Supporting Staff Through Bereavement

Grief spelled out in big wooden letters

Recently at DCA’s D&I Insights Program event, industry experts discussed bereavement, and how organisations can help their staff in times of grief. One of the panel members at this event was Jessie Williams, Manager of Community Programs at CCNB which runs Groundswell, a pioneering project working to change how we, as a society, respond to death. In this blog piece, Jessie shares a story about her own personal experience with loss, and how her workplace took action to support her.

Bereavement leave is 2 days. It takes longer to get over a bad haircut. In Australia someone dies every 3 minutes. Within our families, friends… and at work. Every 3 minutes there is an opportunity to respond to a death differently. Amidst the sadness and grief, there is an opportunity for more connection, more resolution, more compassion.

In western culture, we are death denying. We do not like to think about, talk about, or acknowledge death as an inevitable reality of being alive. This has devastating impact on our ability to face our own mortality and places limits on our capacity to allow others to experience their loss.

In the 90’s whilst on maternity leave, my baby died and I was back at work 4 weeks later. For that gruelling month, my work buddies visited me at home and suggested I come into the office a week before the official start date so that I could practice at re-entry. This was a world that I no longer related to, and that action made a huge difference to my ability to step out of the lifts the next day.

My grief was exhausting, it was disorientating. The normal aspects of work life seemed hugely insignificant. But somehow, I made it through that first year, then the second year and later I became the boss. I experienced post traumatic growth.

It turns out, those people had been part of a brave conversation that took place in the kitchen the day before I returned. Standing around a table, leaning on benches, sipping coffee and eating biscuits, they asked each other as a team, as a workplace: “How are we going to respond when Jess walks out of those lift doors?”

After some discussion they came to an understanding and a mode of operation. First, they would acknowledge openly what had happened. Just the simple facts sufficed. Second, they would create a light, time-bound opportunity for reactions to be expressed. People could walk away, stay and cry, ask questions, be silent (personalities are allowed in a compassionate workplace).

Third, the leaders authorised the staff to express their natural compassion, but it wasn’t a pile on of love. It was thoughtful and specific. My boss told my work buddies they could walk me to the café anytime it looked like I had the wobbles, just to chat over a cup of tea. She (the boss) was offered support from the CEO, an ‘open door policy’ he told her. He shared with his partner at home, how sad the news was and how he hoped he was doing the ‘right thing’.

It turns out there’s a model that speaks to what my workplace did intuitively, it’s called The ring theory. The compassionate care at our workplace was leader led and the staff were trusted to manage it.

In my experience in hosting conversations with staff across workplaces, here are some dos and don’ts!

  • Acknowledge the loss and don’t try to take the pain away. It’s there and may be for a long time. Avoidance from some team members will happen and that’s okay, though not if coming from a leader.
  • Don’t minimise the loss or give platitudes such as ‘everything happens for a reason’ or anything starting with “At Least….”

Instead say things like:

  • What do you need right now? If you’re not sure, would you mind if I check in with you next Friday? (Be specific)
  • Say “I’m so sorry” and “I don’t know what to say”.

We run a campaign called Dying to Know Day which encourages people to talk about death and grief openly. The campaign is based on public health research and interestingly, whilst most organisations with an EAP provider will offer that to the bereaved staff member, public health research shows that for most people, the bulk of the support that is effective actually comes from their informal networks, and they may have an ambivalent response to the professional support offered.

Get in touch with us at the Dying to know Day campaign to start the conversation about end of life and how we can do it better.

DCA Resources

Supporting Employees Through Bereavement – Event Recording

The Art of Inclusion Podcast – Sorry Business featuring Mundanara Bayles
The Art of Inclusion Podcast – At a Loss featuring Lisa Gallate, author of Hitting My Reset, and Christopher Hall, a psychologist and the CEO of The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

DCA Report – Inclusive leadership

Additional Resources