6 Tips for Helping Coworkers Through Grief & Supporting One Another in Well-Being and Self-Care
By Ashley Antle, APR
This is not an easy time, especially in health care. For many of us, it feels as if we’ve moved from one trauma or issue to the next without a break for more than two years. We’ve had to make so many adjustments and each week seems to bring on a new challenge or tragedy.
So how do we cope? What do we say to a hurting coworker? How do we avoid saying the wrong thing?
When we see a colleague struggling with their own pain, sadness, depression and suicide ideation, we hope that they seek the help of spiritual advisors or behavioral health. But you may be surprised to learn you can be a critical link in the chain of help, too.
1. Know that everyone handles grief differently.
“Grief is unique to each person and no one can dictate when we're going to feel a certain way.” –Cameron Brown, Cook Children’s Chaplain for staff care
Anger, resentfulness, fear, worry, sadness and feelings of being overwhelmed are all common responses to grief. However someone feels their grief is OK. When the grief is connected to a friend or colleague who completed suicide, some may blame themselves, thinking they could have done something to help.
“I feel like we can never say too many times, it’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. It’s a decision this person made.” –Lisa Nichols, M.A., LPC-S, Management Development/Professional Enrichment Educator at Cook Children’s
Working through grief is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself and others time and grace.
“Grief changes over time. It evolves over time. Some people may have a strong reaction right now and some might not have a strong reaction until, for example, they want to share something with a loved one or friend and they realize they are not there. So there can be events or times of the year that can trigger those reactions. It’s definitely a roller coaster and it can change over time. It's not bad, it's just that people grieve differently.” –Lisa Nichols
2. Be kind and cooperative with each other.
Trust that everyone is doing the best that they can with whatever is happening within and around them—be gentle and understanding with one another during this time. Find ways to cooperate to share any additional workload. If you need a break or to adjust an assignment, don’t hesitate to speak up and share your needs with your coworkers and manager.
“I think one of the biggest ways that we can support each other in this is to be mindful that there is no shame in asking to go down to Starbucks for five minutes just to take a break. There's no shame in saying, ‘this patient is exhibiting signs that are very triggering to me. Is it okay if we switch patients for the rest of my shift?’” –Jennifer Hayes, MDiv, Director of Spiritual Care
Whether it’s a Starbucks break, a few moments of deep breathing or a quick walk outside, invite a coworker to join you for a little self-care. Share what you do to take care of yourself and invite your coworkers to share their routines. For example: “I went for a long walk this morning when it was cool, and then I sat on my porch and drank my coffee without my cell phone for 10 minutes. It felt great. What do you like to do to decompress?” These discussions generate ideas and help others know it’s okay to take a few moments to just breathe and regroup.
3. Take time to reflect on and honor those who have died.
Talk about who or what you are grieving. Share memories of them. Don’t be afraid to say their name.
““Use their name and just bring it up. You can open space for conversation by asking ‘What do you remember most about ---?' When we use a person’s name it humanizes the decedent and gives others permission to say it. –Cameron Brown
Consider honoring the person who died in an appropriate way, for example collecting money for a charity, creating a memorial book or bulletin board or sending a letter to the deceased’s loved ones.
4. Check in on each other and be a good listener.
“The single most important and helpful thing that we can do is to listen. Actively listen without judging, without any kind of criticism or any kind of prejudice. Just be that kind of empathic presence.” –Cameron Brown
“Empathic listening is so important—letting people express their grief, talk about it, vent about it within a healthy boundary of checking in on them, and not feeling like I need to make them feel better, I need to make this make sense for them, or I need to fix this for them. Just let someone talk through their grief and what they're thinking and feeling.” –Lisa Nichols
You won’t have all the right words or answers, and that’s okay.
“With suicide, we all ask and struggle with why and could I have done something to help. This is a normal reaction to this kind of loss. None of us are to blame. It’s important to remember we may never understand the ‘why’ but we can still have compassion for ourselves and each other as we grieve.” –Lisa Nichols
Avoid trite statements like, “I know how you feel.” The reality is we don’t know how another person feels. The best thing to do is acknowledge and affirm the emotion, provide a space for people to vent and just listen.
“Sometimes saying nothing at all is the biggest gift you can provide a person who is grieving. Many won’t remember what you said, but they will remember that you were there." - Jennifer Hayes
5. Use your resources, and share them with teammates, too.
“Health care workers are at higher risk because of all of the different things that we see and experience, especially those on the front lines. And if people have a loved one or they know someone who's died by suicide before, this is likely to be more difficult for them. It will be a trigger. Or, if they themselves are dealing with depression and burnout, it will likely be more difficult for them, too. We need to remember that it's a normal reaction to be overwhelmed and to be impacted by the work that we're doing. That doesn’t mean we're terrible at our job. It means we're impacted by the work we're doing. So we have to connect with someone else. We have to talk to other people, a professional, a trusted colleague, so that we’re hearing messages that contradict the negative self-talk in our own heads.” –Lisa Nichols
Helpful resources include the Employee Assistance Program, 24/7 Chaplain service, CareATC, Teladoc.com, and Responder Health for one-on-one counseling and assistance. Other well-known national resources that may be helpful include: the Suicide Prevention Hotline, GriefShare, Psychology Today Therapist Finder or the notok app that can be downloaded to a mobile device.
“As part of our promise, we believe that every child's life is sacred and we who work at Cook Children's were once a child, too. That sanctity of our life does not end just because we can vote, work and drive a car. So I think it's more about a moral obligation for when you see something, to say something. If you see people are struggling, just reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, I've noticed that you’re not yourself, or I've noticed that you are consistently coming in late. Are there things going on that are leading you to that? Are you struggling with something?’ and just kind of open the conversation so that they have that permission to talk.” –Jennifer Hayes
6. Know your boundaries.
“Boundaries are there to help protect us from overextending, from taking on more than
we can physically, mentally or spiritually take on at that point.” –Jennifer Hayes
“Boundaries are especially important in this situation. You can listen and can connect others to support, but you're not responsible for taking care of everyone along this grief journey. You're not in charge of trying to save everyone. So keeping those two things in mind—empathic listening and connecting coworkers to someone who can work with them and help them long term—is important.” –Lisa Nichols
Signs that a coworker may be struggling:
- Delayed work
- Being consistently late to work
- Isolating from coworkers
- Showing signs of sadness or depression
- Having highly emotional reactions
- Showing difficulty moving forward
- Changes in their boundaries with others