ask the readers: helping a coworker who’s grieving

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I work in an office with several other women in the same late 20s-early 30s range. We all get along well, but we don’t spend time together outside of work.

One of these coworkers, Sarah, is recently bereaved. Nine months ago, her 34-year-old husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Last week, he died. It is awful, awful, awful.

If it were up to me, she would be able to take as much time off from work as she wanted at full pay. But that’s not how it works, though the agency is being as flexible as possible. She is going to be back in a few weeks.

I think my coworkers and I have done what is appropriate given our level of closeness. We went to the funeral, sent her cards and covered dishes, text her sometimes to let her know we’re thinking about her.

I know from my text conversations with Sarah and her social media posts that she is deeply in grief. She posts things multiple times a day about how she will never move on, and that she forgets where/who she is. She is further gutted by the fact that they never had kids.

Two of my other coworkers have babies, and one other is pregnant now. All of us are married. When we chat at lunch, inevitably these things come up. Sarah never said anything, but I think these little domestic stories were hard for her to hear, and would probably be more so now.

So, what can/should we try to do for her? It feel so strange to be in such close proximity to someone, but not really know them well enough to support them. Any advice would be appreciated.

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 305 comments… read them below }

  1. MagicToilet*

    I think you’re doing well. Sometimes there’s only so much coworkers can do.

    Keep checking in on her, ask her what you can do for her. After the initial wave of support passes, those grieving can be left bereft. (My best friend who lost her mother when she was a child said one of the worst moments was having to throw away the dried up funeral flowers. It was at the same time that all the offers of help and support dried up.)

    I you have an EAP, look up the information and offer it to her as a possible resource she can take up.

    This is just awful.

    1. MagicToilet*

      Also I want to add that hopefully others aren’t holding back on celebrating their pregnancies/births because they don’t want to make her feel bad. It’s so great that everyone wants to be supportive of her, but her (very understandable) grief doesn’t have to squelch anothers’ joy.

      1. Jam Today*

        I agree with this, it would be more conspicuous for people around her to *withhold* information or natural conversation about life events, and she will be acutely aware of them doing so. Its not like she’s going to forget her husband died, and then be suddenly reminded of it because someone says the word “husband” in conversation.

        1. Yesterday's Girl*

          But at the same time, it might be a kindness to dial back on the talk of that when she’s around, at least at first. There are plenty of other topics of conversation for group discussion. I’m not saying never bring up husbands or kids around her, but making sure those aren’t the dominant topics (and trying to notice if she seems to be getting really upset) would be nice.

          1. victoria*

            I think it would really depend on the person — for some people it would make them feel kind of “weird” or cut off from the people around them, while for others I am certain you’re right. If it were me as a bystander coworker here, I’d try to find a discreet/private time and ask what she prefers re: that. (It’s not really the same thing, but a dear friend was going through a nasty divorce and infertility woes while my daughter was young and I definitely had the “is it pleasant or unpleasant to be around my small child at the moment, because if it’s hard for you I will arrange to have someone else hang with her while we spend time together?” talk with her.) I think she did appreciate getting to make that choice.

          2. Hey Nonnie*

            I agree… there is (presumably) a whole host of other personal life topics you could focus on for her first few months back. And in fact, I think centering lunch chats around “I saw a great concert last weekend” or “I decided to take an improv class” might end up being really helpful for her to hear — there is life beyond the walls of home and family, and you can find connection with other people over common interests, even if they are chosen-family rather than married- or blood-family. Reminding her of that could be really helpful in getting her to emerge (at her own pace) from the raw pit of despair. Right now she probably feels a lot like her only meaningful connection to the world was through her husband; reminding her of other paths to that is not only a distraction from her grief, but ultimately a way for her to refocus and get herself anchored into the rest of the world again.

            Also, if any of you are close enough with her to suggest this, maybe ask her if she’d like to take a [pottery class / painting class / other relatively quiet, creative, refocusing activity] with you after work. Just something that gets her out of her own head for a couple hours. She may say no the first few times, but offer again (no pressure, just ask if she’s interested) maybe once every 6-8 weeks and maybe one day she’ll say yes. If you do this, don’t push her to be super social just yet, but find ways of propping that door open so she can see that it’s there, and choose it for herself.

    2. Persimmons*

      I know it wasn’t your main point, but regarding the “having to throw out the dead flowers” thing: my family received a succulent garden when my grandfather passed in the early nineties. As the plants grew, we split them up and divided them amongst the family members. I still have mine. (I re-rooted some leaves and started over when it got stressed during a move and fared poorly.)

      Because of that thoughtful gift, I give a super easy-care potted plant instead of cut flowers for funerals. It usually goes over well, and can be donated just as easily if the person doesn’t want it.

      1. LawP*

        My workplace gave me a little succulent box when my grandmother passed. It lives on my desk and brightens my office. I appreciated far more than the times that the office has sent flowers.

        1. sequitur*

          My team at work gave me a succulent bowl when my dad died. I’m very much not a cut flowers person and I really appreciated the thought behind the gift.

      2. Anonym*

        Someone gave us orchids when my dad passed away* a few years ago, and they’re still going strong. My mom loves them. They remind her of the care and support we received from good friends. :)

        (*Also pancreatic cancer. It’s such a horrible, horrible monster of a disease.)

        1. mrs__peel*

          I’m very sorry about your father.

          It really is awful. My boyfriend’s father also had pancreatic cancer, and (as often happens with that) it was a very short period from the time he was initially diagnosed to the time that he passed away. He held off on telling his kids for a few months, and (by then) they had very little time to spend together, sadly.

      3. MagicToilet*

        That’s wondeful! Her comment has made me think twice about sending cut flowers for funerals. Now i go the Jewish route, and send food.

      4. Detective Amy Santiago*

        We always send wind chimes, a blanket, or some other item that can be used as a keepsake instead of flowers.

      5. Nita*

        This is kind of silly, maybe, but sending live flowers can backfire sometimes. Someone brought a potted plant to my mother-in-law’s funeral but hadn’t said anything – the funeral home assumed it’s another bouquet for the cemetery. We didn’t find out until afterwards. I don’t think my husband minded too much, but I’m a plant person, and it hurt my heart a little that the poor plant also died.

        1. Merida Ann*

          My church sent me a beautiful Pointsetta when my grandpa died, but because of the timing, after the funeral and spending the weekend with my grandma, I flew straight back to my home town for Christmas with my parents, meaning that the plant was alone and untended in my apartment (with basically no sunlight) for over two weeks and had pretty much died by the time I got back. It was delivered just a couple hours before I left for the funeral, so I really didn’t have time or emotional energy to figure out anywhere better to leave it to give it a better chance of surviving. So while it was a lovely gesture, it just left me with a dead plant to clean up when I finally returned home. (I did try to save it afterwards, but I’m not great with plants even under the best circumstances.)

          I like the idea of succulents and other harder-to-kill plants, though.

        2. Nancie*

          If your mother-in-law was buried at a cemetery maintained by somebody like my grandpa, he likely took care of the plant until the weather turned cold, then turned it over to my grandma to re-home.

      6. Kittymommy*

        See, I think this is just different strokes… I like the flowers I received when my family died. Getting a plant or something like that has stressed me out because i already know it’s going to die only now it’s my fault.

        1. Aiani*

          You’re not alone. I also enjoy cut flowers. They’re pretty and the fact that I can throw them out without guilt works for me. I am also a fellow plant killer, I don’t try to kill them but I always do without fail.

      7. Lumen*

        In college, a friend of mine had a friend back home die from an aggressive cancer. He was very young, and they had been very close friends in high school. My friend’s mom helped him think of this, knowing how much the family gardened, but they went and bought two laurel bushes for the family, and helped plant them.

        Months later back at college, my friend got a letter from his friend’s mother telling him how every time she passed those laurel bushes or smelled their blossoms she remembered her son, and all of her son’s friends who gathered around the family when he passed. She wrote about what a comfort it was just to know how much he’d been loved and what his life had meant to others.

        So… I strongly second the “living plants” recommendation, when and where it’s doable and appropriate. Much, much better than cut flowers or greenery.

      8. Quill*

        The funeral flowers from my grandmother got taken care of easily, but when I had to go and throw out all her house plants two months later because they’d dropped off everyone’s mental radar? That was pretty awful, especially because towards the end of her life the only thing we could bring her that she could really enjoy was things like flowers, since her parkinsons had gotten too bad for her to eat normally and she couldn’t leave her chair. She was always a gardening type of person too.

        We still have her peace lilly though, and it’s beautiful.

      9. CanCan*

        Seconding the potted plant idea.
        My dad received a potted plant from his coworkers (or employer – I’m not sure). It’s been about 14 years, and we still call it Grandmother’s plant. I don’t know what it’s called – it’s a vine that doesn’t need much care.

    3. Wendy Darling*

      In addition to asking what you can do for her, also just SUGGEST things you are willing to do for her — “Hey I made a giant batch of chili, can I bring you some?” “I’m going to be in your neighborhood today, can I pick up any groceries or do a Target run for you?” “I want to see this super low-key film/go to a cafe/go to the bookstore, would you like to come with me?” If you’re super close you could offer to come and have a bit of a tidy up but if you’re coworker-friends as opposed to friend-friends that might be overstepping. (Also even if you’re not going to be in her neighborhood… lie. A lot of people don’t want to impose, so I think it is a kindness to make it sound convenient for you.)

      Grieving people tend to not know what they want. Their whole brain is taken up by grief. When I was bereaved I had people ask me what they could do and I had no idea, but what was really helpful was the friend who said “We make pita pizzas and play board games on Friday, would you like to come?” and the one who said “I want to check out this new cafe, come with me!” and the time my friend who was feeding my fish while I was out of town for the funeral used her key to restock my fridge, do all my dishes, and leave me flowers.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        I like this idea.

        Instead of putting the onus on the grieving person to ask you for something – which even under the best of circumstances can make people feel uncomfortable – you can offer them something instead and then it’s up to them to say yes or no. That’s a much kinder way and less of a generic platitude I think.

      2. Not Australian*

        Agreed. My only relevant experience has been when my father died in the morning of a day that I had to work; I can’t tell you how much I would have appreciated someone just asking if they could maybe bring me a coffee or something from the canteen. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture to be appreciated.

        1. Marion Ravenwood*

          Yep. I got the news my granddad had passed away when I was at work, and I’m very grateful for my lovely then-manager who saw I was upset and took me to Starbucks. It really helped to be out of the work environment for an hour and not try to process job-related stuff as well as the shock and grief.

      3. Doug Judy*

        Great idea. In addition to food, things like paper plates and other items so clean up is simple is a way I go sometimes. Or if I do give food, it’s always in something that doesn’t need to be washed and returned.

        I just want to say OP it is great that you are doing whatever you can to be supportive. I could not imagine having to return to work so soon after that kind of loss. All the best to her.

        1. General Ginger*

          Seconding giving food in one-use containers that don’t need to be washed/returned (honestly I try to do that as much as possible with any food gifts, but I think it’s particularly relevant in this case as you’re not piling more stuff on the person to deal with).

          1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

            My sister’s go-to food gift for new parents, friends dealing with tragedy, etc. is to make quiche using the crust you get in the freezer section that comes in its own disposable pie plate. She also always makes two: bake one now, freeze one and put it in a ziploc bag. Then the recipient has dinner tonight and can save the other for a future day. Just defrost it in the fridge for a few hours and then bake.

          2. PhyllisB*

            I usually bring things like paper plates, napkins, trash bags, a can of coffee and either a case of soft drinks or bottled water. This is always much appreciated. You would be amazed how many paper products get used at times like this.

        2. Spero*

          When we were grieving, a few people have restaurant delivery company gift cards – the kind with a range of different places to choose from. It was so nice to be able to order in food whenever we wanted those first few weeks vs having to cook or, even worse, brave the grocery.

      4. Emmie*

        This is so thoughtful. You may wish to ask again over time. She may appreciate the invites, although she does not accept them. Perhaps tell her that you do not know what it’s like to be her; that you have no idea how to help; but that you have that extra food, or would love to go for a walk. If she accepts your invite, ask if she wants to vent, or if she wants a distraction. Cut her some slack at work. My ideas aren’t perfect; however, I love how caring you and your team is.

        1. maddy lumpkin*

          Great point Emmie…Also to that note although she might not feel like doing stuff right now, she might in the future. I remember when my grandfather died, my grandmother forced herself to hang out with people even though she really didn’t want to, out of fear that people would stop asking otherwise.

          And agree that you shouldn’t stop celebrating happy events. As hard as it may be for her to participate, it may be even harder to feel that she is the source of people not feeling joy at work. If you can afford it and know what she likes, pick up an extra coffee for her. Showing you care in a way that puts little pressure on her to engage socially (which I imagine is incredibly difficult right now!) may be something that could help her get through the day.

          Best of luck–it sounds like she has a great team around her :).

        2. SinSA*

          Definitely cut her some slack at work.

          My office administrator lost her father suddenly at the beginning of June. She took the entire week off to plan the funeral, etc. and then here and there would take a day off or come in late because she was just a mess, and everyone was very gentle with her. (She’s on a vacation right now)

          I lost my brother very unexpectedly on June 23rd and didn’t take time off at all because my Mom was in hospice (both lived in the Midwest) and then my Mom passed away on July 11th. I flew home that day – halfway across the country, and immediately had to run to appointments, errands, etc. (I’m also the executor of her will, so I had many things to do and no time to actually process the fact that she is gone – I still haven’t). I came back to work on the 24th (the day after my birthday which was awful because I was doing executor related things all day) and it was like immediate jumping into a firestorm that has been nonstop ever since. I’m not getting the same sort of compassion, I just have to jump in and fix things and do things and in addition, sometimes I have to deal with the court back in the Midwest (court doesn’t keep evening hours which means I sometimes have to stop my work to handle things).

          BE KIND. For quite a while. I know for me, I feel overwhelmed, I know my boss feels overwhelmed even though it’s been a couple of months for her now. I cannot imagine how your coworker is feeling but do your best to be gentle with them.

          1. AES*

            I’m so sorry for all your losses–what an unthinkable amount of things to have to deal with.

          2. the one who got away*

            SinSA, you don’t know me, but I just wanted to say how very sorry I am for what you’ve had to go through this summer – and I hope you are able to be kind to yourself too.

            1. SinSA*

              Thank you – I am trying to be kind and patient with myself – I just wish work could be a little more understanding about all that I have to go through when I haven’t even gotten to the grieving part.

              I love that the OP and coworkers want to be there, but definitely just being kind and understanding and gracious and gentle will go a long way. I know I love the distraction that work provides me but I also need people to be understanding of that, too…

          3. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

            Hug. My heart goes out to you… it’s like getting hit with two tsunamis in a row. Husband in hospice now – I can’t imagine the layers of grief. (Lost brother 7 years ago, so not a fresh wound). Will be thinking of you…

        3. JSPA*

          Offering “a walk” at lunch is excellent. And if you end up going alone a few times before she joins, that’s fine, too.

          A walk can be anything from a very gentle stroll to intense exercise. It can be entirely silent, an easy chat, or deep conversation.

          Keeping one’s body in motion can be difficult, when just mustering the energy for the necessities is tough; yet a little movement and fresh air can do so much for sleep and health and recovery.

          You don’t have to tell her why! She knows what her situation is, she doesn’t need reminders. You’re talking a brief walk after lunch. You’re inviting her. Simple and easy, and no sense of obligation to weigh anyone down, whether she says yes, or no.

        4. EddieSherbert*

          +100 keep asking even if she always says no. It’s nice to get that occasional “I’m still here for you and I still care” nudge :)

      5. Bossy Magoo*

        Agree. You come up with the suggestions (or, as someone else said, just do it). My neighbor’s husband was diagnosed with cancer and while he was in the hospital receiving treatment, I texted her and asked if she needed her lawn mowed while she was busy at the hospital. She seemed very grateful for the offer (and said she had forgotten about the lawn) and it made me feel very good to have been able to provide something useful (that said, I assigned the job to my teenager so I guess I’m not THAT generous LOL. Also made my teenager feel benevolent to do a job and refuse to take money for it, so win-win-win).

