How often does it happen? An employee has returned to work after experiencing the death of a spouse. At first, she gets hugs and people tell her they are sorry for her loss. But after a few days, you notice that co-workers talk about everything and everyone except the person who died, even when it would be natural to include something about him in the conversation. They all tiptoe around it and avoid even mentioning his name. Why is everyone so afraid?
The truth is, they are well-meaning but uninformed. Most are afraid that if they say his name, they will make her sad or spoil her day. They think it is their job to cheer their co-worker up or take her mind off the reality.
They don’t realize it is not their job to “fix it.” They can’t take her grief away anyway. The loss is always on her mind, no matter how hard others try to avoid bringing it up. Nor do they realize how much she longs to hear his name, how badly she wants to know that someone besides herself remembers, or how hungry she is to share stories and memories.
Co-workers can be much more comforting if they can acknowledge and accept her sadness, continue to give her an understanding smile or a hug for weeks afterwards, or even cry with her. Grief that is shared is diminished, but grief that is repressed or denied festers inside until it finds a way to come out.
Besides, tears are healthy. Despite our fears to the contrary, no one in the history of the world has ever started crying and not been able to stop. Most people report feeling relieved or freed or even cleansed after a good cry, because tears contain physiological chemicals that relieve stress; we are supposed to cry when we are sad.
So what can you do when you notice that people are afraid to say the name? The easiest thing is to say the name yourself. Bring up a story or a memory that involves the spouse — maybe an interaction at a company event. That gives others permission to say the name, too.
Then you can coach your colleagues to do the same by addressing the issue explicitly, saying, “Sometimes people are afraid to mention the name of a deceased family member for fear of making the person sad. We always want to follow her lead, but most survivors love to hear their loved one’s name and share stories and memories of the person’s life. Please don’t be afraid.”
Continue on to talk about tears: “It’s true that she may cry, but that doesn’t mean you made her sad. The tears are there anyway, and every once in a while, they spill over. It’s better that her inevitable tears can be shared with people who care about her.”
In spite of your efforts, you will still find that some people are uncomfortable with grief and sadness. There will be others, though, who can learn to freely share whatever their grieving co-worker is experiencing. It is good for her, and it also builds the kind of camaraderie and bonding that help the business thrive. It’s the right thing to do, all the way around.