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Someone living with bereavement

Death is a single event but bereavement does not end. 

People react differently to being bereaved and over different timescales. Different cultures and religions have their own rituals, requirements and attitudes to death. From the point of view of a compassionate employer:

  • There is the immediate issue of allowing time for someone to arrange and attend a funeral;
  • The bereaved person may need different help in the weeks and months following the death, especially if it means that they have a changed role and new caring responsibilities within the family;
  • If the person who died was the primary wage earner they may need to revaluate their own job and working patterns;
  • In the short and medium term, they may be responsible for executing a will or dealing with an estate, which could take a year or more to complete.

Experiencing bereavement

How someone experiences bereavement will be affected by the circumstances of the death. A suicide will be quite a different matter from death at the end of a long illness. Losing a baby during pregnancy is quite another thing again.

It is not possible to fully understand and appreciate what someone is going through.

But knowing the sort of death the bereaved person is coping with will help a compassionate employer respond as helpfully as possible. In the same way, if you know that the bereaved person comes from a particular culture or religion, that will help steer you to make the best response, but it is best to allow them to lead.

For example, there are many different Christian denominations and many different Muslim sects so it would be a mistake to assume that all Christians or all Muslims treat death in the same way. There are some helpful summaries of different faiths by Public Health England that can provide a useful guide.

Most people are able to cope with bereavement without professional help. Grief is not an illness, though it can be exhausting and unpredictable. It does not have a set, or even a usual, length. People who were managing well can be caught unexpectedly by triggers such as:

  • Birthdays or significant anniversaries
  • The due date of a baby who died in pregnancy
  • The date of the funeral
  • Less obvious dates such as the date of diagnosis.

Christmas can be difficult, especially the first one after the death, and if it is an option the bereaved person may choose to work through the holiday as a distraction.

Some people choose to become very busy after a bereavement, whether with the legalities of managing the estate or by campaigning for a relevant charity or making a complaint against a hospital they feel was at fault. This sort of activity can have the effect of postponing grief.

Respecting diversity

Organisations work hard to respect diversity in their staff and the Equality Act 2010 sets out their obligations to do so.

People do not have to share information about their religious background if they prefer not to. However, if they do, this can help colleagues to say the right thing and provide the right support when they need to deal with sensitive issues such as bereavement.

Questions which might be directly relevant to providing support to an employee who has been bereaved include:

  • Do they need leave to travel to allow them to fulfil religious obligations?
  • Is there a cultural expectation that they return the dead person to the country where they were born?
  • Are there any cultural practices, such as fasting, which colleagues need to know about?
  • Would it be appropriate for colleagues to attend the funeral? If so, is there anything those colleagues need to know? For example, often only men attend Muslim burials
  • If you plan to arrange a collection, what would be a suitable tribute? For example, flowers might be appropriate for one religion but not for another.

This summary of different faiths written by Public Health England provides some helpful insight.

Traumatic death

Any death, even an expected one, is likely to come as a shock when it happens. When a death is completely unexpected the shock and surprise make it even harder to know how to respond to the bereaved person.

Sudden deaths can be natural, such as those caused by illness, like a heart attack or stroke. Others might be:

  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Murder or manslaughter.

Sudden or unexpected death automatically involves the coroner and an inquest. This is normal and does not imply that anyone is to blame.

Social media means that news and rumours spread very quickly and easily. The media may not have the full facts so don’t assume that they are giving a true picture.

It may be that the authorities have asked for some details to be kept confidential. If the death is of a staff member and generates publicity, HR may need to take charge of internal and external communications to avoid any speculation.

If the bereaved person wants to talk about the death and their feelings they will do so, and they may themselves have many questions they want answers to, especially in the early days when the death is being investigated.

You can help by letting them know who they can talk to in the organisation, including any counselling services available to them.

If the death was the result of murder or manslaughter, the investigation may go on for months or even years. Depending on how the bereaved person was involved, they may need to attend an inquest or be a witness at a trial.

If they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they may need specialist help to overcome it before they are able to grieve.

Bereavement when a baby or child dies

A parent who has lost a child will need the same support in their bereavement as anyone else. Their grief will be coloured by their role as a parent and their instinct to protect a child.

Here are some pointers for if line managers need help in responding:

  • If a colleague has lost a baby in early pregnancy colleagues may not even have known that they or their partner were pregnant. The baby – not to be described as a foetus or an embryo – will have been important to the parents and they will grieve for the death.
  • Bereaved parents are usually offered a photograph of their dead baby. Line managers may wish to know about this in case the bereaved parent wants to show this to colleagues. Being forewarned will allow them to respond sympathetically even if they find the image upsetting.
  • Colleagues should not be alarmed if the police have been involved. This is standard practice with all unexpected child deaths even if they are caused by illness.
  • This is not just about small children and babies. A parent who loses an adult child experiences the same feelings of loss and wrongness as any other bereaved parent.

Occupational health

Carers and people who have been bereaved may find that their own health, both physical and mental, is affected. If an organisation has an occupational health service, it can offer health checks for these staff.

Counselling and chaplaincy

If your organisation offers either of these services, they could be helpful not only to carers and bereaved people but also to those managing and working with them.

They may be available through an EAP, with access to either a 24-hour confidential helpline or face-to-face counselling or both, depending on your provider.