      6. MagicToilet*

        Yes, excellent point. I’ve read up on this and can’t believe I forget. It’s better to suggest things rather than ask what you can do (or saying that the person can reach out if they need anything).

      7. Lia*

        This is a great response, and what a group of us are doing for a friend who suddenly lost her husband this summer. We directly invite her to events and suggest activities.

        Also be aware grief is not a linear process — the grieving person can go back and forth and some times will be harder than others.

      8. Jayem*

        In all the chaos that happened after my mom died, the gesture I remember the most was my friend’s mother showing up with a giant shopping bag of paper plates, plastic cups, and disposable silverware. We had more food than we knew what to do with, but getting to take some time off from washing dishes was priceless.

      9. Stan*

        If you’re going to go the food/meals route, consider waiting a few weeks. Immediately after my mom passed a way, my empty nester dad got so much food. All of us kids were in town, so it was much appreciated, but there was quite a bit of waste because so much rolled in all at once.

        Like six weeks later, his office did a meal train. Two to three times a week for over a month, someone would drop off food. Instead of dropping off a giant lasagna, they’d drop off four servings of chili or chicken parmesan or breakfast casserole conveniently packaged to be stuck in the microwave or freezer. It was amazing! And something we never would have thought to suggest when asked what was needed.

        1. motherofdragons*

          This is what my office did for me when my MIL, who at the time was the primary caretaker of our infants, passed away completely unexpectedly earlier this year. It was such a huge help to have that round of meals after the first month or so of helpful folks dropped off theirs.

          Another thing my husband’s coworkers did was pool donations and purchase a Postmates gift card. This was so great because when we didn’t feel like cooking, we could order what we wanted on our own time. We didn’t have to worry about something taking up freezer room or “This is already thawed so we HAVE to eat it.” And each time we ordered something I thought about them supporting us and it felt really nice.

          1. Marion Ravenwood*

            Off topic, but I love your avatar. :) (And I’m sorry to hear about your MIL.)

      10. Cindy Featherbottom*

        My best friend did something similar when my grandmother passed away. She was watching/feeding my cat while we were out of town for the funeral and I came home to flowers, something she baked for me, and my kitchen was spotless. It was nice to be able to come home to something like that. Once we got home, she and I saw each other a lot more often (we all ready saw each other a lot since we lived very close by). She took charge of organizing dinners, movie nights, etc so I wouldn’t just stay home.
        When your coworker gets back, take her out for lunch, text her and see if she wants coffee or a pastry when you are picking something up for yourself, ask her to join you to get some fresh air/take a break during the day. Just do little things to help her slowly get back to normalcy. Its the little things that help you start to move forward after a painful episode and they are very much appreciated.

  2. JokeyJules*

    From what I understand of people going through such deep turmoil, it seems like you are already on track to doing the best thing as a friend. Don’t try to smother her, be supportive and let her decide how she is feeling on her own. You might want to shy away from the baby/pregnancy stories unless she asks, but otherwise try to continue providing normalcy and support. She knows that you guys are there for her and very sympathetic to her loss, so that’s already taken care of. I’d just respectfully try to maintain normalcy for her and provide support when she needs.

    1. irene adler*

      Personally, I’d want to hear a few cute/happy baby & pregnancy stories. But each to her own.

      Last thing I’d want to hear is all about someone else’s loss (ahem, yeah, that’s what I got an earful of when a loved one passed away unexpectedly).

      One thing: allow co-worker to excuse herself (or speak up to change the subject) if the baby & pregnancy talk is too much to hear. Let her know that no one is going to pass negative judgment on her for doing so. Let her know you are all there to listen & support her if she wishes to talk about things.

      1. Amanda*

        Agreed— when I broke my leg all I heard was the gross stories of how others had sustained leg injuries. When my mom died a few months later, I put the word out via friends that I didn’t want to talk about it, which saved a lot of intrusive conversations.

        1. GG Two shoes*

          I’m lucky that very few people asked how my mom very suddenly died. It was alcohol poisoning, she was in a bar. At first, we didn’t know- she had some other existing issue, but later it was clear. Most people found out through other people, but when folks asked me at work I just said I would rather not talk about it. Eventually, people stopped asking.

      1. JokeyJules*

        i definitely agree. Sometimes when dealing with a terrible loss, talking about a goofy sitcom tv show can help you escape for a little

      2. Wendy Darling*

        I have explicitly asked people “Do you want to talk about how you’re doing or super not that?” I think sometimes when you’ve had a major tragedy it’s all people talk to you about and sometimes you just need to talk about, like, how the weather is awful right now and how you saw a funny cat gif yesterday.

        A friend of mine is in the hospital long-term for cancer treatment right now and we weren’t super close but she texts me every day because I don’t talk about her feelings unless she brings it up and I’ll send her funny internet videos and photos of my dog and live-text her episodes of reality TV ALL DAY if she wants and sometimes that is where she is at.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I remember, after a layoff, deliberately calling this guy I was friends with, because I knew he would say, “Oh, you got laid off? that sucks I’m sure you’ll find something,” and then segue immediately into non-emotional chat.

        2. Fiennes*

          I have out-and-out asked people, “do you need privacy, distraction, or support?” More than one friend has later mentioned appreciating that—not having any one thing forced on them.

          1. Nervous Accountant*

            Wow. I wish everyone could do this instead of whatever they want. I get why they do it. It’s not malice. I just wish more people thought this way.

          2. Dee*

            I’m a fan of that too. “I’m happy to listen if you want to talk about it, and if not, I’m happy to talk about anything else.”

    2. The Big Stinko*

      Normalcy is so helpful. As a cancer survivor, I’ve been grateful that work has been a welcome respite from thinking about my troubles. I like being able to come to the office and distract myself, and really appreciated when my coworkers stopped looking at me like some poor, poor thing who couldn’t function!

      Have some patience in case she flubs a simple task, cut her some slack if attendance isn’t awesome, and practice empathy while gushing about plans for those rotten first holidays without her husband (Christmas & Valentine’s Day come to mind but if you know their anniversary date, tread lightly)…

      1. Partly Cloudy*

        Yes, the holidays.

        I had a co-worker whose husband passed away and around the same time, I ended a very long relationship. On Valentine’s Day that year, another co-worker’s husband brought his wife a card and gift to our office and he brought small gifts for our bereaved co-worker and for me also. It was SO sweet and thoughtful and appreciated.

      2. Anonym*

        Seconded! It differs for everybody, but having 8-10 hours a day of (mostly) not thinking about loss was a lifesaver for me. People were kind and gentle, but gave me a bit of space. I’m fairly private, and could tell when they were concerned but gave a warm smile and continued talking about work instead of asking how I was doing, which would have caused my very fragile composure to break. Love those guys for it.

        1. Blue Tuna*

          Definitely! In my case it wasn’t yet work, but school – I know some teachers were surprised to see me so soon after my father’s death, but I really needed that normalcy. Something similar happened when my marriage was in crisis and ended soon after. Focusing on work instead was crucial to keep my sanity – but, of course, grief is very personal and each person will have different needs around it.

      3. a girl named Bob*

        Our kids were ages 6 and 10 when my husband died (from pancreatitis) right before Halloween. Lucky for me my best girlfriend Willie kind of just took us under her wing. She invited us to have Thanksgiving at her parents’ house — they were close with my husband too, and Christmas dinner at Willie’s. In fact, for the next few years she made sure we had some place to go to celebrate the holidays.
        I’m glad I had the kids, though. Gave me a reason to get up out of bed everyday.

  3. Hixish*

    You’re a really caring woman, I think you should know that.
    There’s not a lot you can do besides what you’ve already done.
    The only thing I can offer would be a grieving support group. Maybe you could research those groups and they’d have ideas – or better yet, maybe she could attend a meeting. She may need support, which I don’t know if you’re the best for that (given your closeness), but giving her that option might help.

    1. OP*

      That’s very kind, thanks. We all work in a “helping profession” so it’s deeply ingrained in us to want to DO something, but I think you’re right that there’s not much. It’s just sad.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, that’s a strong impulse. I think it’s important to differentiate helping from solving here–you are helping by your caring actions. The fact that Sarah is still grieving doesn’t mean you have more to do than that; it’s just something hard that has to happen.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            This. There is no solution really.
            When my husband passed I came up with a new definition of what strength looks like: Strength is standing beside a person in spite of the fact there is not a damn thing you can do to help them. It takes strength to say, “this sucks” and then fall quiet with no pressing need to add more words.

            Sometimes things are greater than any one person. Other times things are greater than a bunch of people combined. It’s fine to carry the attitude of, “I don’t know what you need to do here, but I will stand beside you as you inch your way through it.”

            Since you are in a people biz, perhaps a few of your group can read up on grief, the process, the symptoms and stages of grief, for her, but also read it for yourselves. You know how they say when you have to do CPR, that is not time to be reading the instructions for the FIRST time? Well similar thing for grief. We all will grieve quite a few times in our lives. It’s good to understand some of the things that go on because it can get quite confusing if we are not aware. Some people sleep all the time, some people sleep too little. Other people don’t eat much, yet some other folks absolutely binge on food. This list goes on. This is all normal stuff even though the activities are opposite.

            Expect her to be in a fog for at least a year probably longer. Help her with memory triggers, reminder notes and such. I put a clip on my key ring, so I can clip it to something larger such as my purse, tote or belt loop. Keys are not something I thought about, until I needed to use them. I got a lanyard for my keys at work, so I didn’t set them down either. You can help with the day to day stuff and still be aware that you cannot fix her grief.

    2. Cafe au Lait*

      When my sister died, my Mom called therapists trying to find one that would take a young child (me, aged 2 1/2). All of the places she called said “Oh, I am so sorry! We’re not accepting patients right now/ we don’t take patients that young / we don’t have any openings until XXX.” She stopped after four or five because she couldn’t handle the rejection on top of her grief.

      OP, calling around and putting together a spreadsheet of options will be incredibly beneficial to your coworker. Maybe start with Gilda’s Club. An acquaintance recently lost her daughter and has been receiving therapy services through G’sC.

  4. Kate*

    Oh dear. That is so heartbreaking. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much you *can* do other than what you’re doing. Maybe one of you could be a sort of point person who talks to her about what she needs/how she’d like to be treated (i.e. would she prefer not to hear family talk for a bit or does she prefer to go back to normal?) and spread the word to others? At least that way everyone wouldn’t be tiptoeing around her.

    But really, I think you’re doing everything in your power. You can’t make her pain go away any faster and you’re not in a position to give her time off, so just continue to be kind and available.

    1. SoCalHR*

      I like this idea, also so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by a bunch of people asking if she’s ok/what they can do

    2. Future Homesteader*

      I really like the point person idea. I think the best thing to do w/r/t the babies/pregnancy/family happiness stories is to ask her how she feels, and then ask if you can let everyone else know (or in general, just ask how you can help and offer to spread the word) so she doesn’t have to have the same conversation over and over again. I think this goes back to everyone grieving differently. You can find out from her what she wants and then do some of the emotional labor of helping to make that happen – I think that would be a great service to her.

      1. Shandon*

        Some years ago a manager at my work lost a son, barely into his teens, unexpectedly. She was out a few weeks, and the week before she came back there was an email from one of the higher ups telling us she was returning and that while she greatly appreciated all the support she had gotten, she wanted things to be as normal as possible when she came back. So we did. So I think a “point person” is a great idea. It takes the uncertainty out for others and ensures she wont have more to handle than she already does.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Excellent idea.

      I tend to withdraw when I’m upset, so having everyone asking what they could do would be *mortifying* and really stressful.

  5. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    It sounds like you guys are pretty close, as coworkers go, so I would suggest that you ask her. Probably before she comes back — this is a conversation it can be easier to have in writing, so she can gather her thoughts a bit rather than feel pressured to give an immediate answer. She’s worked with you guys, she (presumably) knows about the kids and the pregnancy and all that, and she knows what kinds of conversations you guys tend to have.

    I wouldn’t make it entirely an open-ended question; that can be a pretty big thing to ask someone to chew on. Instead, I’d frame it something like “Would you like us to give you space when you’re back? Is it easier to be pulled into work conversations instead of personal-life ones?” Giving her yes-no questions or a list of defined options can make a big question like “what can we do to be sensitive to your grief?” more manageable.

    1. Gloucesterina*

      Countess Boochie Flagrante, this is incredibly thoughtful, I hope I will never face this situation, but in case I do (since life happens, after all), I’ve saved your advice in my work resource file.

    2. Smithy*

      I recently returned to work following the bereavement leave from the passing of my father…and I agree that while asking is thoughtful, open ended asking is not.

      During my father’s illness – so many people wanted to help and be there for me in a way where I honestly didn’t know what to say or what I wanted. It almost ended up being more work to tell people “this is what I’d like”.

      What I found the most helpful was my boss asking me what I wanted, didn’t want, and then work through my return as a work “thing”.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        A good substitute question might be, “What’s going on today/this week?” A couple people asked me this which opened up a conversation of specific activities. As I told them what I was working on, they would jump in where they saw gaps or where they could help.
        I couldn’t find the correct shipper to send the life insurance claim. Crap like this brings on tears, I could NOT just send it UPS or USPS. So my cousin helped me find the shipper and rode with me to deliver the envelope for shipping. Sounds like a simple thing, right? But the front part of the story was all the hoops I jumped through to find the policy, get the correct form, find the mailing address and what paperwork they wanted. But the time I had to look for that certain shipper, I was flippin’ exhausted by this process. My cousin was able to jump in because she said, “What’s going on today?”

    3. FormerHoosier*

      I agree. Asking questions like this can be helpful and supportive because people grieve differently. Some people want to focus on work as a distraction and others need to be able to talk about their loss while at work, etc.

    4. E. Jennings*

      I had a coworker go through this earlier this year — very similar dynamics, down to the office full of 20- and 30-somethings mostly going through happy milestones (marriage! babies! pet acquisition! house purchases!) and sharing excitedly about them at the office. I second that you should ask and ask specifically. In her case, it was important to her to feel like work was a place where she could pretend to be normal and escape the grief for awhile, and she wanted us to treat her accordingly (if compassionately), including hearing about the happy stuff in other poeple’s lives.

  6. Not So Super-visor*

    If she is struggling with depression due to the loss (and who would blame her), she may qualify for FMLA. My sister was able to do this after the sudden loss of my 3-year old niece.

    1. OP*

      Yeah, between the time she used before he died and the time she’s using now, FMLA is being used up.
      I’m sorry about your niece.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Question: Do you guys have enough leave that several of you could potentially give up a day to give her an extra week of recovery? Would your company allow you to do that? Do you think it would be beneficial to her to take the time? If she’s wallowing in grief as opposed to simply feeling overwhelmed, being pulled out of the ability to do that all day might help; so that’s something to consider.

        Also, it sounds like you guys talk about families and kids and stuff a lot and while I wouldn’t say you should stop doing that, maybe you guys could actively figure out some other topics to talk about so that there’s a reduction in the amount of it? Start some favorite movie topics, debates about why they’re worthy not worthy, etc.? What’s the best Samuel Jackson movie? Why? Stuff like that which you can round robin into the next possible “Okay, best Jennifer Lawrence movie, what about that?”

        1. Tardigrade*

          I like the idea of donated leave. Alternatively, it might be possible for her to work half days for a week or so.

    1. Justme, The OG*

      But also be prepared that like other people going through depression, she’ll say “nothing” or “everything is fine” and not want to burden other people.

    2. ExcelJedi*


      And then ask her again in a few weeks, and a month after that. Don’t hound her, but her answer may change in time.

    3. Washi*

      I don’t think it is that simple! My friend’s mom recently died, and she was complaining to me about how overwhelming it was to have everyone asking/saying “let me know if there’s anything I can do” but not make any concrete offers/be more specific about how they could help. This is a little different because it’s work, but I think the comments above offer some good scripts about how to ask more specific questions, like does she not want people to mention the loss to her, does she prefer to avoid personal conversations etc.

