colleague’s recovery from grief can be facilitated by our appropriate and compassionate care and support, shown in the workplace in the following ways:
What can co-workers do?
1 Acknowledge the loss of the bereaved. Let them know you understand the magnitude of their pain and show them you care for their wellbeing.
For a start, you can initiate a financial collection and send them flowers, sympathy cards and donation. Attend the wake and funeral services.
2 During free times, help them to open up and talk about their loss experience, if necessary, over and over again.
However, if they prefer to be silent, give them the space to be so. Respect their desire for privacy and confidentiality.
3 Offer domestic assistance like buying food, running errands, fetching the children to school and helping to settle banking or other estate matters.
4 Don’t exclude the bereaved person in the department’s social plans but let them decide whether to accept or decline the invitation.
Remember that the initial three months, holidays and anniversaries are the toughest times for a grieving person.
What can management do?
1 The management should best acknowledge the death by sending to the bereaved family flowers, sympathy cards and financial donation.
2 For loss of immediate family members, grant the bereaved staff a few days of compassionate leave and provide flexible time off for essential errands.
3 Be non-judgmental and more accommodative if their work performance is affected, but expect a return to their pre-loss productivity within several months.
4 If the bereaved staff is showing difficulties of coping with the loss, avail the person to the services of a grief counselor or support group.
What to say?
- Tell them you can never fully know the depths of their pain but you are there for them.
- Remind them that they need not bear their grief alone, as there are people who care for them.
- Ask them how they are doing, and if they do talk, listen to them attentively. Show concern over their struggles, however trivial they may seem to you.
- Say what is sincere and comforting but don’t talk too much.
Just being there for them is sometimes better than a thousand words.
What not to say?
- Don’t say platitudes like “You have to move on.” (They may not know how.)
- Don’t say unhelpful words like “Don’t cry.” (They should be given the liberty to cry all they want.)
- Don’t say “Call me when you need help.” (Instead, offer specific help to them.)
- Don’t say anything to compare, evaluate, judge or solicit sympathy for yourself.
(Above: Dr Edmund Ng giving training in grief support to caregivers of MH370 passengers and some volunteers of the Befrienders.)
A time for mourning, a time for recovering
There are no quick fixes to grief. Grief is a natural process because we are wired to mourn the loss of someone whom we love and now miss much.
Our tendency is to bypass, forget or suppress the pain by getting busy or distracted. Some people would run to the psychiatrist for antidepressant drugs to numb their emotions. As a result, they are not able to confront their grief and journey through their grieving process in a healthy manner.
Grief is no respecter of persons. It does not matter how educated or capable we are.
I personally know of several top-level corporate executives who were unable to cope with the grief of their losses that they committed suicide as a fast way of escaping their pain. Proper care and support of their grief in their workplace would have made a big difference and possibly saved their lives.
Essentially, we need to remember that grief in the workplace results not only from the loss of a loved one, but also in all other types of tangible losses like loss of property, health, denied promotion, wealth and investments. There are also intangible losses like separation, divorce, miscarriage and losing custody of a child.