Every year, Dying Matters Awareness Week encourages communities across the country to come together to talk about death, dying and grief. ‘Dying Matters at work’ is the focus topic for this year. Dr Paul Beadon, Psychology & Bereavement Service Lead at Rowans Hospice, shares his tips on how to start a conversation about death with colleagues in the workplace – which might be easier than you think.
We spend a great many hours of our lives at work. This means that when we experience significant life events – such as a bereavement or a diagnosis of a life-shortening illness for ourselves or for a loved one – the level of support we receive at work has a significant impact on our wellbeing.
The responsibility to provide compassionate support to our colleagues falls on all of us.
And yet, often, we find that people avoid acknowledging colleagues’ distress.
Why is this?
Mostly, it’s because we worry that we’ll say the wrong thing, that we’ll make them feel worse, or that we’ll embarrass ourselves by getting it wrong.
It’s not just co-workers who find this hard: many line managers and HR professionals struggle with it, too.
But the impact of this avoidance on the person who is living with the impact of a life-limiting illness or a bereavement can be huge.
As a result, it essential that we find ways to reach out to people so that they don’t feel that their suffering is invisible or unimportant to us.
Below, you’ll find a list of tips that will help you feel more confident about starting that conversation:
- Here’s the most important one: don’t avoid them, or wait too long to speak to them, which can make starting the conversation feel harder. It’s best to simply and gently acknowledge what’s happening for them. “I was sorry to hear that…”
- Do more listening than talking, and remember: You don’t have to have ‘the answers’ to their problems, so resist the urge to give advice. Just listen. Let them know that what they’re feeling makes sense. Let them know you care. Fixing their pain is beyond anyone’s gift. But showing you are willing to listen and that you care makes a difference. It shows they matter, it helps them to feel heard, it helps them to put their pain into words.
- Always take the person’s lead as to how much they want to say. You may find that some days they want to talk more than others. Some people will only want to share certain pieces of their emotional experiences while at work. And they will likely share more with some people than with others. Respect their limits. Just be open to where they want to go.
- Continue to check in with them periodically, perhaps asking them how they’re doing on that particular day. Understand that their mood and coping will fluctuate a lot over time, so that some days they may find they feel better than other days
- Be patient. Especially when supporting a bereaved person. We’re often good at being supportive to bereaved people in the early days. But grief takes time. Often a lot of time. Bereaved people can come to feel that everyone expects them to be over their grief and this often leads them to hiding it.
- Don’t assume that just because someone seems to be doing fine at work, that their grief or distress has gone away.
- It’s not just the bereaved who experience grief. People who are diagnosed with a life-limiting illness or who are caring for someone with a life-limiting illness also experience grief.
- Remember that grief has a significant impact on a person in many ways. Grieving people may struggle to concentrate, find that they’re more forgetful, experience a reduction in confidence and an increase in anxiety, find it hard to get to sleep or stay asleep. As best you can, make allowances for this and remain supportive.
- Remember that everyone experiences grief differently, be open to understanding a person’s unique experience of grief. Never tell someone how they ‘should’ be feeling. Whatever they feel is what they feel. As best you can, be accepting of their feelings and allow them to express them as they need to.
- For managers, it’s important to ask staff what support the person feels would be most helpful and ensure that they know you’re open to listening as their needs inevitably change across time.
Do your best to hold these tips in mind, be brave and start the conversation, and you really can make a difference.