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        Yeah, I think the fact that they’re coworkers makes this especially complicated. You’re friends, but there’s still more of an implicit boundary than there would be with a non-work friend. And grief brings up rawer emotions than you’d normally share at work, which can bring people together or just feel really awkward. And so it’s more fraught than usual to know what sorts of things to ask or offer.

        As a couple people have already said, I think one of the best questions might be “Do you want us to acknowledge what you’re going through and support you at work, or have work be a haven of Not Having To Think About It?”.

      2. TootsNYC*

        That point about open-ended offers of help:

        Maybe think about things that, from a practical POV, you guys -could- do.

        Maybe mornings are sort of hard, getting up and getting ready for work w/ no one in the house; could one of you offer to car-pool with her?

        If every day she goes straight home, could one of you drag her along to check out a new store at the mall for 30 minutes, and report to everyone the next day about what kind of stuff they sell?
        (a short something to do that isn’t “us sitting around talking”; so check out a new bar, but not to talk but rather do a “review” of what drinks, etc., they sell–so you have something to talk about that has a purpose)

        That sort of “interrupt her routine, get her out of her empty house, and insert a human being into her non-work time” that isn’t very emotion-laden.

        She may not want those, of course, but those are things you could offer (or just invite–“hey, come with me to the mall, I want to check out this store”) and see where it goes.

        1. Rebecca in Dallas*

          I can guarantee it’s not going to be simple for her either. Grief can hit you weird ways at random times. So what works for her today may not be the case tomorrow. The best thing you can do is just be very understanding of that.

          It sounds like she has really great coworkers, you are all so nice to put so much thought into this!

    4. MLB*

      It really isn’t that simple. When someone is grieving over something they’ve never experienced before, they may not know what they want.

      1. WellRed*

        My mom and I couldn’t make the simplest decisions about anything even remotely open ended right after my dad died. When it came to say, having choices put to us, that was easier.

      2. JSPA*

        It’s not like recuperating from a broken leg. The main thing you want is an impossibility, and everything else is just noise. If you have any tendencies towards spinning your wheels or digging into a hole, it’s wheel-spinning, hole-digging time. People forget to eat, bathe, put the trash out and pay the utility bills. They’re not going to ask someone to stop at the store for milk.

        1. Grapey*

          And on the flip side, if you say “I’m stopping at the grocery store, can I get you any eggs/milk/coffee/tp/diapers” they will probably say yes to an explicit reminder.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I remember to register my car when that police officer gave me a ticket. This is how it goes.

    5. Les G*

      I think all folks pointing out the different ways they reacted to grief (and specifically people asking what they can do) suggests that it’s, uh, not that simple.

      1. DCompliance*

        I don’t think Mike was saying it is always so simple for the person who is grieving to answer this question. Is it possible the person grieving may not know how answer the question or be unsure of how to answer or feel hesitant to answer- yes. However, it is simple for those around the person to ask how can we best support you- yes.

        1. CM*

          Yes, it’s simple for the non-grieving person to ask what the grieving person wants.
          But it’s not necessarily the kindest or most thoughtful thing to do and can cause stress to the grieving person. So people are pointing out lots of better approaches — use specific, yes/no questions about what the person wants (at work, would you prefer we not ask how you’re doing and stick to work topics, or would you like us to check in with you?), offer opportunities for interaction and companionship, find ways to make the person’s life easier.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            The people who said, “let me know if you need anything” were the people I never called. I had no clue what they were offering, or what types of things they could help with.
            Something like, “Hey, you know I am really good with animals, if you need help with your pets be sure to tell me” goes a long way.

    6. Lora*

      Nah, I think it’s better to just offer things like no big deal, like she is doing you the favor by accepting.

      When you’re that deeply grieving, it’s very very hard to think through the fog of What Needs Done, let alone what you need help with or what the person might be able to help you with, and then it feels all weird to have someone up in your personal business even if they would have been happy to do it.

      The best thing my friends did for me was just make tons of food and “OMG I have all these leftovers, Lora you take them I’ll never use it all,” and then suddenly I had a kitchen full of heat and eat food. Which was about all the cooking I could really handle anyways, but at least I HAD plenty of stuff to throw in the microwave and I didn’t have to try to think through a grocery list and recipe. One of my friends brought over brunch one day and just did all my dishes without asking – something I’d have been horribly embarrassed about, but I couldn’t get my crap together and do them myself and I’d have died of embarrassment before I asked someone out loud to run the dishwasher for me. They “just happened to be in the area” very often to help me walk the dogs (“oh, my kids wanted to play with your dogs!”), sweep the floor or do a load of laundry. One of my friends bought some clothes for me with “I was at the thrift store and I saw this and it’s so cute but it didn’t fit me, see if it fits you, oh don’t bother paying me it was only $5” so I’d have easy wash-and-wear things. I would never have dreamed of asking for such things, but she noticed that the hem on my skirt was torn and some of my laundry looked worn – I hadn’t noticed at all.

      When someone asks you, it’s like the brain fog prevents you from doing anything other than fake-smiling and saying “oh I’m fine thanks”. Even when you’re wearing the same outfit three days in a row, your deodorant has clearly worn off and you haven’t been able to motivate yourself to brush your teeth in a week.

      1. Washi*

        I agree with this. Like if you know what she normally likes for lunch, maybe you can say “ahh I got way too much salad by accident this week, how about I bring some in for our lunches Monday – Wednesday so it doesn’t go bad?’ or offer to fill up her water bottle/teacup on your way past her desk, or any other little tasks that might not be at the forefront of her mind at this time.

    7. LQ*

      My aunt, when my grandfather passed away, went on a 2 hour sobbing rant about people constantly asking her. A lot of the comments here do a great job of summing up why it isn’t always that simple.

  7. Observer*

    Try to be mindful of the stuff you talk about. Not that you need to never mention spouse and kids. But try to keep that limited.

    Take her lead on how much she wants to discuss this. Many people want to go to work to totally block out the biggest trouble of their life. Others want people to acknowledge their grief. Most, in my experience tend to fall somewhere in between. They want some acknowledgement, but they don’t really want to discuss it. So, sound her out and see where she falls.

    1. MechanicalPencil*

      And each day is a little different. Let your coworker guide you a little bit. Some days she may want to talk about it and other days she may just need to be distracted and hear stories about what the little minions have been up to so she doesn’t have to think about the fact that she saw her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet or his favorite coffee cup in the cabinet.

  8. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

    Oof. There’s no single answer here. Things are probably pretty raw right now, and your coworker might never be “done” grieving. But life does go on.

    What I can say is that grief takes up a lot of mental space. So expect some mistakes or other inattention problems, while her brain is trying to process such a huge loss.

    As far as “avoiding all talk of domestic bliss”…. it really depends on the person. Just like some people struggling with infertility need boundaries around baby stuff and others happily celebrate other people’s pregnancies and others fall in between depending on the relationship dynamic, she may find it very hard she may find it a relief, who knows.

    What I would do is go out of your way to invite her to eat/ socialize, giving her space to say no thanks, and if she’s there, let her guide the convo. Maybe she just wants to sit in silence with another human, maybe she wants to talk about the bachelorette, maybe she wants to talk about her husband. When we are with a grieving person trying to support them, our job is to be open arms and to let them take the lead.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yes, the point about the mental space is also a good one, I wish I’d caught it in my reply. I wouldn’t make a show of giving her less work than she’s accustomed to, but going light on how much she has to juggle and offering her extra support in terms of job functions is probably going to be helpful.

  9. Positive Reframer*

    1. Ask her, different people want different things in grief.

    2. If it comes up encourage her to seek support. Almost everyone I know who has lost someone tragically young has had counseling and/or attended a support group. As her coworkers that’s probably not something you can provide but might be able to encourage.

    3. Ask her for favors, not the first day back but after a while. Yeah that’s weird but helping someone else can do a lot to give a reprieve from grief. Feeling useful and wanted and competent is great for just about anybody. It shows her that she is still a needed and valuable part of the community that she belongs to.

    4. Don’t avoid being sad/grieved for things that go wrong in your life just because “well at least my spouse didn’t die from cancer.” Its not a contest and she needs to support you as you have supported her even if it is for something that objectively is less of a big deal. Similarly don’t avoid being happy but give her an easy out from workplace celebrations like showers.

    5. Think about supporting her in the way she wants to memorialize her husband. Does she want to support cancer research? Think about all participating in a 5k or something. Maybe he cared deeply about something and she wants to continue supporting that like he would have.

    A lot of these are more long term things. And YMMV with any one of them.

    1. Anonym*

      #3 is great advice. Sometimes feeling useful to others can be an anchor when you’re feeling totally adrift. As you say, YMMV. As a sort of guilt-oriented person who has trouble accepting help, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of friends and family after my father died. Being able to do (concrete, straightforward, not too taxing) things for others helped me hang on to myself through the early days.

      1. OP*

        Yes, I think #3 is great. Sarah is a very knowledgeable employee so I can think of lots of low-pressure but still helpful things I can ask her.

    2. peanutbutty*

      Yes, #3 is a great point about asking for her help with things you know she is good at and enjoys (and that are low stakes if she says no). For a lot of people, feeling like you are only accepting help and never able to offer it can really chip away at sense of identity and self-esteem. You may start to feel you are not able to contribute anything after a while.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      #3. The most obnoxious thing someone could say to me is “no you can’t help”. I would have rather heard the f-bomb it would have been less upsetting. Because I knew I was foggy and probably not using my best judgement I was very happy to do some of the simpler things that needed to be done. “Here, you can help with this” is empowerment. Loss rips our power from us, being able to help others brings it back.

  10. I'm A Little Teapot*

    Personally, this socially awkward person would say, once, “I’m so sorry. I hope you’re taking care of yourself as best you can.” And then I would assume she’d be half present, at best, for a while (6 months – 1 year) and adjust accordingly. I would try to treat her as normally as possible, with sympathy. If she starts
    crying, I’d quietly make sure she’s got kleenix to hand (in a sympathy way, not a judgy way). Socially, I would invite her, welcome her, and not take it personally if she didn’t come. If she is eating lunch with others, try to sprinkle more general conversation topics in – concerts, tv shows, pets, house projects, etc. Aim for a wide range of conversation topics, everyone will appreciate that.

    You are not living your lives AT her, though she may feel very raw about hearing those conversations. While it seems she’s in free fall right now, she will begin to recover in time. By the time she comes back to work, she may be well past this stage of grief, who knows.

    And perhaps put a flyer up in all the bathrooms reminding people about the EAP if you have one.

    1. Flash Bristow*

      This response really resonates and I think is excellent.

      A friend of mine lost her husband very suddenly and unexpectedly; although it was dreadful, by the time she went back to work after a couple of weeks she was ready for it. There’s only so much sitting in an empty house and weeping that she could take. Getting back to routine was hard but welcome.

      OP, the fact that you’re asking at all shows that you care about getting it right. There will be hiccups along the way, whether it’s you saying something awkward by mistake, or her not coping with something she thought she could handle.

      Just be kind, open and honest all round, and you’ll get through it. Sympathies to everyone in this situation.

  11. BF50*

    Have you asked her what you can do to help her?

    Grief is so personal and individual. What one person needs will not be the same as what another needs and what she needs now may not be what she needs in a week.

    When my mother died, I needed my work to be normal. I didn’t want coworkers checking in on me. It made me sad during the part of the day where I was functioning at my best. Work was a place I could step away from the grief.

    I told my boss that when I was out on bereavement and she spread that around. 99% of the time she sucked as a boss, but in that case, I was really thankful for her intervention. Not having a parade of people stopping by to hug me every 5 minutes was good.

    My sister did not feel that her friends supported her enough. She wanted more people to check in on her and she wanted more people around her in her down time.

    My dad wished he got fewer hot dishes. People kept taking him out to eat or sending him rich, heavy foods. He got multiple lasagnas and casseroles to feed just one person, which more than he could eat and a reminder that he had no one to share it with. Most of the food went bad before he even ate a bite.

    On the other hand I would have loved some home cooked meals. Everyone is so different.

    1. Celeste*

      I saw this addressed in a novel by Anne Tyler, “The Beginner’s Goodbye”, in which the protagonist was a newly widowed man. He had a daily routine of picking up the big, heavy casserole from the front porch, running it down the disposal, and cleaning up the pan to set out for the owner to collect. He was relieved when the food stopped coming.

      1. Flash Bristow*

        Aw, what a sad concept.

        But it’s a good reminder not to go overboard. When a neighbour was bereaved, I just offered her single portions of things. Making a batch of chilli for the freezer? Offer her one. Running to the chippie? Ask if she fancies a fish supper. She has a small appetite anyway (she’s a very slight woman) and she had mentioned how she struggled with ready meals being too big for her. But giving her a chilli in a small container, or splitting a fish n chips with her, works really well.

        Also, it’s not all the time, just when it genuinely fits with my meal schedule. Although admittedly we made that happen a lot more often when she was newly bereaved. But it’s always worth asking. Even if she doesn’t fancy what’s on offer, I know she appreciates the thought. And it isn’t provided without her agreement so it can’t become a burden! The idea of having to throw out a casserole, all alone, day after day… that’s just so sad.

    2. Karyn*

      When my father-in-law passed away, my ex and I got so much food – and most of it was heavy stuff that we could never finish. That said, the fruit and cheese basket that one of our friends sent us was VERY much appreciated – pears and cheeses and crackers that we could just pick at when we were running between the apartment and the funeral home.

      1. Story Nurse*

        I just sent a Harry & David basket to friends with a new baby because I know they’ll need food they can eat by the handful when they abruptly realize they’re starving. I expect the same applies to people who are grieving. Since you’re all in the same office, OP, maybe you can make sure that the kitchen stays well stocked with granola bars, crackers and cheese, individual yogurt servings, mint tea, protein shakes, grapes, and other things that Sarah can nibble on when she needs to. Aim for plain and bland (and respect any dietary restrictions, obviously). Grief and stress can cause nausea.

        Speaking of which, it might not hurt to have Tums and Pepcid handy too, if HR permits OTC meds to be available for shared use, or to mention casually to her that you have a stash of them if she needs them. Likewise Tylenol/Advil for headaches, and strategically placed boxes or packets of tissues for crying. Grief happens in the body as well as the mind.

        1. Karyn*

          This so much. Preparing for and hosting a funeral is absolutely exhausting. My FIL had tons of friends and family members – we had three separate viewings each day for three days. My ex and I were completely drained when we’d come home for a pit stop between the viewings, and it was SO wonderful to have that fruit there just to grab. And I second the breakroom treats and meds – that alone would make work life easier.

      2. Rebecca in Dallas*

        When my FIL passed away, we got SO MANY sandwich platters. We were so sick of sandwiches after a few days and they don’t really keep all that well (bread gets soggy, veggies go limp). I still remember my MIL’s best friend taking apart an entire sandwich platter and separating the turkey, roast beef, etc into plastic baggies so that maybe that wouldn’t go to waste. And then she turned around and another sandwich platter had showed up.

        So if anyone is organizing a meal train, make sure that people communicate what they plan on bringing! Items that freeze well can be great (lasagnas, enchiladas, etc). That way they can just go right into the freezer if they aren’t going to get eaten right away. Make sure to deliver meals in disposable serving dishes and include paper plates/napkins and plastic utensils. The last thing they want to do is dishes!

    3. Ali G*

      I second the need for work to be “normal.” I’ve never (knocks on wood) had to endure something as awful as losing a parent or my spouse, but I’ve been through some trying stuff and knowing work was the one place where I didn’t need (or couldn’t for lack of time) think about it was so very helpful. And just having people being normal around me helped a lot too – like they expected me to function and so I did.

    4. TootsNYC*

      I remember a message-board thread somewhere (maybe even here) about a new-mom’s give-them-a-meal group where one mom had figured out the perfect contribution: a big zip-lock bag of fresh vegetables, cut up and ready to eat.

