For many of us, our coworkers are family. In terms of waking hours in a more typical week, I spend just as much time each day interacting with people in my job than I do with my wife and son. So, when a major life event happens to a coworker, we care. Many of these events are positive (getting married, having a child, purchasing a home, getting a promotion), but some are not.

How can you support a coworker?

The following question came across my desk from a customer of R3c: “How can an employee support a coworker who has lost a loved one to COVID-19?”

This is a great question, and one that deserves some attention. Because, while the death of a loved one can be hard as it is, the COVID-19 situation makes it especially challenging. It is unique in that visiting the ill individual is largely forbidden, gatherings of family are not possible, and funeral/memorial services are extremely limited. So, while death is a common human experience, death in the time of COVID-19 feels, and is, vastly different. Many of the traditions and activities that help us process death are simply not available.

As we have all become accustom to these days, interacting and being there for one another requires adjusting our methods to meet the current realities. Sometimes ways of connecting may seem a bit silly at first (a virtual happy hour?), but over time start to feel more natural. When it comes to those interactions, we must be a bit more intentional.

As we are all unique, be mindful that what is well-received by some may not be by others. At the same time, anything (appropriate) done in good faith is likely to be appreciated. People often fail to act because they fear doing or saying the wrong thing. Don’t let that fear prevent you from acting.

Consider the following tips:

  • Express sympathy genuinely — Simple sentiments can often make a profound impact. Expressing condolences shows that you care and is also very non-invasive.
  • Ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?”— Often, the answer to this question is “no”, at least initially. This may be because they really don’t need anything, they don’t want to inconvenience you, or they are not sure how to ask for what they need. Keep the offer open, even if you get an initial “no.” As time moves on, and the initial shock wears off, offers for help can stop coming in, and this is often when help is most needed.
  • Check in— Particularly for co-workers you know well, take time to check in throughout the week. This could be related to the loss, or it could be just to touch base on other things. Feeling connected to others is helpful for a grieving individual, who may otherwise feel isolated.
  • Listen—One of the most effective things we can do to support others is to listen. It does not require us to be an expert, it only requires that we care. Listening to someone as they talk about the loss (or anything else) shows support.
  • Have patience—As people experience loss, particularly in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, it can impact how they interact and function. Irritability may surface, there may be a tendency to withdraw and getting things done could be difficult. To the extent that it’s possible, we want to remain compassionate and be patient.
  • Provide a break—In the midst of a heavy and complex emotional situation, we can help provide a break and dignify our coworkers through this time. Everyday activities, including work, are an important part of helping people process loss. While it is good to ensure our co-workers feel supported in their loss, it is important for them to also be engaged in conversations and activities that do not center on the loss or pity from others.

These are few things you can do in support of a coworker who has experienced a loss due to COVID-19. There are likely dozens of others out there, so find what works for you.  For your coworker, your actions could be a much-needed source of light in a seemingly dark time.

Tyler is Associate Medical Director of R3 Continuum (R3c), a global leader in protecting and cultivating workplace wellbeing in a complex world. He has over 13 years of domestic and international experience in behavioral health workplace absence—including disability and worker’s compensation assessment, consultation with employers and insurers on complex claims, effective return to work strategies, program development and improvement, and training and supervision of industry professionals. He’s a sought-after speaker, writer and contributor in the field of workplace behavioral health. You can reach him at [email protected]