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Someone living with bereavement

As a line manager, you will want to support your colleague as they find their new normal after being bereaved. This will involve a mixture of emotional and practical support.

Normal employment rules still apply to someone who has been bereaved. This section gives an idea of the sorts of issues which might arise because of bereavement and which you might find yourself working through with your colleague.

Some of them, such as being sensitive to why a colleague might ask for leave on particular dates, are fairly simple. Others, such as helping someone who is struggling with grief or whose whole career plan needs to change, are more complicated.

“Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.”

Iris Murdoch (British Novelist and Philosopher, 1919-1999)

When someone has died

Immediately after the death the bereaved person may need leave to deal with practical issues such as arranging a funeral. Over the next weeks and months they may need time to manage executing a will or handling an estate, both of which are tasks that may need to take time out of the working week.

Bereavement may also mean big changes for someone’s caring responsibilities. If the person who has died was caring for children or older relatives, those responsibilities may now fall to your colleague. This may mean that they need to replan their working arrangements.

If the person who died was the main earner in a family, your colleague may need to change the way they work or even change their job.

What do I say?

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who has been bereaved. It is easy to worry so much about saying the wrong thing that we avoid saying anything at all.

As a general rule, it is better to do something rather than nothing, and to acknowledge someone’s loss rather than ignore it. Moreover, if a colleague has been bereaved they are likely to need support, both practical and emotional, and as a line manager you need to be able to handle this.

Hospice UK’s Dying Matters leaflets can help you know how to start this sort of conversation. You can find further links in our useful resources section.

You may know your colleague well and have a good relationship with them or you may only see them occasionally, but there are some essentials you will want to cover in any case:

  • Make sure you have the details right – who has died and their relationship to your colleague.
  • Do you know if there are any religious or cultural issues which will affect their approach to bereavement, or what they need to do in response to the death?
  • You will want to acknowledge the death and their grief. Don’t worry about trying to find the perfect thing to say. Keep it simple – “I’m so sorry to hear about your sister” or “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” Your compassion is more important than the exact words.
  • Offer help. If they have only just heard the news they might be glad of transport home.
  • Ask if they want you to let other people know at work. If they say yes, how much do they want to share? Would they like work colleagues to come to the funeral?
  • Let them know what the organisation can offer in terms of bereavement entitlement. This is best done in writing, with contact details for someone they can talk to later.
  • Don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk. It may be the wrong time.
  • Check in again at a later time to ask if they wish to talk or need any other support.

While your colleague is away from work on compassionate leave, you will want to be able to keep in touch. The line manager is usually the best person for this, but it could be another colleague if that makes better sense for your workplace.

The important thing is that the bereaved person knows who will be in contact with them.

Understanding grief

Even if you have been bereaved yourself, you cannot really understand or feel what another person is feeling. There is a recognised series of stages of grieving, which is a helpful guide to what to expect.

  • Shock and disbelief. Immediately after a death it can be hard to believe that it has really happened. People can feel numb or even deny the truth.
  • Sadness. Profound sadness is probably the feeling most people experience after a death. It is normal to cry and to feel empty, desolate or deeply lonely.
  • Guilt. People often feel guilty about things they did or didn’t do, or did or didn’t say while the person was alive. They may also feel guilty about some of their own feelings, if they are relieved that someone has died after a long illness or if they are now relieved of the burden of caring. Or if they didn’t much like the person who has died.
  • Anger. Even if no one was actually at fault for the death, grief can make someone angry and resentful about their loss and what they are being made to feel.
  • Fear. Death can trigger a host of worries and fears. People can feel anxious, helpless or insecure. They may even have panic attacks and be fearful of new things.
  • Physical symptoms. Grief is not just an emotional process. People can also experience tiredness, nausea, weakened immune system, weight loss or gain, aches and pains and insomnia.
Grieving may not be a simple linear process. Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace, and may go through some of the stages more than once. Even when someone has reached their new normal, they can be taken by surprise by a sudden burst of grief.

The trigger could be a sound, a smell or a random memory. Birthdays and anniversaries can be hard. For someone who lost a baby in pregnancy, the due date can be a stark reminder.

Some bereaved people throw themselves into activity as a way of distracting themselves from their grief. There are immediate tasks to be done following a death, which may 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.

Sometimes the death only becomes real to the person once these tasks are finished, and it is then that grieving takes over.

People grieve differently. Some need to talk about their grief and their emotions. Others prefer to manage it on their own, perhaps by channelling their energies into physical activity or into creating a memorial for the person who died.

Someone who has been bereaved might become active for a relevant charity or making a complaint against a hospital felt to be at fault for the death. None of these ways of coping with grief is better than another, just different.