      Too big could be a problem (peppers get slimy, e.g.), but that would be more helpful sometimes than casseroles.

    5. Observer*

      The food thing is a good point.

      Some things that help:

      Find out what the person (or family) likes.
      Stuff that freezes well.
      Disposable containers
      Individual portions. Even with a family it’s useful to have some of that because not everyone is always going to be eating at the same time. If there is something that someone can pull out of the freezer for themselves, it just makes it so much easier.

    6. Not a Blossom*

      When my neighbor’s wife died, I took him healthy meals that were 1) individually portioned, 2) freezable, and 3) in disposable containers. While I was over there, someone brought over a giant casserole dish full of heavy, cheesy ziti. It looked good, but it was his second one and a lot for just him.

      I also took over some easy breakfast foods because people rarely bring that stuff, and I knew being able to pop an English muffin in the toaster would help.

      Another idea is snacks. We lost my grandmother and my uncle close together, and my dad really struggled. I mentioned to one of my friends that he wasn’t eating, so they sent a big basket of snack foods in the hopes that he would at least pick at that (and he did).

  12. We Named the Dog Indiana*

    Sounds like you’re already being quite considerate. I would just add that when she gets back and you’re chatting at lunch, while domestic stories are bound to come up as you say…maybe try and have some other topics ready to discuss (travel, cooking adventures, whatever) so the conversations can also cover areas that won’t be as hard for her to hear and she could maybe relate to more. Not that you need to completely stop having domestic stories, but having those ready could help if any awkward silences come up and keep the conversation more balanced and comfortable for everyone, especially right when she’s back.

  13. MuseumChick*

    It sounds like you and your co-workers are doing what is appropriate. Here is what I would recommend

    1) Say something like “Let us know if there is anything at all we can do for you.”
    2) Be cognoscente of what you talk about. (The little domestic stories etc).
    3) If you notice her have a particularly bad day check in with her (Caution: This really varies by person to person so let her take the lead)

    1. schnauzerfan*

      MuseumChick is so right when she says things really vary by person… When we were dealing with my Dads death the “let us know if there is anything we can do” was less helpful then the people offering would have wished it to be. We didn’t know what we really needed and wouldn’t have asked anyway. A pastor friend suggests you make specific suggestions of things you can and will do. i.e. “Do you need help with the yard work?” “We could come by and mow or shovel the snow for you.” or if she mentions needing to have her car serviced, offer her a ride. That sort of thing. Do cut her slack at work, and offer specific help if it makes sense to do so. I’m sure I was a sleep walker those first weeks and months after my loss. Tactful little reminders like”boy the deadline for xxx is coming right up. If you’ll proofread for me, I can proof your section?” saved my bacon several times.

      But definitely listen to and think about what she needs. When my Uncle died my Aunt needed lots of help those first weeks and months, her husband had taken care of all things “car” she’d never pumped her own gas, checked her own oil. Was amazed to find that her windshield washers just needed new fluids and new wiper blades to be good as new. She came for a visit and all of a sudden realized she didn’t have enough gas to get home and had no one to pump it for her. I went to the station and taught her how to run the pump. My cousin, bless him, had been doing if for her and had made it a point to let auntie know it was time to get the oil changed, checked the furnace filters in the house, all those things our uncle used to do. We put together a calendar of all the car and home maint. things that were now aunties problem along with a list of people who could do the things she couldn’t do (68 year old lady probably shouldn’t learn to clean her own gutters…)

      1. DCGirl*

        A cousin had never taken the trash out to the curb before her husband died suddenly. He had handled all things trash. She was so concerned about having to carry heavy trash cans out to the curb. Her daughters explained to her that trash cans have been on wheels for years now, but her mind had flashed back to the good old days of aluminum cans that you carried (or dragged) out to the curb.

        1. Lora*

          Ohhhh yeah I forgot about that – when my dad died, mom didn’t know how to run the lawnmower at all and literally everywhere we lived after that had no lawn because nobody ever showed her how a lawnmower worked.

          She also didn’t know (still doesn’t really) how money worked, but this seems a bit of an overstep for a co-worker, especially in this day and age.

  14. tallteapot*

    I’m with the others who suggest that someone ask her what she wants and then do the best you can, within normal limits, to respect that. Obviously, your pregnant coworker is going to be visible and it’s not fair to her to have to pretend like she’s not expecting a child. But your bereaved co-worker may not want everyone to walk on eggshells or pretend that their lives aren’t happening and will want to still talk and hear about what’s going on with others. She may also want to talk about her own sad, crummy stuff and I think that giving her space to do that may also be a gift.
    But ask her. It’ll be awkward, yes, but as Alison always says, it’s better to get things out there and have open communication that to act on guesses or suppositions about what the other person wants/needs.

  15. NicoleK*

    You can do pretty much the same thing for her now, that you did when her husband was battling cancer. Let her take the lead.

  16. Thirtysomething*

    Been there, exactly scenario, exact disease.. eventually our coworker came back, and we tried a lot, but she got a new job in a new state just for a fresh start. There may not be much you can do, but you can ask and remind her that you’re available.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yep. This can happen, too.
      My friend lost her hubby when she was young, that same year she lost a baby earlier. Getting out of bed was an accomplishment. It was such a loss. Some people just need to up and move that is the only way they can cope by finding totally new surroundings.

  17. Ivylaughed*

    Say nothing. Let her grieve in peace. If you notice her withdrawing during lunch because of the domestic stories, change the topic. Do the emotional labor to make it easier on her but don’t talk to her about it. Grieving is exhausting and she does not need to comfort you that you’re helping her.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I agree.

      I think it’s actually disrespectful to ask her to accept your comfort, especially colleagues, even friendly ones.

      Focus on what SHE needs, not on what you THINK she needs.

    2. Quackeen*

      This is a great example of “everyone is different.” Some people would absolutely thrive under the conditions you’re proposing. Others might feel very lonely and forgotten-about if you don’t talk to them at all about their loss.

      1. Lissa*

        Yeah, this is why there’s still so much written about dealing with grief and helping others. What is wonderful for one person is terrible for someone else, and often the grieving person doesn’t have the wherewithal, understandably, to realize the other person is not being deliberately insensitive but doing what they think would be helpful. So many people are like “oh it’s simple, just do X” but if it was really that simple everyone would already know.

        (I am a “please talk to me about mundane things and distract me” person myself.)

  18. mark132*

    Hopefully she’s getting help from a professional counselor. It may be worth suggesting this to her in some gentle way.

    Also in regards to children, it’s not really a topic you can avoid long term. For parents, children are such a large part of their life that there isn’t any practical way to long term avoid the topic. I think being sensitive for a short time would be appropriate of course.

  19. Amber Rose*

    Oh, please don’t start stifling yourselves. We as a society handle grief really weirdly, and part of that is this idea that everyone is upset for a couple weeks and then everyone is supposed to move on, including those most affected who are almost certainly NOT ready to move on. I think it was about a month before I started catching actual flak online for still being sad about my mom dying. :/

    Anyways, my point is that often those who are grieving often start picking up a sense of guilt. Their sadness is a drain on others and they bring everyone down and they make people feel bad and they should be over it already. If you walk on eggshells around this woman, she will pick up on that and feel worse. The absolute best thing you can do is be supportive without being pitying or cautious. Be normal. Talk to her like normal. Ask her what she needs without taking in “that” tone of voice. You know, the one that kind of sounds like you’re talking to a sad child and are also not good at dealing with children.

    Please also avoid enforcing any kind of standard of “appropriate grieving behavior.” I cracked a lot of jokes in the immediate aftermath of mom’s loss, because humor helped me cope, and I also set about arranging things like a one woman army because I wanted to be busy. You would not believe how many people wanted me to be more serious and take more time before doing stuff. Ugh.

    1. LilySparrow*

      I also cope with grief with very dark humor and off-kilter jokes. It’s my filters going down due to stress.

      Laughing and crying release the same chemicals in your brain, and people have different default settings when they’re processing stuff

      1. SL #2*

        A friend of mine lost her father to a sudden heart attack two months before our planned trip to a music festival several states away. We both also lived in different states, so the last time I’d seen her in person was before the loss. I remember making some dark quip in the car, as is my habit, and then being slightly mortified that I’d said something like that. We’d been together for approximately 2 hours at that point. She cracked up, and then started laughing even harder when I attempted to also apologize to the spirit of her father, because apparently he adored dark humor and would’ve been the first one to make the same joke in the same situation.

        That moment really stuck with me, for some reason. Dark humor as a coping mechanism isn’t for everyone, but when it works, oh boy, does it work.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I knew crying released chemicals in the brain, I did not know laughter did also. Interesting!

    2. Rebecca in Dallas*

      My friend lost her fiance and said that the “How *are* you?” question with sad eyes was the worst. Those of us close to her didn’t handle her with kid gloves and I think she appreciated that.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      The deep dark secret is we never get over grief. It changes form but it remains with us. Crying morphs into a silent gaze (or similar) as the decades roll by, but that silent gaze is still part of the grieving process.

      Here is how powerful losing a parent is: Doctors know that when we lose our parents we start to exhibit the symptoms that will eventually kill us.

      And for spouses: Studies show that the mortality rate for the surviving spouse goes up for TWO years after the death of the first spouse. This rate knows no boundaries, it does not matter the race, income, location, age, gender etc of the surviving person.

      The folks and their time frames. I dunno. When my husband passed an acquaintance said, “You have been moping around here for two months, you need to pull yourself together and get a new man.” Since she was my elder at almost twice my age and since she had been widowed twice, I simply said, “yeah”, and walked away. This is a person who was not going to be able to help me or be influential in my life. And that is what I really needed to know right there. I guess some people do get over it? My theory is that some people pretend to get over it so they can conform to what they think society wants them to do. My silent rebuttal to her was, “I am not YOU.”

    4. Anon attorney*

      This, absolutely. It starts before the death, actually – my late husband and I used to roll our eyes at the head-tilters – you know, the big sad face “but how AAAAARE you” thing. I prefer people to be kind but matter of fact.

  20. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Just be there.

    If she wants to talk, let her talk. If she doesn’t want to talk – don’t force it.

    Don’t tell her how to grieve or how she should feel. Grief is extremely personal and different for everyone. There is no right way nor wrong way. This is the hardest thing this woman has ever gone through; she gets to decide how to handle it. So even if you don’t agree – DO NOT TELL HER. (If I had a nickel for every time someone told me something I was doing was wrong, I could taken a mighty nice vacation.)

    If you want to ask what she needs, put requests in. Don’t say “If there’s anything you need, let me know”. Because she (probably) doesn’t know what she needs right now. So, instead, say something like “I’m running out for lunch/coffee/whatever. What would you like me to bring you back?”

  21. SoCalHR*

    Everyone is different, but my mom and grandma both liked when we talked about my grandpa/shared stories about him. I think the default is to not mention the person at all, but it helps some people. So if she mentions him, don’t get awkward and quiet, try to ask a follow up question and engage whatever memory she is recounting.

    1. Mrs. Vandertramp*

      I so agree with this, having lost my mom about a year and a half ago. For me, there was a time period where I could barely talk about it, but as time passed, I wanted to talk about my mom, and people do tend to shut it down or say something placating or seemingly soothing/actually a little condescending (“that’s so great that you have that memory”) when it would be more helpful to treat it like any other story you might tell someone about your parents, spouse, siblings, whatever–whether that’s follow up questions or “my mom did that too!” and sharing your own story.

      1. There's Always Money in the Banana Stand*

        I once read something written by a mother who had lost her child, that basically said that when you can’t bear to talk about it, that’s all anyone wants to discuss. but when you’re finally ready to talk about it, everyone else has moved on and doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. Grief is hard and weird, but the way that we react to it as a society is even weirder.

  22. Squeeble*

    In addition the emotional support others have suggested, see if there are work tasks you can take off her plate that she may not have the energy or focus for. When my husband’s mother died and he had to be back to work unreasonably soon, his coworkers were great about taking some of his work for a while.

  23. Karyn*

    First, my deepest sympathies to your coworker on her terrible loss.

    My boyfriend is a young widower whose wife died in 2015 from lung cancer (she was 36, a nonsmoker, and had a genetic mutation that caused it). He was only 31 when she died. So, while I have no personal experience with this, I’ve talked to him quite a bit about it, and he’s told me that the best thing people did for him was to simply say that they were sorry for his loss, and to give sincere offers of support. He said that people who helped him do the everyday things that were hard for him to do himself were the biggest comfort – a group of coworkers sent him a cleaning service for a month because he just wasn’t up to doing it himself. But everyone’s grief is so different – some people want to talk about their spouses (like him), and some don’t want to talk about them at all. So I think doing something constructive for her – like the maid service – might be something that would help without her having to relive the grief.

    Of course, as I said, YMMV. For whatever it’s worth, it’s lovely that you’re so concerned, and I’m sure that concern is appreciated, regardless.

  24. Kaybee*

    In addition to the excellent advice given by others, I’d urge you and your coworkers to be compassionate to the fact that you can bounce around the stages of grief, including moving “backward.” It’s not a steady march toward “doing fine.” This was really hard for me and other colleagues who have suffered losses, because people who haven’t gone through this don’t really understand. Your coworker may come back to work and be fine, then four, six, eight months from now may need to take some time. If/when that happens, please support her.

  25. Formerly Frustrated Optimist*

    A book recommendation, maybe not even so much for your co-worker, but for you: Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s very readable and provides a vivid account of the grief journey as well as coping strategies.

  26. notmuchtosay*

    Everyone grieves differently, so follow her lead, but be open to the fact that she might want to just work at work. I went back to work two weeks after my infant son died, and I just wanted 8 hours of normalcy in my day. Instead, I got constant amateur bereavement support all day long. It was so well intentioned, and yet so hard to handle. People signed up to leave sympathy cards on my desk every day for months, took tasks that I was capable of off my plate leaving me with nothing to do and I didn’t know how to stop such well intentioned gestures.

  27. Celeste*

    You’ve done all the things, and all you can do now is be someplace where she can get back to normal. We recently had a coworker lose his son to a sudden death. You could tell it helped him to do a normal thing like carry on through the work day.

    In this case, your coworker has to start her life over in some ways. I hope she’s seeing a therapist, because that’s a great way to let out a lot of hard feelings. I think she’ll be okay in time, but I know it’s hard not to be able to fix anything. Really hard.

  28. Clever username*

    Do you work in an office where you can “donate” leave in order to give your coworker more time off?
    Grieving really can take a lot of time/space.

  29. Jenatoo*

    Actually, DON’T say “is there anything we can do for you?” As someone who lost a parent at 22 (unexpectedly) then got divorced at 30 (also unexpectedly, also traumatic), I did not think this question was helpful. It takes too much energy for a grieving person to think of something appropriate to ask for. Offer her something instead, so she can just say yes or no. Once you know when she’s returning to work, it could be something work-related, like “can we help you find a dog walker?” (if she has a dog) or “can I respond to your voicemails/summarize how we have followed up on your weekly tasks?” But keep in mind that you are not a close friend or family member, so you’ll just need to follow her lead about whether and how to ask her how she’s doing personally. By the time she returns, she may be looking for a break from grieving while she’s at the office. Respect that by letting her either take it a little easy her first weeks back, or get engrossed in a big project (again, you’ll just have to listen and watch for her cues).

    1. ENFP in Texas*

      This! Asking someone who is already stressed beyond belief if they can come up with anything for you to do can be just overwhelming. If you want to help, offer concrete suggestions of things you would be able to do. “Do you want to go out anfld get some lunch today?” “Are there any items on your to-do list that I can take care of so you can focus on other projects?” “If you want to talk about anything, I’m happy to listen, just let me know.”

      Always be ready for her to say no, but also be willing to ask again a couple days later. Losing a spouse is like losing an arm. It takes a while to learn how the hell to function again.

      1. Chicago Anon*

        Even with lunch, it can be hard to make decisions. If she’s stalling over a menu, you could try “I’m going to have X, shall I get that for you, too?” (unless you know she can’t eat X).