There are a variety of organisations who offer free, confidential helplines (see the useful resources at the back of this guide). There are specific services for different types of grief, for instance the loss of a child.

If someone is not comfortable talking but would like to be able to interact with others, they could try an online community.

They are free to use and can offer a safe and confidential environment for anyone to discuss what they are going through in bereavement.

Returning to work after bereavement

Coming back to work after a bereavement can be daunting for the person who has been bereaved and uncomfortable for their colleagues.

Line managers may ask for help about how best to manage the process to avoid awkwardness as much as possible. Here are some tips to make it easier for everyone:

  • The bereaved person might return towards the end of the week or on a part-time basis for the first few days to help them to adjust back into work.
  • Most people want their loss to be acknowledged and to be treated as normally as possible when they return to work.
  • The first reference to the bereavement should be private and as natural as possible.Line managers may not need to set up a special meeting if their workplace layout allows them to have a short private conversation.
  • Line managers should let colleagues know that the bereaved person will be coming back and share with them any information they can about what has happened, how the bereaved person would like to be treated and where colleagues can find support if they need it.

As part of treating the bereaved person normally, the line manager will want to make sure that they are brought up to date with what has been happening in the workplace, including staff changes, and planning their work schedule.

People can be over-optimistic about how easily they will get back into their work routine so it is good practice for line managers to:

  • Make a point of checking regularly how well the bereaved person is managing and adjust workload if necessary;
  • Reassure them of the organisation’s support;
  • Remind them about what the organisation can do for them in terms of flexible working and compassionate leave.
For employee who is bereaved, HR can help in particular with:
  • Policies on compassionate leave and flexible working for bereaved people.
Organisations can offer a set period of paid compassionate leave, maybe five days, for funeral arrangements. If someone needs longer, for example if they have to travel abroad, there might be additional unpaid leave available

Someone who is struggling to cope with grief may need flexible working arrangements to help them. They may also need to be advised to see their doctor and get advice from an occupational health service.

Practical tasks which may need time away from work include:

  • Registration of the death
  • Arranging the funeral
  • Attending the funeral
  • Interment or scattering of ashes
  • Dealing with the estate
  • Organising and attending a memorial event
  • Attending an inquest
  • Attending a trial.

When a work colleague has died

If the death was related to the person’s work, you will need to refer to the Health and Safety Executive’s website and your own organisation’s legal adviser.

People spend so much time at work that colleagues can develop close relationships.

If a colleague dies there is likely to be an emotional reaction, rippling out from that person’s immediate team and touching anyone they worked with. The actual nature of the reaction will depend on how well known, and well liked, the person was and the circumstances of the death.

If it was an accident or suicide, people are more likely to feel shock than if someone had been known to be ill.

Many people will find out through word of mouth or through social media, but the organisation will want to provide accurate information and be compassionate and supportive.

This includes letting the family know what is being said, especially if there is an internal website or any sort of media contact.

As soon as the news is known, the employer (probably a senior manager and preferably someone who knew the person) needs to take the lead to make sure that communication takes place quickly and sensitively across the organisation.

If the person had regular contact with external stakeholders they will need to be informed too.

When a work colleague has died, HR can help in particular with:
  • making sure that legal and payroll duties are handled quickly – there may be death-in-service payment to be processed, for example
  • making sure that communication is handled sensitively.

Additional practical guidelines for HR

  • Have ready an outline letter of condolence to be completed quickly for a senior manager to send to the family.
  • Someone from HR may be the best person to act as liaison with the family over any support to be provided, and to relay information about the funeral to colleagues who need to know.
  • Help organise a book of condolence, to offer a chance for everyone who wishes to express their sympathy to the family. HR can play a part in making this happen, working with the person’s closest colleagues and possibly the family too to make sure that this is the right thing under the circumstances and will be welcome.
  • Help arrange for personal items in the workplace to be returned to the family, or workplace equipment such as a laptop or phone to be returned from home to the organisation.

HR can make sure that close colleagues of the person who has died have access to the information and support they may need, as they will be experiencing bereavement.

It may not be as intense as for a family member but there can still be a profound sense of loss and shock.

Funerals and remembrance

HR may want to have a policy about who should attend the funeral of a team member. It may be that everyone who wishes to go can be given the time, but there may need to be cover arrangements.

If the funeral is at a distance, the organisation may wish to provide transport for those attending or for whoever is chosen to represent the workplace.

The organisation may wish to do something like planting a tree in memory of the person who has died. Such a gesture is likely to be welcomed but you will want to be careful about setting a precedent that might cause problems in the future.

Delivering bad news

Delivering bad news can be stressful for the person doing it as well as distressing for those receiving it. HR can support managers in this task with guidance on how best to go about it.

For example, it helps to think through beforehand where the best place might be. Whether you are talking to one person or to many, you want to do so in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, including by phones.

You will want to be sure that you are clear about the facts you are passing on and you will want to prepare your audience, checking what they already know.

If a manager has to deliver bad news to an individual:

  • It is best if there can be another person there too to offer support
  • They will want to allow enough time for this as it is hard to predict how someone will react to such news.

If the bad news affects the whole organisation, for example if a senior manager dies, HR will want to lead on the communication to all staff. They may be concerned about their own future as well as shocked by the death.

It is important that the message is as reassuring as possible as well as factual and compassionate.

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