When an Employee Is Grieving

When a Child Dies

During our lifetimes, nearly all of us will experience the emotional stress that comes with any type of personal loss. However, the death of a child, sibling, or grandchild is considered the most devastating loss a family member may experience. This poses unique challenges for employers who are concerned about helping newly bereaved parents, siblings, or grandparents adjust to the demands of the workplace after returning to their job. This brochure is designed to help you and your colleagues understand how to provide the best support for an employee coping with grief, especially after the loss of a child, sibling, or grandchild.

The Grief Experience

First, it’s important to understand that grief is a natural, normal reaction to a serious loss of any kind. It is a physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological response to a devastating event. A complex process, grief is shaped by our experience, religious beliefs, culture, and physical health, along with the cause of the loss. Love, anger, fear, frustration, loneliness, and guilt are all part of the grieving process.

Living through grief is never easy. Those who are actively grieving are caught in a web of pain, confusion, and isolation. Those surrounding the survivors often express frustration and a sense of helplessness, which may, in time, turn to annoyance if the grieving “takes too long.” Yet grief, with its many ups and downs, lasts far longer than most people realize.

Research shows that there may be a loss of productivity and a rise in accident rates among employees suffering from emotional stress. An employee whose child has died may experience any of the following:

           * Difficulty in making decisions

           * Inability to concentrate

           * Disinterest in job-related details

           * Frustration and irritability

           * Depression and mood swings

           * Marital and family problems

           * Problems outside the workplace that affect work performance

Grief is an individual response and varies according to the person and the circumstances. There is no precise timetable for the grief process. During the weeks, months, and even years after the child dies, the employee may have varying levels of productivity. Some employees immediately return to work, believing that “keeping themselves busy” will help them cope with their loss. No matter when a person returns to work, those who are allowed to be open and honest about their grief experience, and receive support and understanding, generally will have a more productive work experience.

How Can You Help Now?

The odds are, when you are initially contacted by your employee, you will be one of the first outside the family to learn of the child’s death. How you respond will make a difference in the grief experience of your employee and his or her relationship with the work family.

Assure your employee that all job responsibilities will be handled by others until the time is right to return to work. Make certain all coworkers are made aware of the situation and are given the opportunity to provide real support. Allow others time off to attend the funeral, even if that may require closing departments, or even the company, for a day. Even if the employee does not work directly under you, visiting the funeral home and attending the funeral personally will show that you care and will be greatly appreciated. Within the financial capabilities of your company, offer as much time off as possible with pay—a bereaved parent, sibling, or grandparent should be there for the family without worrying about job duties and financial responsibilities.

Depending on the financial situation, a donation to aid in paying expenses could be a great help, and your company may want to contribute to and start a collection effort to help your employee’s family.

When an Employee Returns

You can do a great deal to help your employee deal with grief. First and foremost, take an interested and caring attitude. Nothing makes a bigger difference in the work setting than knowing you and your colleagues truly do care and want to help. You may want to consider scheduling a meeting of management and coworkers before the newly bereaved employee returns to the job. During this meeting, you can discuss how best to help the employee through the initial period of adjustment, and how to handle the outward symptoms of grief, such as frustration and irritability.

Be certain to work with the employee to determine work assignments, and be sensitive in assigning new tasks or responsibilities. Do not “over task,” but do take note if the employee indicates a readiness for additional responsibilities. You may need to be flexible in work hours and assignments as the employee moves through the initial period of adjustment. If the employee is involved in hazardous work, you may want to consider a temporary adjustment in duties.

If your organization has an employee assistance program, have a member personally contact the bereaved employee. Brochures about self-help groups and organizations such as The Compassionate Friends should always be available and offered as a means of support.

What Helps and What Doesn’t?

*  Listen! Allow the bereaved to express their feelings. Parents, siblings, and grandparents often have a need to talk about the child and the circumstances of the death. It may be helpful to encourage them to talk by using a gentle question such as, “Can you tell me about it?” However, realize there may be times when grieving persons simply cannot share their feelings. Try again at a different time if this happens.

* Don’t stifle your own reactions. Although you are in a position of authority, if you experience deep emotion, share your feelings. It is appropriate, and the employee will perceive your reaction as caring.

* Don’t try to find magic words that will take away the pain. A simple, “I’m sorry,” offers comfort and support. Use the child’s name when talking to your employee. A bereaved parent’s greatest fear often is that their child will be forgotten.

* Unless you have had a child die, avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” It is very difficult to comprehend the depth of the loss when a child dies, and to say you do may seem presumptuous to the parents. Even parents who have experienced the death of a child do not truly know what another bereaved parent is feeling, because circumstances are always different.

* Avoid using clichés that attempt to minimize or explain the death, for example, “It was God’s will.” Don’t try to find something positive in the child’s death, such as, “At least you have other children.” There are no words that will make it all right that their child has died.

* Avoid judgments of any kind. “You should . . . or you shouldn’t . . .” is not appropriate or helpful. 

Your Support Is Worth the Effort

As difficult as it may be for you as an employer, helping the grieving parent, sibling, or grandparent will be worth your effort. Company morale may be enhanced as other employees observe the way you handle this situation. In addition, your support can create a special bond that may result in more loyal, dedicated employees.

Your outreach and sensitivity through this most difficult process will be genuinely appreciated by a bereaved employee, and will set a positive tone for everyone in your workplace.

 ©2008-2010 The Compassionate Friends, USA - All rights reserved. These materials are protected by U.S. copyright and are provided here for personal use only. Reproduction for mass distribution or for use on any website is prohibited.


The current printing of this brochure was donated by
Pfizer Inc. in loving memory of our colleague,
Major Gregory Fester, Operation Iraqi Freedom


TCF brochures may be purchased at a nominal cost through The Compassionate Friends by calling 877-969-0010 or by going to the Resource Section of The Compassionate Friends national website. You can sponsor a brochure printing through our Brochure Program.