    2. Marzipan*

      You’re spot on – it’s really hard to know how to respond to offers to do ‘anything’. Clearly the person doesn’t literally mean that they’ll do anything – there must be some sort of limits, and you don’t know what they are. If you’re supporting someone, giving concrete suggestions of what you can and will do if they’d like you to is often far more manageable for the person to process.

      1. The Original K.*

        Yep. And if you come up with something and it’s outside the person’s limits so they can’t or won’t do it, it’s very awkward and feels bad. Much better to tell folks what you can and will do, and let them decide if that’s what they need.

  30. President Porpoise*

    This happened to a family friend. Her young husband passed away due to brain cancer, leaving her with two children under the age of five.

    It’s not exactly the same, and I don’t know that there’s a whole lot that you, as a coworker and not a close friend can do. Offer your support and be there if she needs to talk, or make it easy to get away from the family chatter. If there’s anything you guys can do to offer some financial assistance, that may be helpful – burial and cancer bills are so, so expensive. I had a close friend die last year of cervical cancer at 36 – it was financially strenuous on her family, in addition to the horrible grief. She did not have a spouse, but her brother is also a close friend.

    It’s hard, and the only thing you can help with are the symptoms, not the source of the actual problem. And it will never really go away, either. Listen to her and try to accommodate her needs as much as you can. That’s really all you can do.

  31. TootsNYC*

    A woman I work with lost her husband due to a fast-moving illness. When she finally came back, she asked her boss to email us all to let us know, “Please don’t ask. It’s hard to talk about, and I need work to be the place where I don’t have to dwell on it.”

    (So, if your coworker hasn’t done something like that–appoint a proxy, give them the message she wants everyone to have, and set the preference for how to handle it–suggest it to her, maybe. Doesn’t have to be the boss; should be someone she’s comfortable being open with, and who will convey her messages accurately and without drama.)

    So that’s what we did–we focused on work. At the end of her first day, I said to her, “I just wanted you to know that I was deliberately ignoring you today,” in a semi-sympathetic tone. She laughed.

    Sometimes people need or want work to simply be steady. So if she tears up, maybe hand her a tissue and keep going? (I had a doctor who did this to me once, and it was THE MOST RESTFUL and RESPECTFUL thing ever–I continued to cry, and he continued asking questions and talking about my health, but he trusted me to deal with my own emotions, and he just kept moving right along. It actually helped me rein in my emotions and settle myself, being left to do it on my own.)

    1. Doe-Eyed*

      This is excellent. I lost my brother in February completely unexpectedly and most days were fine. The days that weren’t were the ones that my (kindly intending) manager would send me “encouragement”. One day she said she was concerned for me. Even though objectively (according to multiple others) I was performing well. Maybe not 100%, but high 80s.

    2. TootsNYC*

      the “just keep going and let her cry” thing just let me be me.

      It didn’t ask me to worry about HIS discomfort with my crying. My crying was about my health, my frustration–not his. Trying to make me stop, or waiting for me to stop, would have been about his standards of “what is acceptable behavior.”

      1. Rebecca in Dallas*

        Yes to this! Not the same situation, but when my boss had to tell me I was getting laid off, I started crying. She just slid a box of tissues across her desk and continued talking as if I wasn’t crying. (We worked for a big corporation and she had a literal script she had to read.) After she finished telling me what she needed to tell me, she told me she had been through the same thing, that she knew I’d be fine, she’d be a reference for me and that I could leave for the day if I needed (I actually had to continue working there for a month in order to be eligible for severance). She went and got me a cold bottle of water, then let me sit in her office with the door closed until I was ready to go.

  32. Marzipan*

    This sounds like a situation where it might be helpful for one person to take point. When someone is coming back to work after any kind of personal tragedy or difficulty, it can be really effective for one person to be the advance guard – to find out exactly what the person wants and needs, and get their permission to share this so they don’t have to deal with it. And that could be anything, really – I remember one colleague returning to work just really didn’t want people to ask ‘how are you?’, because it had suddenly become a very loaded question, so her manager was able to guide everyone not to ask it. So, if there’s someone who can do this for her, it could be really helpful all round.

    1. Rmay*

      Concur and add that it can be a longer term thing too –
      A coworker/friend dealt was trying to get pregnant and having a difficult time. As much as one tries to keep personal stuff out of work it’s only natural that it does cross in sometimes. I served as the person that she went to when she had a hard time and needed a moment, or even to leave for a while, so I could run interference with the boss. I don’t mean secret squirrel or hiding stuff, the boss was aware, but it was easier for her to go to me and say I need to go and me to then go to the boss and say “Suzy is ok, she just needs a moment today”. So maybe another way to help is for someone to offer to be the relay-er of what she needs in a moment to others – space for the day, pretending like everything is fine, jokes and distraction etc.

      1. Anon for this*

        I reinforce this idea of having a point person to let everyone how she’d prefer things to be handled once she’s back in. I lost my husband unexpectedly and had a co-worker who did this for me. I appreciated that people left me alone unless I mentioned it. Other things you can do: offer food in serving sizes but don’t overwhelm her and ask ahead of time (make sure she can eat it, has room for it in her refrigerator/freezer, and space it out so she gets assistance if she wants it over time), say you’re sorry but avoid all statements comparing situations or offering rationalization (as in “everything happens for a reason”), recognize that grief is not linear and once the shock wears off it can come back in waves.

  33. Secretary*

    A close friend of mine lost her husband in her 30s. Here are a few things she told me:

    -She hated to listen to women complain about their husbands. She wanted to shake them and tell them to be grateful. Be grateful for your spouse; and speak good things about them even if not in front of her.

    -She said being a 30 something widow is uncommon, most people don’t know what to say and it’s kind of like being in a fishbowl. Ask her about things other than just “how are you?”. Also though, be willing to be like, “man, I don’t know what to say so you know I care about you.”

    -Ask her what she needs/offer to do things to help, just like you’ve been doing. My friend said that the best support was having a lot of people around to help.

  34. Nita*

    That’s so sad, and it’s huge that you are there for her.

    I’ve always thought that when someone suffers a big loss, there’s really nothing you can say or do for them. I’ve found out that is not the case. My husband recently lost his mom after a few months of illness (also cancer). It’s hard emotionally, of course, but we were also physically tapped out from the long nights at the hospital, the hundred little emergencies that happened in the last weeks, and the fact that everything had been in slow-moving crisis mode for months. I didn’t realize how much it would mean to us that people came bearing food, or offered to run some errands that we absolutely had no time for in the days right after. It was huge that a few family members volunteered to help clean out her apartment and sort her things – a big time investment, and an emotionally draining one. My husband is the ultimate extrovert, so it made him feel much better that people were stopping by to sit and talk – this doesn’t help everyone, and I think it would have been hard for an introvert, but it did help him.

    Grief also comes with a long, long time of cognitive difficulties. Since you’re coworkers, be aware her memory may be off for a while, she may be sleeping badly, she may be completely disoriented. If possible, gently offer to proof-read her work, help her keep track of important tasks, etc. when she’s back.

    1. TootsNYC*

      When my friend had a miscarriage, she told me, her thought in the aftermath, with her mom and MIL there “helping,” was, “I wish my friend Toots was here–she’d clean the bathroom.”
      That practical help wasn’t in those moms’ “dictionary of helpful actions.”

      Colleagues aren’t necessarily the ones to do that, of course (though if she’s been out, I might personally go dust her desk and vacuum her work station well).

      (I’m personally a slob, but I love cleaning other people’s stuff, and I recognize the power of a clean space.)

      1. Lala*

        Are you me? Because I am all about cleaning up things for other people if/when it is helpful to them, but I hate cleaning my own stuff up.

      2. Teach*

        I’m totally the “clean your toilet” friend! When my friend’s spouse was in the hospital with a very sudden downturn in prognosis, I did go visit and hug, but also suggested I get their garage code so I could go in and clean. Then they came home with hospice to a tidy, fresh house stocked with toilet paper and clean underwear and could use their energy on each other. And it was cathartic to me to be able to cry and clean and serve them privately without them needing to comfort me.

  35. John*

    My wife died in 2012. My adult daughter died in 2016. I know more about this than I want to. Everyone’s experience is different. Thank you for being so kind and for being concerned for your colleague.

    Use Google to find stupid things you should not say to someone who’s grieving. Trite phrases can hurt so much even if they are well-meaning. Listening will be appreciated.

    It may be helpful to ask her how you can help. Perhaps tell her you don’t know what to say, but you’re there for her.

    Everyone had something to say to me the first week or so, but then their lives returned to normal. It (in some ways) will NEVER be normal for me again. The ones who checked in with me periodically for weeks/months afterwards were friends I really appreciated.

    Hope this helps!

    1. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

      My heart goes out to you. It’s like a bomb crater in the road, when you lose someone. You learn to drive around it, but it doesn’t go away – and each loss is a different crater. Sending a hug.

  36. Yvette*

    Given the closeness of you and your co-workers, ( I know that you said you do not socialize outside of the office, but your level of concern leads me to believe that you are close in other ways) I would imagine that there will be an “office” baby shower for the latest new mother-to-be. Would it be possible to have it at a restaurant during lunch rather than in the office? Still invite her, but this way she can opt out without still being surrounded by the decorations, leftover cake, presents, etc. This way if she does attend, the party will be compartmentalized.

    1. OP*

      We actually already had a shower for our coworker, when Sarah was out in the last weeks of her husband’s life. We didn’t plan it to exclude her, that was just the stage of our coworker’s pregnancy and the stage of the cancer, respectively. Sarah was invited to the shower, she sent a card.

  37. Eeyore's missing tail*

    Alison, if this is derailing, please remove. Would your advice change if the coworker was grieving over an early miscarriage?

    1. TootsNYC*

      I think grief is grief. And the reason grief is different is not because the CAUSE is different but because the PERSON is different.

    2. Nita*

      A few years ago, I learned that there’s a thing called “disenfranchised grief”. It’s really easy for an early miscarriage to become exactly that. It’s unlikely that coworkers would even know, and if they did… I think a lot of people don’t feel this grief would be as intense as “conventional” grief. Even spouses sometimes don’t get that it’s legit grief.

      I guess this reaction is kind of understandable, in the sense that a miscarriage doesn’t leave an obvious giant person-sized hole in one’s life, doesn’t affect one’s day-to-day support system or finances, and is often not as obviously disruptive to one’s life. But if this were the case, and OP was aware that the coworker is grieving – yes, she would still need support! Probably not the same kind (because, again, there’s no funeral to organize, no affairs to settle, no lengthy illness that ate up FMLA leave), but support nevertheless.

    3. Robyn*

      Speaking as someone who just had a miscarriage last week and am now back at work, the dynamics are different in that I had only told one coworker I was expecting. Most of my colleagues don’t know, and I feel torn because on the one hand we do not have close relationships and it feels like too intimate of a thing to share. On the other, it would be nice if they knew to avoid, for example, the receptionist chirping about the cute baby in the office and saying, “Oh, isn’t that baby cute, Robyn?!” as I walked to my office from the bathroom. This also varies based on personalities involved, because I don’t trust all of my colleagues to give me space/not ask me how I’m doing even if I specifically requested it.

      I specifically decided to come back because I couldn’t stand the idea of being alone with my grief for 8 hours with nothing to do, but I still feel very raw (and have cried at work every day this week). So for now, I’m closing my office door when I feel teary and focusing on mindless, rote tasks when I don’t have the capacity for bigger stuff. This is something I want to talk about and work through with a select group of family and friends, and the vast majority of my co-workers do not fall into that group.

      1. Eeyore's missing tail*

        I am so sorry Robyn. I miscarried on Saturday. I’m back as well because I can’t stand being at home anymore. I had a bad ugly cry at my desk this morning, then had to go talk to one of my coworkers about an emergency that popped up.

        1. Robyn*

          Oh Eeyore, I’m so sorry to have your company in navigating this! Trying to function normally when you feel the polar opposite of normal has been so hard for me, but also feels like the only way to ever get back to normal. I hope you have good support and are taking care of yourself well.

      2. Flying Fish*

        I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.

        I miscarried twice in the past few years and actually was at work when the second passed. I felt the same as you did, it was easier to have something else to focus on than to go home and be alone to dwell and wallow. I only told the women I share a physical office with so they’d understand if I didn’t want to engage in our usual conversations.

        And man, it was hard to be around pregnant folks for a long time.

    4. LurkieLoo*

      Oh man, my SIL was told her pregnancy wasn’t viable at the first ultrasound (12-14 weeks?) and it was a gut punch to me even though she had just mentioned she was pregnant a week or so earlier and had not made it public, yet.

      I think it would be basically the same line . . . it’s going to vary person to person. I’ve known people who have twinges of sadness, but mask it with a shrug and “these things happen” and others who build memorials in their yards and commemorate milestones for miscarriages that happened at 6-8 weeks. Grief is so complicated.

  38. Jenn*

    Oh no, what a terrible situation for her. Have you read Option B by Sheryl Sandberg? It might have some insights for you. I wouldn’t curb you conversations about husbands or children. I mean, don’t be excessive, but conversations about husbands or children are not going to ‘remind’ her than her husband is dead – she already knows and, no doubt, she’s thinking about it every second of the day. You sound like a compassionate person, OP. Good luck to you.

  39. Sarah S.*

    What an awful situation, I’m so sorry for your coworker. At my last job I had a coworker who very suddenly and tragically lost her one year old child. Our office bought us Alan Wolfelt’s book “Healing Grief at Work,” which I found to be very helpful in dealing with the complex nature of supporting her while being a coworker. I hope this (or any book by Dr. Wolfelt, I’ve read several more after losses in my own life and they are excellent) will be helpful to you or her.

    1. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

      Thank you. I just ordered the book… I will have to go back to work when my husband dies, probably this month (I’m on leave right now, he’s stage 4 liver cancer and bed-bound). I’m just not sure how to cope, so avidly reading the suggestions of others…

  40. hiptobesquared*

    My work only has like three days for a parent or spouse and it terrifies me. Just be gentle with her when she returns, and if she excuses herself, let her be.

    1. NicoleK*

      Same here. And that is why I purchased a life insurance policy on my husband even though we don’t have any children (Rule of thumb seems to be that one doesn’t need life insurance if there are no children). If he were to pass away, I would want to grieve at my own pace and not feel forced to return to work before I was ready to.

      1. Polyhymnia O'Keefe*

        Yes. We also have no children, but have life insurance policies (worth ~3x our annual salaries — so, not “set you up for life” amounts, but a pretty good cushion). We’ve both said that if one of us passes away, we want the other one to be able to a) take the time to grieve as necessary, b) pay off whatever household debt there is at that point, and c) take steps to do whatever needs to come next. Move? Take a year off? Go back to school? Whatever that would look like to move forward, we want to give each other the financial security to be able to at least take those first steps.

    2. Rat in the Sugar*

      That’s what my workplace offers and it’s very common–but those days actually aren’t intended for grieving at all, but only to provide travel time for a funeral. I have no idea why it’s usually called bereavement leave instead of funeral leave, which is what it is. I’ve never heard of a place that offered time off for grieving–guess you just use your PTO if you don’t qualify for FMLA…:/

  41. Peachy*

    I would add, although it might feel counterintuitive, allowing space for her to talk about her husband, especially as time passes. For a lot of grieving people, it’s really hard when their loved seems forgotten, or when there’s a weird silence when she brings him up. I know you don’t know her well, but if the conversation turns to weddings, for example, make space for her to talk about hers. If you remember that he was a fan of a certain sports team, say something about how happy he would have been about their recent win. Just little things, to acknowledge his life.

  42. Rey*

    I am glad that y’all are being supportive. I recently listened to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B and the thing I remember right now is to ask “How are you today?” because it is more specific than a vague “How are you?” and lets them know that you are aware of and not avoiding her grief like an elephant in the room.

