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What to Say (and Do) When You Don’t Have the Right Words

By Erica Jenkins

Advice on handling grief and loss in the workplace from UT Knoxville faculty members Laura Wheat and Laura Miller

Someone Experiencing Loss

Set Communication Expectations
Let your supervisor and co-workers know your preferences about discussing your loss.

Ask for What You Need
Someone who hasn’t experienced your type of loss may not understand the adjustments your loss requires. Talk honestly about your needs.

Give Yourself Space
Grief doesn’t happen in linear stages. It occurs in roller coaster cycles that vary in intensity over time. If you need to step away for a minute to process feelings of grief, give yourself that latitude.

Don’t Avoid Your Grief
When we process grief, we can overindulge in coping mechanisms including food and substances to avoid the intensity of those feelings. While painful, it’s in your best interest long-term to experience and process your grief.


Acknowledge the Loss
Let employees know that you understand they are experiencing a life-changing loss. This can be a powerful way to open the door for additional conversations.

Take Initiative
Ask how you and the office can support them and talk about what accommodations, if needed, are possible within UT policy.

Check In
Grief is a process, and it’s important to check in with employees occasionally to understand where they are and if their needs have changed.

Follow the Leader
Your employees may view work as a safe place to escape from grief. Have a conversation where you ask about their preferences.

Keep Your Door Open
Depending on the type of loss, the grief may take a long time to work through. Make it clear that your door is open for conversations if employees need to discuss situations with you.

Offer Flexibility Within UT Policies
Loss may require employees to work out new routines. If you can, be flexible if employees need to leave early or come in late.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
Don’t wait until employees have accumulated fireable offenses to address performance issues. Monitor behaviors, and if patterns emerge, open conversations so that there are opportunities to discuss issues.

Address Performance Empathetically
Don’t start performance conversations with grieving employees with evaluation statements such as, “I’ve noticed that performance is noticeably suffering.” Start with open-ended questions and give employees opportunities to address issues first.


Recognize That Loss Comes in All Forms
It’s not unusual for people to associate loss with a death. However, loss can come in many forms, such as divorce, loss of a pet and a child going to college. Each form of loss can result in grief.

Acknowledge the Loss
It’s important to be supportive by recognizing when something significant happens.

Open the Door for Conversations
If you’re comfortable with your co-workers, let them know that you’re a safe place to talk.

Offer Distractions
There will come a time when it may be nice for people in grief to get away from the office. Don’t be afraid to invite them to lunch or give them something else to focus on.

Pay Attention
If you notice changes in your co-workers’ behavior, don’t be shy about asking if there’s anything you can do to help.

This is Part 4 of 4 from our first series of stories about grief and loss. Read parts 1, 2, and 3.

Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on music. 

Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.