As a bereaved person’s line manager, you will want to be sensitive to all these possibilities so that you can support your colleague through their grief. This isn’t an easy thing to do.

But, for example, if someone suffers a burst of grief you can reassure them that this is normal and that it doesn’t mean they aren’t coping. You can ask them how they would prefer to be supported.

Don’t be offended if an offer to talk is rejected; it may just be the wrong time.

You may want to ask for advice on what to do, or for support for yourself, from people you respect and trust or from the variety of organisations that you can find at Hospice UK’s dyingmatters.org.

You can find links to these organisations in our useful resources section.

“There’s a mountain of paperwork associated with a death and hundreds of jobs to do. The friends who kept texting to say there is another world beyond probate and it contains fish and chips, are doing me a great favour.”

Respecting diversity

Organisations work hard to respect diversity in their staff and the Equality Act 2010 sets out their obligations to do so. Your colleagues may be happy to share information about their religious background but if they may also prefer not to.

If they do, this can help you to say the right thing and to provide the right support when dealing with sensitive issues such as bereavement. If you are not certain, it’s better to ask.

At a difficult time like this, you will want only to ask questions you actually need to know the answers to, such as: 

  • 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?
  • 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.

Public Health England has published a summary of different faiths, which 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.

Whatever the cause of death, your colleague is still bereaved.  

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

Feelings of guilt are a normal part of grief and can be especially strong when someone has been bereaved by suicide. They may feel shame and that others blame them for the death. You cannot know the full circumstances, but you can be reassuring if you are asked directly what you think.

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

It may be that the authorities have asked for some details to be kept confidential. As a line manager, you will need to suppress your own natural curiosity and may need to work closely with HR to make sure any speculation amongst colleagues is avoided.

If the person wants to talk about the death and their feelings, they will do so. 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 that you are there to talk if they want to.

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, 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 points that may help you to respond:

  • If a colleague has lost a baby in early pregnancy, you 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 and they may want to show this to colleagues. If they do, and even if you find the image upsetting, you will want to respond sympathetically.
  • Do 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.

Abnormal grief

Grief is not an illness and most people don’t need counselling or therapy to cope. Sensitivity and understanding are usually enough.

However, some people suffer an abnormal grief reaction and, if you think this is the case, you might encourage the person to visit their own doctor or get advice from an occupational health service.

Extra support for bereaved people who need it is a service usually delivered by trained volunteers who have themselves been bereaved. It is usually provided through a hospital, charity or hospice. You or your HR team could help find what is available locally.

Therapy support is a specialised service provided by professionals (psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and doctors) and is designed for the small number of people who have very complex issues to deal with in their grief, or who find that they are not able to move on in their lives.

Again, you as line manager, your HR team or the person’s GP – who can make a formal referral – can help by finding the details of these services if they are needed.

Help may also 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. HR will be able to advise.

Your HR team will be able to advise on your organisation’s policies on compassionate leave and flexible working. You will want to check with them so that you don’t accidentally make promises which you may not be able to keep.

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.

It is normal to feel awkward talking to someone who has been bereaved, but it is important not to let that get in the way of trying. Here are some tips to make it easier for everyone:

  • Returning towards the end of the week or on a part-time basis for the first few days can help the bereaved person 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. You may not need a special meeting if your workplace layout allows you to have a short private conversation.
  • Let colleagues know that the bereaved person will be coming back and share with them any information you can about what has happened, how they would like to be treated and where colleagues can find support if they need it.

As part of treating the bereaved person normally, as a line manager you 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 you could:

  • Make a point of checking regularly how well they are managing and adjust workload if necessary
  • Reassure them of your support
  • Remind them about what the organisation can do for them in terms of flexible working and compassionate leave.

Delivering bad news

As a manager, you may find yourself having to deliver bad news to a team about the death of a colleague. It may be that others have already heard the news, either by word of mouth or through social media, but you will want to make sure that everyone has the same information and the right facts.

Delivering bad news can be stressful for the person doing it as well as distressing for those receiving it. These points can help:

  • 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.
  • Be sure that you are clear about the facts you are passing on.
  • Prepare your audience, checking what they already know.

You may know if any colleagues are likely to be badly affected by the news, for example if they worked especially closely with the person who has died or if the news might bring back emotions from a bereavement of their own.

You can let them know that they can talk to you if they need or perhaps arrange for another member of the team to buddy up with them. As a line manager, you will know who is best to do this, depending on the personal relationships in the team.

To be able to best support your colleagues, check with your HR team what policies are in place and what benefits are available from your employer for someone who has been bereaved.

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