    1. Mrs. Vandertramp*

      “How are you?” also sometimes feels like someone is compelling you to say you’re fine and be fine even though people are really just saying it because it’s a reflexive, social thing that we all do. I knew this rationally, but when I was deeply grieving, I always thought, I cannot say fine because that’s an absolute lie, and I cannot say, do you really want to know? because that’s rude, but the answer is really very far from “fine.” It’s a simple question and people are just being polite, but it would completely flummox me. So yes, “how are you today?” is so much better.

    2. Yvette*

      “how are you today?” I like that, it implies that you are aware of how the intensity of grief can vary from day today, that just because yesterday was ok, it doesn’t mean today will be.

  43. Victoria, Please*

    I just came across a book at the library, “Breaking Sad: What to Say after Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up.” Very…poignant but helpful.

  44. OP*

    OP here. Thank you to everyone for your comments so far. I appreciate the feedback that I’m doing what I can. I do think I have asked her some not-too-open ended questions offering to help with things. I’ll keep doing that.

    Thank you to those with some specific how-can-I-help scripts. I do think that I will use some of those, especially by text in the days before she returns. As many of you said, grief is very different for different people, but based on what I know about her and how she was during his treatment, its going to be a very mixed bag of wanting support and wanting to be left alone. She does have a good family/friend support system, but when she is back at work she’ll spend more hours with us than with them!

    Some people mentioned FMLA and other time off options, which have been exhausted. I did ask HR if I/we could donate vacation time to her, but we’re not allowed to.

    One thing I didn’t mention in my original message was that we, including Sarah, are all in a helping profession and are all well-versed in the language of grief, pain, depression, etc. She is seeing a counselor herself, but the emotional labor involved in her job is probably going to make it harder for her to compartmentalize for work.

    1. Mrs. Vandertramp*

      It is possible that she could seek time off (for counseling appointments, for example) or other accommodations, under the ADA. Just because she may be suffering from depression or other mental health conditions that may be situational (rather than clinical, for example), she may be protected.

    2. Funbud*

      If there is a local one, you might suggest that she join a Bereavement Group.

      My husband of 33 years died suddenly this past January. I had heard about bereavement groups but wasn’t going to look into them until a woman at work (who had lost her husband some years back) suggested that I do. This was a very casual suggestion from her. I looked into it and found one associated with my local hospital/hospice and, despite much hemming and hawing, I went. It’s turned out to be a wonderful thing, even though I sat in my car before the first meeting and kept telling myself “you don’t need this/you are doing fine”.

      The group I attend has two subgroups: one for folks under 60-ish who have lost a spouse/partner and another for “older widows & widowers”. In addition to meetings, we go out for group dinners and they offer walking groups. It’s all good and has been incredibly helpful. It’s basically an unstructured 13 month program, although no one gets “kicked out” until they feel they are ready. I know you’ve said she is going to a counselor but a group might offer her additional support and understanding.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have to echo, these grief groups are comprised of people who are easy to be with. It’s logical to think, “Grief group = HARD”, but that is not the case. Everyone there has a story and they listen respectfully to each other.
        Like you see here, people offer suggestions on practical matters, too.

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Would it be possible to shift your workload and have her take on more of the administrative tasks for you and your other colleagues while you pick up some of her more emotionally labor intense tasks?

    4. mf*

      You might try offering to take over some job tasks to help her “coast” at work for a while. Even better if a group of coworkers is willing to pitch in with you.

      It’d probably be tremendously helpful for her to know that it’s OK if she phones it at work for a while. That way she focus on self-care, therapy, and whatever else she needs to just make it through this period.

  45. Rmay*

    You don’t need to not talk about normal parts of your life, spouses and kids, but it is a kindness to take this as an opportunity to make sure your talk about other things. Books, tv shows, classes your taking, etc etc etc. Besides, there’s more to most of us than just our spouses or kids, and if there’s not for all our sake there should be. Sometimes it becomes such a default easy topic because it does tend to be a shared/relatable experience.

  46. Matilda Jefferies*

    Are you familiar with The Ring Theory of Kvetching? (link in reply) I feel like it needs to be part of every conversation about grief, loss, and trauma of all kinds.

    The short version is, Sarah is at the centre of this crisis – it is HER crisis to deal with, however she feels appropriate. She can say whatever she wants to anyone, at any time. She can rant about how unfair it all is, question the existence of a higher power, or talk about nothing but The Real Housewives forever, if that’s what she wants to do.

    You and your coworkers are outside the centre of the circle, so your job is to support her. You may also think it’s unfair, or question the existence of a higher power, or distract yourself with reality tv – but you may not say any of those things to her. You, as someone outside the centre of the circle, need to take your feelings of grief and loss to someone who is equal or further from the centre than you are. You can talk to each other, to your friends outside of work, to your therapist, or anyone you want – as long as that person is NOT SARAH. It’s her crisis, her loss, and it’s not her job to help you process your feelings about it.

    Not that any of you would, necessarily – it sounds like you’re all pretty on top of this idea already. But sometimes it’s helpful to have ideas like this spelled out, so it’s really clear to everyone who is responsible for what.

    1. TootsNYC*

      The other big point about the ring theory is–you don’t kvetch to/dump on/ask for support from anyone who is in a CLOSER ring–so not Sarah’s family or friends.

  47. LSP*

    I have a coworker whose father passed away from pancreatic cancer earlier this year. I consider her a friend as well, though we don’t hang out too much outside of work. When her father passed, I sent her a hydrangea that she could plant outside, rather than throw away.

    I was also keenly aware that during her father’s illness, other people we work with were beginning every interaction with her by asking about her terminally ill father, so I made a point NOT to do that. Instead, towards the end of the day when everyone else had gone, I said to her something like, “I wanted to let you know that if you ever want to talk about your dad and how you’re doing, I am ready, willing and able to listen. If it were me, I might not want that to be the focus of every conversation I had at work, so I don’t want to pepper you with questions about how he’s doing every day. But please know that I care and will talk to you about your dad or everything but your dad whenever you need it.”

    She genuinely appreciated it, as it gave her some respite from always, constantly thinking about it.

    OP, I think you’re doing all you can do, and when your coworker returns, just be aware of certain conversation topics that might be painful for her, and feel free to talk honestly about what you want to be able to do for her, whatever that may be.

  48. accio_peanutbutter*

    I’m seeing a lot of people saying to suggest to the bereaved coworker that she go to therapy or join a support group – do not do this. That’s personal and especially as a coworker it’s really not your place to offer suggestions about how she grieves or handles herself and her life. I’m sure she’s heard those suggestions already. Suggest things that you can do, yes, but do not offer unsolicited advice on what you think *she* should be doing.

  49. Rezia*

    Hi, a good friend of mine recently became a young widow after her husband died in his young thirties from cancer. So I have some very first-hand experience with this. S0me observations:
    – Every person grieves differently. Don’t expect her to grieve in any particular way, and don’t be offended when she doesn’t grieve the way you want/expect her to. My friend doesn’t really cry in front of other people, even with friends. She threw herself into doing things (cleaning, home repairs, etc) immediately after he died. Not what I expected, but I just followed her lead. Your coworker may come into work determined to keep her game face on at all times. Or she may be bawling at her desk. Try not to have too many expectations about how she should be behaving.
    – Very generally, I’d suggest that you help her stay on task at work for most of the day, and saving more emotional questions for the end of the day. I.e. offers to help as suggested by other commenters, or questions about how she’s doing, if you’re close enough to have those conversations — maybe save them for a time when she has room to have feelings, as opposed to springing them on her first thing in the morning when she walks in the door. Maybe start the day with “Hey good morning, X, happy to have you back. I’ve been thinking about you”, something she doesn’t even need to respond to, but lets her know you care about her.
    – My friend mentioned once that the question “How are you” is too big and impossible to answer. So I try to ask “How is today going?” instead. She can answer specifically to the day and what’s going on. If she says she’s missing her husband or thinking about him a lot, we’ll talk about her husband, or I might share a memory. If she talks about anything but him, I take her cue.
    – One last thing — you may say something wrong at some point! That’s okay. You can say, “I’m so sorry, that didn’t come out the way I meant it”. But don’t avoid her because you’re scared of saying something wrong. I saw a lot of friends around this widow vanish because they were so scared to say something wrong or didn’t know how to respond to the sheer awfulness of the situation. A mutual friend complained to me that she never knew what to say. My 2 cents is that it’s far better to be there and occasionally goof. My friend knows that I love her, and she extends me forgiveness too when I say the wrong thing.

    1. Rezia*

      Oh, one more thing – she may say no to all of your offers. Especially since you mentioned you’re in a “helping profession” and are inclined to want to help, be prepared to be gracious if she turns it all down. I made sure to keep inviting my friend to dinners and events, including some that I knew she normally would particularly like. There were many times where she said yes, and then no at the last minute, but I knew she appreciated that I was inviting her.

  50. peanutbutty*

    Read – “if there is anything I can do” (book available via amazon). Full of practical tips to help someone who is grieving. Found this v useful when our friend’s partner died unexpectedly. Everyone is different but top things that we found were:
    – don’t stop talking about the husband or pretend he never existed. If you have any memories of him, tell her about them. (Probably at the end of the work day). Use his name. Honour her memories of him.
    – invite her to join you in social things (if that’s part of office culture?) and accept she may or may not want to come – keep the invites open and make sure she knows there’s no pressure to come until she’s ready. Our friend found it valuable to know she could turn down our offer without judgement and without jeapordising future offers. This may be a good time to start a small monthly team lunch that she can be invited to on regular basis.
    – her grief will not dissipate in a few months or a year. In some ways our friend found second year the hardest as by then many others had moved on and were no longer offering support. Hence having regular forum where you can offer social support could be very valuable.
    – great bit in the book mentioned above about helping someone come up with a list of tasks they need help with, so that whenever someone says “if theres anything I can do” she can point to the list and say “pick a task”. The main point of the book is that “if there’s anything I can do..” places additional cognitive and emotional person on the grieving person. Offer to do something specific, and do it.
    Good luck x

    1. MechanicalPencil*

      Love this. Open ended questions are awful. Specifics are so much better. Help with yard work, do little handyman tasks around the house, whatever is something you’re good at. My mom came over and helped me set my kitchen to rights — didn’t even ask me, just showed up, wiped down the cabinet fronts with furniture polish and everything.

  51. FormerHoosier*

    I think making specific offers to help or show you care such as bringing in a small baked item or ask if she would like to go to lunch or similar offers can be helpful as long as you and co-workers are comfortable asking.

    I agree that other staff shouldn’t not talk about babies or weddings, etc. but I would try to be cautious about complaining about a spouse or partner. The husband of a coworker died and another coworker had a habit of complaining about her husband all the time. They weren’t going through a divorce or anything, it was just her habit of complaining and that really upset the grieving coworker. People shouldn’t have to hide joys or sorrows just because it might upset someone but being considerate in this way is appropriate I think.

  52. Anontoday*

    I am also a 20-30 woman going through bereavement at work right now. (In my case, my brother in his 20s died suddenly a month ago today, rather than a spouse). Here are some of the things various levels of my work have done for me.

    1. Let me take all the time off I needed. After bereavement I took sick time (the company insisted mental health is real health so sick time counts) and then vacation.
    2. They are letting me work remotely and/or out of one of our companies offices in my hometown so I can be with my parents and other family and support each other.
    3. Everyone signed cards. Like 80 people across 9 cards. They also raised a ton of money for the memorial donation drive I was running on facebook and had corporate match it in my brother’s name. Only one person in my company ever met my brother ( happenstance, they were hallmates in college) so it was a sign of love and care to me that they pulled together to do that.
    4. When I started working remotely they didn’t all flood me with messages about what happened, but they did message and email me about normal work stuff.
    5. They offer to help take things off my plate at work that might be a large mental load, but don’t insist on it (which is good because focusing on work is helpful)
    6. They do the small stuff (like taking my mail to the mailroom) which is the easy to forget even when I’m in my best mental.
    7. Those I’m closer with check on me outside of work setting by sending me pictures of cute animals, or links they think I’d like. Small things to make me smile.
    8. My manager made sure that people didn’t innidate me with messages and texts when I was out, on my request. Having one person to check in with is much needed.

    Other people in my life, the most helpful are those that offer specific ways to help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is now my least favorite phrase because its overwhelming and put the pressure on me to think of what I can ask these people to do. Only my BFF can I ask super specifics. Even my other best friends, I can’t. It feels too much. But the people that offer specifics “I can walk your dogs for this week while you are dealing with a, b, and c” or “I’m sending your family an amazon fresh delivery. Let me know what time you’ll be home so I can schedule it in that window” are the most helpful.

    Flowers are depressing because they are symbols of what happened, and forever reminders. The best sorrow gifts we received was a grubhub gift card. Some days we get home from work and are too exhausted to cook or go to the store or go out. Its a godsend. Books are also good. People send us books that helped them through their own grief. One friend sent me a book to read that doesn’t take much thought just so I had an escape. Those are also good.

    Lastly, one person I don’t know well took me out to lunch and said “I’m not going to ask you anything about what happened, but if you want someone to listen, I will. But its up to you”. The offer of space in either way was great.

    Hope that helps.

  53. MinDC*

    My boyfriend died very suddenly almost a year ago, and I went back to work partly a little over a week after he died. That was my choice – I needed the distraction, and then took more time off to travel for his memorial about 2 weeks out. My coworkers were great and understanding – my boss and a close coworker brought me food and cards from everyone in the office 2 days after he died, they were able to give me as much time as I needed, no questions asked, and my boss in particular has been very supportive.
    But one thing you might have to accept is that you’re going to say things that make her sad, are hard for her to hear, make her angry – not necessarily outwardly, but there are so many things when you’re grieving a loss that can be upsetting. For the first six months after my boyfriend died, I would be sitting in meetings, hating all of my coworkers for being able to be engaged and present while I was thinking – this is such bs, and I hate it. That wasn’t necessarily my deepest true feelings, but when you’re grieving, you can start to feel very alienated from normal day to day life. It’s possible for you to make this easier – by asking what she needs, while knowing that she might not know herself what will help the most, by giving her some slack where you can, and by giving space for her not to be quite herself.
    If you’re close enough to offer, helping with practical things is huge – food of course, but also cleaning, pet care, errands, etc… I had friends who helped close my boyfriend’s gym membership, etc.. (his parents did a lot of the legal logistical things, but I handled other things). Just being there and checking in 3 months, 6 months, a year out – that will mean a lot.

  54. UndercoverLibrarian*

    It sounds like you and your team are doing everything you can given your level of closeness. This has probably been addressed already, but if you have an employee assistance program, they would likely be an excellent resource for Sarah.

    I didn’t see anything in the rules against sharing links, so I hope this next bit is okay. I’m a big fan of Ask a Mortician, and Caitlin did create a video on helping a friend through grief. The advice is solid, and you may find some of it helpful: She also linked Refuge in Grief: Grief Support that Doesn’t Suck (, which you might find useful.

  55. Admin 4 Life*

    I don’t know the nature of your work but my only suggestion (along with all of the great ones above) is helping with her workload as she transitions back to the office.

    For me, having someone else deal with customers face to face would be hugely beneficial. Those innocuous conversation starters could be deeply upsetting for her. “How are you?” “Any fun plans for the weekend?” or the really uncomfortable “What did you do on your time off?” would devastate me.

  56. Cats Cats Cats*

    I just went through this, and it was tough. Even worse, she had been informed she would be laid off 2 weeks before she lost her spouse. Please note, I was the supervisor and legally could not tell or ask the team to do anything, or of any fundraising activities (but I could contribute). However, I work with awesome people and this was all their own idea.

    -Everyone donated their holiday gift cards to the team member.
    -The person’s “best work friend” found out what was stressing out the team member the most, and we focused on that. She had no energy to cook for the kids. A team member emailed that they were heading to Costco to buy her some things, and the team donated. They purchased ready to go meals, snacks, toilet paper, the basics.
    -Cleaning lead to thinking, which led the grief. I let the team member know I had a free trial with a cleaning service, and donated it to her. (I didn’t, but she didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, so this was easy.).
    -I asked applicable company divisions to hold off on making any hires. She had elected to leave the company when impacted, but chose to come back. She had a job ready and waiting.

    1. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

      You sound awesome. Kudos to you and the team for all your great support of your employee and friend. This is the kind of thing that distinguishes a “job I just show up for” to a “job I appreciate and feel appreciated at…”

  57. Froggy*

    Hi! There have been some really great suggestions here. As a recent widow of less than 3 months, I hope I can add a couple of thoughts.
    I really liked Positive Reframer’s post. I have some fantastic co-workers who have become dear friends. They’ve supported me by doing many of the things suggested.

    Counseling is important, so if it can come up in a conversation, encourage her to seek that out. It’s good for learning the cope with the never-ending grief. And I understand that grief doesn’t end, you just learn to cope with it.

    I have found that helping others actually helps me to cope. Doing favors, being a sympathetic ear or sounding board, or just helping with an errand, has helped me return their kindness and support. It gets me involved in something else outside of my own thoughts and lonely tasks.

    Sometimes the talk of their everyday lives with their family, spouse, kids, can make me sad because I so miss the everydayness of having my husband by my side. But, it also reminds me that life, love, joy and all goes on and I’m still a part of that and should celebrate it fully. Shifting my perspective to what still is rather than what isn’t, is so important to be able to move forward. That’s why all the suggestions mentioned are of value…everything can help, but everyone is different too in their timeline and ability to learn coping mechanisms.

    I would also like to add that asking generally if there is anything you can do is not as helpful as offering a specific help. I could never think of something, or want to ask for fear it wasn’t something that person could or wanted to truly do. Instead, it helped to have someone say, “can I mow your lawn for you this week?”, “I’ll take your car to the shop for you.” “Let’s go to dinner (or dog park, or a movie) on Saturday.”

    It’s a tough situation for your co-worker and she needs time and a strong support system. As co-workers you can’t be her only support, but you can be a strong support – particularly as a good part of our lives are spent at work.

  58. LGC*

    LW, you’re thoughtful and doing great. I wish I was working with you.

    The only suggestion I’d have is to lower the baby talk around her for a little while – but even still, don’t totally drop the subject entirely! (And who knows, she might enjoy it.)

    At work: Definitely follow her lead, and I’d almost let some things slide (if she forgets a deadline for example).

  59. Jessica*

    I recommend reading “It’s Ok To Laugh (Crying is Cool, too)” by Nora McInerney. She wrote the blog “My Husband’s Tumor” while her husband Aaron was going through brain tumor treatment, and the book is reflections on that time in her life and moving on. I haven’t really experienced loss of someone so close, so hearing about the up and down emotions, and guilt, and joy, and grief, and and and…was very informational and a compassion building book. She also has the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and runs Still Kickin’ and the Hot Young Widows Club.

    It’s one of those things where you can perhaps, in a few weeks, drop a note to your grieving coworker that she isn’t alone, and there is an online community of people who have gone and are going through a similar thing.

  60. epi*

    In my experience when people are grieving, honesty wins. Of course, never say things to a grieving person that could be interpreted as wanting them to comfort or guide you. But it is OK to acknowledge that you aren’t sure what to do or say, and that you want to follow their lead because you care about them.

    IMO you should offer some specific forms of support, *and* ask what they want. It’s generally OK to say something like, “My impulse is to offer to talk about this/share food with you/brighten your day with cute things, but I don’t want to smother you with things you may not like. Does something like that feel right to you, or would you like me to back off?”

    Even if someone is not leaning on you at the moment, it can be really helpful just for them to know that they could, if they ever needed to. The guiding question to ask yourself could be, “What would would make me a safe person to make requests of?” Casseroles, hugs, and backing off can all be asks! The safest and most trustworthy people are the ones you can say “no” to.

    1. I can't believe I'm still working with these robots*

      The entire workplace sounds like a dream to me! I started tearing up reading the OP’s post. You all are SO LOVELY. It’s so heartening to hear that there are actually kind, compassionate coworkers out there. I work with automatons. When my dad died two years ago, the robots here left a blank envelope on my chair on my first day back (couldn’t even put my name on it?) that had a card signed by maybe half of the 30 people who work here. I still don’t know if the others were even told. I was a mess, but no one checked in on me after that first day (where some of the robots forced me into giving THEM hugs – ugh). Two other people in the office also experienced deaths that year. They received flowers on behalf of the company. I received nothing. When I eventually addressed that with my direct supervisor several months after the fact, telling him I had a few ideas on how to prevent that from happening to anyone else, he chastised me for not coming to him sooner … and still didn’t make an effort to donate money to one of the charities mentioned in my dad’s obituary, which I would have preferred over flowers. Well, it took me about nine months to figure out how to talk to someone about being forgotten by the company without shaking with rage/bursting into tears.

      The woman who worked in the cubicle next to me at the time received flowers from her division when her dog died. That was a really bad day.

      1. Khlovia*

        Holy carp, that’s awful. Jedi hugs from an Internet rando if you would find them useful.

        And such a poignant illustration of why all the advice here to LW is so apt: assign a point person, who asks leading questions, then guides the team to provide exactly as much buffering as the bereaved person wants, etc. *You* should not have had to do the emotional labor of explaining or requesting or notifying or begging or ANYTHING. They should have been proactive about that.

        When you find a job among humans and quit this one, insist on an exit interview and give them the url to this discussion. “Here is how to act like humans instead of robots. Just FYI.”

  61. Colleen*

    When I was grieving the loss of my brother and then my father, I found that I could not remember things that had just been discussed in meetings. Short-term memory issues are, apparently, a common thing that happens when grieving. I would have loved it if someone would’ve taken notes during meetings (even one-on-one discussions) and sent them to me afterward, highlighting decisions and things that I had agreed to do. This would’ve been great for all discussions, even quick hallway ones. No need to explain why, just send them to her and state that you thought she might find this helpful.

  62. Lindsay Gee*

    I would say follow your coworkers lead, based on how she has responded in the past and how she acts when she returned to the workplace. I’ve had some coworkers who, even though I knew they were having a ROUGH time with the death of a family member, just didn’t want to deal with it at work and basically wanted to be treated like normal. Basically, it was so difficult to hold it together for work, that she just compartmentalized everything to not think/deal with the death at work. I know other people who feel better talking about it and getting support from people.
    So i say continue on as you have been and adjust your level of support based on what you think she needs. But definitely don’t feel like you need to hide your own lives from her. That might make her feel worse knowing you’re handling her with kid gloves

  63. Lollygagger*

    The book “There’s No Good Card for This” is fantastic for suggestions on this exact topic. I highly recommend it.

  64. ElspethGC*

    To OP and anyone else dealing with grief (first-hand or second-hand) – I really recommend Caitlin Doughty, aka Ask A Mortician over on YouTube. As well as posting a whole load of stuff on how Western society really needs to rethink its relationship with mortality, she’s got some fantastic advice on what to say – and not say – to people that are grieving. She runs her own funeral home, so she’s got a lot of practice.

    Specific points Caitlin highlights – “claim your awkwardness”, which means stepping up even if it’s super awkward for you and admitting that you don’t know what to say but that you want to help them; prioritise companionship over fixing, aka no matter what you do to make it easier for her she’ll still be grieving and there’s nothing you can do; realise the difference between what you’re saying and what they’re hearing regarding their grief; and make it clear that they’re still wanted (ask them if they want to go out for lunch etc) but give them choices if they’re not up to it.

    1. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

      Thank you. Bookmarking it for my days ahead. And love her phrase – the “Claim your awkwardness.”

      I have experienced it, but just put together that one of the hardest things is folks who simply stay completely away because they don’t know what to say or fear saying the wrong thing. (I used to). It does impact the work friendship or even regular friendship. I may not need mollycoddling (depending upon the day) but I am sensitive to the complete absence of what used to be a relationship and is now a void.

      I sometimes wonder if they feel like acknowledging makes me feel worse. In some cases, it is almost like having the plague. Good friends just dropped off the face of the earth. Some of the kindest folks (especially at work) are ones I barely knew but had lived through it themselves…. I am so in awe of their wonderful, caring responses and it will forever impact my view of them. (the managing director who delivered French pastries to me, meeting me along his commute route… because his wife had lost both her parents in the last year… and he’s NOT an easy man to work with, and a peer with my grand-boss – not even the same exact division but I work together with one of the teams building his platform). Amazingly kind.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        That is important to note that death causes some relationships to end and in some cases causes new relationships to begin. It happens often enough that it’s good to know this is normal. Notice I did not say “easy”. It’s definitely rough and it seems to exasperate grief sometimes.

        @NLYBLW… you and yours are in my thoughts.

  65. Bambam*

    My dad passed away a year and a half ago and I am quite young for that kind of bereavement (I was 23)). I think one of the best things for me at the time were the flexibility my work gave me, but after a week or so my other half had to have a bit of a ‘snap out of it’ gentle prod as they were so relaxed I just ended up wallowing and not doing anything at home, being back in work actually helped.

    The other best thing that happened when I was back was everyone was lovely, but very much back to business. I think don’t mollycoddle too much; I had a hug from my manager the day I was back and grand boss stopped by my desk a couple of time in the next month for a chat and to check in that I was ok, but nothing more. In retrospect I appreciate that I wasn’t constantly reminded or allowed to become over emotional at work; whilst it would have been completely understandable, having my ‘business face’ back on 8 hours a day helped me get my game face on in the rest of my life that bit sooner.

    The only other above and beyond I can suggest is, if you’re super on it, try to remember some key dates like wedding anniversary, birthdays etc. It strings a bit when you have to explain the reason you’re down/a bit off at a seemingly random time is because it’s anniversary/birthday/etc.

    Good luck and well done for being so attentive & lovely in such a horrible situation.

    1. EddieSherbert*


      My brother passed away 5 years ago from leukemia.

      I think this is the hardest part of losing someone – after a couple months when “no one cares anymore” (obviously they do, but they have their own lives and “move on” while you’re “stuck”). First holidays without him will be hard. A year from now on the anniversary of his death will be hard. All those Facebook “a year ago today” notifications will probably suck for a few months next year…. Hitting any big “milestones” will be hard. That’s the time when it’s great to let her know she’s got support!

  66. NHW*

    I lost my husband just over 3 years ago, when I was 38. We also were childless, and his death came fairly quickly.

    Be patient with her over the next few months. She will be extremely forgetful, and will drop the ball on a lot of work tasks that she normally handles with ease. I had to make incredibly detailed to-do lists to get through every day (both at work and at home) – things like “send emails” and “eat lunch.”

    Everyone is different, but I desperately needed the structure and normalcy that came from work, even though I know that I was not performing well. Fortunately I had a very understanding boss and co-workers, and they helped me get through.

    It’s looking ahead quite a bit, but be aware of the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. The grieving process tends to start over again at annual anniversaries, and it can be harder at the one-year mark, because there’s nothing to focus on (no funeral to plan, etc.).

    Grief never goes away, but it does become easier to manage.

  67. Althea*

    I lost a pregnancy very late, very different from a husband, but, here are my suggestions:

    – watch her a bit while topics that might touch a nerve come up. Be ready to jump in and change the subject if needed. The first time an oblivious someone started in with giddy new pregnancy symptoms, my good friend looked at me and changed the subject. It was a big relief.

    – If she does bring up her husband on her own, listen and talk with her, and don’t awkwardly change the topic on her. One of the worst things is when people stop with sympathy and proceed to pretend the person who died never existed. They are just afraid of bringing up something sensitive, but it starts to feel like the grief is invisible then.

    – Check in down the road, after the initial wave of sympathy has passed. “How are you holding up?” Do this when you’re in a more private situation in case the answer is “not great.” Consider, if you know them, dates like his birthday, anniversary of death, or holidays will probably be the worst.

    – Don’t give advice, but if you do hear any symptoms of depression that’s not passing, do recommend that she find a venue to talk about it – group, therapist, etc.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      +100 for letting her talk about him and to continue checking in. I lost my brother to leukemia several years ago, and I truly enjoy talking about him or telling stories. It makes me feel like he’s still relevant and important. But I’ve definitely learned who I can or can’t do that with (without it becoming weird).

      And people who aren’t “affected” by a death seriously suck at checking in after the first month or so. No offense to everyone, who has their own lives and such – I get it and I was the same way before… but the friends of mine that remember to text me every year around the anniversary of my brother’s death have come to mean a lot more to me over the years than others.

  68. Lumen*

    Ask Sarah. Maybe before she comes back to work; I don’t know your relationship or if that’s appropriate. Or when she gets back, or a week after she gets back in. It doesn’t need to be a therapy session. Just let her know that you’re glad she’s back at work, and you know and understand that she’s going through a lot, and then ask her “How can I best support you as you get back into the swing of things here at work?”

    Because maybe she never wants to talk about it or think about it while she’s in the workplace, and that’s therapeutic for her. Maybe she needs to feel invited to things but wants you to know that she may excuse herself to freshen up when babies and weddings come up. Maybe she just needs to know that you have that sensitivity to her situation. Maybe she needs a day or two to think of what she needs (because in many cultures women are pretty well socialized not to think about or express their needs). Maybe she needs someone she can go to with weird/obvious questions that come up because her brain is very busy processing or controlling her grief.

    Also, cards are nice. Several months after a coworker’s mother passed away (ie, things seemed ‘back to normal’), I gave him a card just letting him know that I was still thinking about him and what he was going through. Just general encouragement and gentleness. He already knew from our conversations that I was a ‘safe’ person to share some of the strange and hurting thoughts that come up during mourning. He never said a word about the card… until a year later, when he was cleaning out his desk. He sent me an email telling me that at the time he didn’t know what to say, but it had meant a lot to him and he’d kept it all that time.

    So don’t think that cards go straight in the bin, or that offering support doesn’t mean anything. People in grief may not have the wherewithal to tell you what it means to them, but it can be an incredibly isolating experience, and many times it helps just to know that your loss is being acknowledged and honored by others.

  69. Argh!*

    I have had two coworkers who lost loved ones suddenly. I have experienced that in my family, so I told them that (though the circumstances were different) and told them they could talk to me about it if they wanted. One took me up on it and one didn’t, but both said they appreciated my concern. When a loved one dies from cancer, I am not as forthcoming because I would have less to say.

    Also, I don’t offer to pray for them. I’d rather offer to help them out or listen if they need it.

  70. Crystal*

    I lost my Dad and my nephew within two days of each other. When I came back to work the best thing my coworkers did was well, let me be not 100%. My boss basically let me be a “lesser” employee (to a certain degree!) for about 6 months without calling me out on it. Another great thing was that (as others have mentioned), give an option. “I’m going to get a sandwich, do you want a coffee?”

  71. Josie*

    Hopefully your office doesn’t have any evil people who say VERY offensive things like “everything happens for a reason” and “God has a plan” and crap like that. My friend’s dad died and the office nut jobs told her it was because he didn’t pray hard enough. And I know a guy whose wife died of an aneurysm at 41, leaving him with two young children to raise, and someone had the gall to say to him “everything happens for a reason.” No. Just. No. No attempts at cheering upping of ANY kind.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I am a church going person and I find no comfort in these words at all.

      In general, if someone is in the thick of an emotion, they are not prepared to look at a big picture. So it does not matter what the big picture reference is, they can’t see it from where they are sitting. In a similar vein telling them they will find another mate is totally inappropriate also.
      Additionally, to push a person through their grief process when they are not ready to move forward can do more harm than good. If we skip steps in our grief process we might have to go back years later and revisit that step or several steps. Can’t push forward and can’t skip steps.

      I know when my mother died, my father went down to being a shell of a human being. I wanted my father back. I had to realize that was not going to happen and I had to accept who he was. It all worked out okay but sometimes when a person dies their primary dies with them but still walks the earth. And the people around the surviving person end up grieving two losses, not one. We don’t get to chose how others grieve.

      1. Argh!*

        I am not religious, but I would never say something like those comments to a religious person. If they’re just processing their emotions and not feeling the spirit, it kind of puts them on the spot, as if losing a loved one isn’t enough, they’re not Christian enough to feel “right” about it. Those pat responses are for lazy people who won’t examine their own feelings about the other person’s feelings. Telling them that you care and you’re sad for them and you’re willing to help them get through a tough time means a lot more.

        Also, don’t tell someone grieving for a cat that there are 100 cats at the shelter that would love to go home with them. They will get a new cat in their own time.

    2. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

      “My friend’s dad died and the office nut jobs told her it was because he didn’t pray hard enough. ”

      The fuck? I guess praying hard lets you live to be a judgmental jerkwad for decades to come. No thanks.

  72. LQ*

    A phrase that a friend uses sometimes is “This is an invitation, not an obligation, and saying no to this invitation will not impact future invitations.” Which I really appreciate and might be a useful way of framing the comments about inviting your coworker to do things. (Even if you are sure they know it is invitation, not obligation, saying it is really freeing of underlying need to do social decoding when the brain is elsewhere much of the time.)

    Another thing I want to mention briefly, that I’m sure you know, but is always worth repeating. If you aren’t entirely sure about her afterlife/religious beliefs, please, don’t use this as a moment to say anything. Not even the well intentioned “He’s in a better place” or “Everything happens for a reason” kinds of platitudes. I’m sure you (and any of the yous who say this) mean the absolute best by this, but at this moment keep it to yourself.

    1. Meggo*

      I heard the “He’s in a better place” thing sooooooooooooooo many times. Finally I was like “Well, good for him! But I’M still here, feeling this stupid loss and that’s what sucks.”

      1. EddieSherbert*

        +100 I hate these phrases (especially “everything happens for a reason”). I know some people find a lot of genuine comfort in it, but it just upsets me. To an extreme seeing-red level. Like, yes, PLEASE enlighten me. I’d LOVE to hear your theory on why this person HAD to spends months or years in agonizing pain, while the rest of us watched helplessly in torment draining every penny we have to save them only to fail in the end. PLEASE tell me again how that was meant to be.

      2. LQ*

        I hate that so much. And saying it To someone who is not religious About someone who is not religious feels like such a huge “fuck you.” Ugh. A lot of people said that to me about my very not religious grandfather and it was such a dismissal of him as a person.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I said, “Yeah and she is looking down and laughing at us for struggling while she sits there in total comfort.”

        Fortunately, I have heard less of this stuff as the years roll by. I think people are actually getting the memo on this.

  73. TDW*

    Honestly, I think attending the funeral, checking in with her, giving her meals and sending cards is all really good form on your part. I lost my boyfriend very suddenly last year and it really hurt my feelings that I didn’t even get a card from my closest coworkers/department or a cursory “welcome back , take all the time you need, let me/us know how we can help you.” Ultimately, though I think your coworkers closest friends and family are the ones who need to bear the brunt of making space for her to grieve. It is good to be sensitive, but it’s important that other people can celebrate things in their lives without the guilt.

    Grief is a very slow, lifelong process. Just try to be patient.

  74. Tough Stuff*

    You are doing everything you can to be supportive and that’s all you can do! My father passed away from pancreatic cancer and I had to start at a new school the day after the funeral. It was tough to be there but people who were willing to spend time with me, even if I wasn’t the most fun person to be around, made all the difference. I wouldn’t try to shelter her from the domestic stories of her co-workers. Avoiding topics around someone can backfire, even when done with the kindest intentions.

  75. Ms MicroManaged*

    My town has a small business that drops off freshly cooked dinners (that you can freeze or eat fresh), and that’s my favorite thing to send as a show of support. When my father passed suddenly a few years ago, a dear friend brought both my mother and me homemade foods that we could just heat and eat and it was such a blessing. No need to worry about grocery shopping, cooking, etc.

  76. Meggo*

    Y’all, my own 41 year old husband died of cancer a little over 5 months ago. The only thing I can suggest would be to not treat her like she is made of glass.
    Yeah. Breakdowns are going to happen, and they are going to happen over the strangest things. She’s already feeling pretty gutted and broken and oh God my heart aches for just the utter shitstorm she’s floundering in at the moment. But I’ve found it so much more helpful for people to treat me as “normal” as possible, when possible.

    For the immediate future she’s got a shitty, sad, shitty, road to navigate. She’ll make it, but while she’s finding her way just remember to be kind, but don’t coddle. I promise you, she does NOT want Dead Husband to be her defining quality, and by handling us like we’re delicate Faberge Eggs that is pretty much what happens.

    K, I’m going to go have one of those breakdowns now. Cancer is such a jerk.

    1. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

      Sending you a hug. Hubby is in bed, stage 4 liver cancer (and bone) metastasized from elsewhere. Expect his imminent death. My heart aches for you, too. Hard, hard, hard road.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Dead husband as defining quality…

      Right on. I was widowed, that was a moment in life not a title in life. It’s part of my story but not all of it.

  77. in a fog*

    When a coworker’s husband died, a link went around to contribute to a Munchery group gift so she and her kids could use it when it was convenient for them, there were no worries about dietary restrictions/dishes, etc. I think we ended up with around $1,000 total, which took care of them for a while! If you’re in an area with Munchery or another food delivery service (Eat24, Caviar, Postmates, etc.), that might be something to investigate.

  78. peanutbutty*

    Also can I please take opportunity to say that if you send anyone who is grieving a sympathy card/ email message – please for love of all that is holy, DO NOT expect a reply.
    Literally finish your message by explicitly saying – “no need to reply to this message”.
    DO NOT send follow up emails/ messages/ phone calls to “check” they got your message.
    DO NOT add yet more pressure and guilt to the situation (oh now I need to reply to these 57 sympathy cards individually or everyone will hate me).
    DO NOT make your future support contingent on them acknowledging your sympathy.

    I know people mean well but I cannot believe the number of times I have seen this happen.

    1. Squeeble*

      Yeah–I remember overhearing a relative, whose husband had just died, on the phone with someone who wanted to know if the flowers she’d bought for the funeral had arrived. I was thinking, why would you ask that of the bereaved??? They don’t know if your flowers arrived and they don’t care. Just send them if you want to and move on.

    2. LQ*

      My family has always told me to include your address on the card so if they do feel they want/need to respond (and my family always will because that’s how they are) it’s easier than having to dig around in the address book and figure out which LQ is this, is this MM’s daughter or PM’s daughter? I think you could easily do both to cover.

  79. Emily*

    If you can find out the date of his birthday, her birthday, and their wedding anniversary, note those on your calendar, as well as the day he died. Then you can plan to do something for her–even something small–on those significant days. You might also invite her to holiday celebrations, in case she doesn’t have family close or feels like it’s too painful to celebrate with them.

  80. Isben Takes Tea*

    I’m a little late to the party today, but I would highly recommend checking out There Is No good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell–it thoroughly covers a myriad of ways to help friends, families, and coworkers through tough times. It is both encouraging and empowering.

  81. Anon attorney*

    I haven’t read the comments so I apologise if I’m duplicating.

    I am a widow. Things I found helpful at work:-

    1. People treating me kindly but not as a special is case
    2. People not doing the head tilting oh it’s so awful thing and expecting me to share my feelings with the.
    3. People quietly picking up shitty jobs and not making me feel like a terrible team member when there were things I was too broken to do and they had to do them for me
    4. People respecting that work was a place I came to for distraction to an extent and taking me seriously as a coworker
    5. Having a laugh sometimes
    6. Not saying anything when I was really late for work because I couldn’t sleep
    7. Not whining about their spouses’ trivial shortcomings.
    8. Not making it all about them and how devastated they were
    9. Not treating it as an opportunity to show how caring they thought they were even if the caring on offer was not what I wanted (see #8 – not making it about them – if you take nothing else from this, take away that)

    This is what helped me. Only Sarah knows what will help Sarah. Ask her and really listen to her answer. Give her the chance to change the answer as her needs evolve. If nothing serious show her kindness without intrusion. It sounds like you’ve got that bit and it’s great that you asked.

    1. Anon attorney*

      Oh, and #10 – do not offer advice unless she specifically asks for it, and maybe not even then. I’ve found that everyone has an opinion about how I “should” behave on grief, and it’s rarely helpful to hear that.

      I’m done now :)

  82. anotherstemprogrammer*

    For a start, you can talk less about your babies at work. If you know it would hurt her to hear about it, why would you inflict that on her?

  83. aw*

    my mom passed away last November, and I so so second the suggestions to offer things instead of asking what your friend wants or needs – she has no idea, and she’ll keep having no idea for a while. As you’ve said, she’s going back to work sooner than you think she should have to, and that’s going to take up a lot of her brainspace for decision making for some time.
    Also, definitely keep the little “thinking of you” messages- things she doesn’t have to reply to are especially good, but just having people keep in touch like that helps.

  84. KCKCKC*

    A few years ago a coworker lost her 13 year old child in a horrible and sudden accident. It was devestating. Our team was traumatised by it because we were all so close. She took about 6 weeks off and when she returned everybody was nervous about what to do, what to say, etc. All I can suggest is to take her “temperature” and be constantly ready for a change of subject if need be. Be ready for her to express her grief openly at work. She may or she may not but y’all need to just be ready to react appropriately to whatever she needs at that moment. Try your best to act normally but be prepared to change course depending on her reactions. Grief is horrible and it comes in waves so just be ready to love her through it.

  85. Quinalla*

    I agree with others, ask what she needs, but also offer help or invite her to do simple things as is appropriate. I know when I’ve been in crisis, people that offered specific things/plans made it so much easier for me to accept or to counter with something I really needed. People just asking what I needed I often didn’t know what to say. And yes, even if she refuses, keep offering on occasion as sometimes just he offers are plenty to make someone in crisis feel warmth and love that they really need. Disposable plates/silverware/etc. is great, food in disposal containers, offers of a walk or to come out for lunch, all great ideas.

    Is there something that would be pampering to her that you know her well enough to get? A book, gift card to see a movie/concert/etc., art supplies, bath stuff, new video game, etc.? Not sure if you know her well enough for that or not, but I know when I’m in crisis I forget to take care of myself and the reminder and that someone thinks I should would be lovely.

  86. Trisha*

    Before she returns to work, double check her desk/cubicle/office – make sure the garbage is emptied, there’s no old coffee cups on her desk, her chair is in place and no one absconded with her stapler, etc. Maybe put a new pen there (that you’re sure writes), a new notepad (if it’s something she’ll use). When people have to leave unplanned or last minute (especially due to bereavement), they frequently just leave their desk as is. Make it a physically welcoming environment; no point in her first moments back having to be dumping out cold, weeks old coffee or not having a pen that works. It’s the little things that can push people over the edge and go from holding things together to a complete melt down.

    Little kindnesses go a long way in these situations.

  87. Death sucks/some resources*

    A lot of people in 30s just haven’t had to deal with that type of loss or death of someone very close (as I’ve found). Finding a “grief friend” was helpful to me since even people who wanted to be helpful for the most part just did not understand….also first few months are hard but then the rest of the time can feel even worse since often the support indeed dries up.

    Some resources/websites/online communities that your co-worker may find useful are below. The first two are from women whose had a husband died young.

    It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool too)-book by Nora McInery who also has a podcast

    REFUGE IN GRIEF: “Grief Support that doesn’t suck”

    (book: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay”
    What’s Your Grief:

    (also a podcast)

  88. Penelope*

    Death is awkward for so many, and often the one grieving becomes the one offering comfort. My best advice, as someone who lost a parent at a fairly young age (mid-20s) is to make time for her. Let her do the talking, or just let her know you want to spend some time with her if she’s up for it, just the two of you without the marriage/baby talk from everyone else. It takes expert sensitivity, and offering your time with “let me know if you need anything” is not what you will want to do. Rarely in grief and depression do people reach out. Partly because they don’t want to bring down the room, but also because it’s such a deep and intense thing, we don’t want to put it on people who might not get it if they haven’t been through it. It’s exhausting for everyone and it feels like the only topic in the room. She might want to talk about ANYTHING else, but it’s up to her.

    Perhaps you and your coworkers can give her some of your vacation time to add to hers so she can have some more time away from the office. What she needs though, is grief counseling. If you can help in that area great, but if you can’t, prepare for some isolated, heavy days ahead for her. Try to be as encouraging as possible with your lunchmates not to leave her out due to the awkwardness or discomfort but rather, include her and make a conscious effort to be kind to her in this time (and limit the marriage and baby talk for now).

  89. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

    I know I’m late to the comments, but when my boyfriend passed a few years ago (and I was basically catatonic) some of the best support came from people who were friends, but not super-best-friends. So don’t feel like not being part of the inner circle means you can’t help. I can remember someone who was sort of a friend, someone you’d hang out with when you ran into each other, saying “nope, you’re not sitting in the house not showering or eating, we’re going to see Susan Tedeschi tonight.” And we did, and I cried in the dark the whole time, and there was no judgement. We’re still fairly casual friends, still say hey when we run into each other and have a good time, and I don’t know if I can ever thank him enough for reminding me that I was still in the land of the living.

  90. Cait*

    First, grief is a burden borne by the whole community, so thank you for caring about and supporting your coworker during this time. Don’t pity her too much about the work thing – she may find it a relief.
    My best friend’s husband died from an out of the blue suicide when we were 29, and I thought I’d share some observations from that experience.
    There is probably no one right way to be a supportive coworker in this situation. My suggestion is not to overthink it or walk on eggshells. It’s more important that you ask, listen, and are supportive than that you say exactly the right life-changing thing that helps her turn the corner. Grief is a long process, and crying or otherwise being sad is not a bad sign – it’s expected. It’s normal to cry over the children and marriage that you won’t have, and it’s normal to think about those things when other people discuss them.
    Also, be persistent and patient. It’s no big deal if she doesn’t want to join in sometimes, but keep asking her and inviting her in a low-pressure way.
    Finally, I’d like to share that the weirdest thing about my friend’s husband dying is not talking about him. My friend said “I feel like the last x years never even happened” because people were afraid to, I don’t know, name the dead or something! It really bothers me how often I think of something he said or did that I remember fondly, or might have liked or wanted to do, and not said anything because it might make other people uncomfortable.

    I also love Trisha’s suggestions!

  91. somebody blonde*

    I know I’m late to this one, but I have a lot of experience with this stuff. What you all have done so far is great. When she comes back to work, you can ask her how she’s doing- if she wants to talk, she will; if she doesn’t want to talk about it, she probably won’t. Sometimes grieving people want to throw themselves straight into busy normal life so that they can be distracted from their grief, and if that’s the case, you want to help her do that by being as normal about work as possible. Obviously, if she slips up and makes a mistake or seems to be struggling with the workload, you’ll have way more sympathy and want to help her out more than usual, but make sure you don’t patronize her.

    You don’t need to censor yourselves at lunch about your lives, but at the same time, it’s probably a good idea to try to steer the conversation toward books or movies or current events for a while so that the entire lunch hour isn’t taken up with talk about the life that she wishes she had. Also, if she excuses herself during these conversations, the person who is closest to her at work could probably follow her to see if she’s alright, but the rest of you shouldn’t.

    I know you’ve done covered dishes already, but it’s not a bad idea to have a rotation that slowly tapers off for this kind of thing. When my dad died when I was 15 (also of pancreatic cancer), we had dinners come 3x a week for 6 months, and it was a godsend. Neither my mother or I felt like cooking or eating, but we felt like we had to eat because there 13×9 pans of pasta or enchiladas or whatever that needed to be eaten in a reasonable amount of time. It is absolutely the best and most necessary tradition to support grieving families that exists.

    Also: if you are willing to help her with something, think of the specific things that you might want to help her with and ask about them. Do not say “If you need anything, we’re here”- often grieving people have no idea what would help them (because it feels like nothing will) or are going to be hesitant to take you up on that even if they think of something because they’re not sure whether you really mean “anything”. Think of something that may be helpful, ask her about it, and if she says no, let her know that you’d be able to do similar tasks if she needs you to. If you’re not actually able to do anything beyond normal coworker stuff, that’s okay! Just don’t offer.

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