While you may have good intentions, not all condolences or forms of sympathy are effective, and sometimes, you may end up doing more harm than good. Asking the wrong questions, encouraging recovery, or failed attempts at relating your own experiences can send a colleague dealing with grief spiraling. Sending condolences to a coworker who has experienced a loss is an important act of support, but it needs to be done right.
Follow our work condolences Dos and Don’ts to ensure you show your colleagues the support they need when they need it most.
Sending Condolences to a Coworker
People experience loss in a variety of ways, and some need more time than others. It’s a personal experience that’s unique to each individual, and depending on the gravity of the loss, it can have a notable impact on their work.
As a trusted colleague, showing your support can help your coworker navigate this difficult time in their lives. Offering condolences to a coworker is a simple step that shows you are there for them as they integrate back into the workplace in their own time.
The Dos and Don’ts of Expressing Condolences to a Coworker
DO express empathy and give them time to grieve in their own way
Empathy and understanding are always better than sympathy and pity. Don’t feel sorry for them; instead, try to understand how they feel. Pitying your colleague makes you more likely to avoid them or treat them differently than everyone else, whereas empathy enables you to better understand their personal experience.
Each person’s journey through grief is different, and you need to give people space to get through it on their own. Show your support and let them know you are there for them, but otherwise, give them the space and time they need to get through this terrible and traumatic time in their lives.
DO consider communication preferences
Some people thrive on in-person communication, while others are more private and don’t like to be approached out of the blue. Consider all that you know about the colleague who is suffering from a loss and how they generally choose to communicate. Act on their communication preferences when you send a work sympathy message to make sure they are as comfortable as possible.
DO watch your body language
Your body language can say just as much as your words. As you approach someone who has suffered a recent loss, make sure your body language is open and empathetic. Avoid any body language that could be interpreted as nervousness, aggression, or impatience when you give a condolence message.
Watch how you act around your grieving colleague as you continue to interact with them beyond sending a condolence message as well. You may not realize it, but you could be giving off excessive sympathy that can make a grieving person uncomfortable. Feeling sorry for someone and treating them differently is not the same as showing empathy and support.
👋 Learn How to Improve Workplace Body Language, including hands in pockets, gestures, posture, and more.
DO craft a condolence message for work colleagues
Take the time to craft a thoughtful condolence message—one that acknowledges the loss, lets them know you are there for them, and doesn’t impose your own feelings, thoughts, or experiences.
If you are speaking to them in person, think about what you want to say in advance and practice ahead of time. This is the exact wrong time to wing it as you could unintentionally offend or hurt the person who is grieving.
Consider the strength of your current relationship with that colleague. How well do you know them? How long have you known them? Do you work with them on a regular basis? Do you know the person that they lost? This can help guide the length and depth of your message.
DON’T relate your own experiences with loss
Relating to your colleagues is an ideal way to build relationships and make office friends, but not when it comes to sending condolences. Even if you have a story that relates to your colleague’s loss, don’t share it. Comparisons or drawn-out stories about your own experiences put the attention on you when you should be showing that you are there for them.
DON’T ask questions about the loss
Be careful not to overstep. Asking specific questions about the loss is a big mistake. Don’t ask your colleague when or how the person they lost died.
Let them offer that information if they choose to, but never ask those specific questions—no matter how curious you may be. You might think you are showing interest, but you are actually imposing. Asking questions about the loss will bring the memories flooding back to your colleague while they’re at work. You’ll provide more support by not asking questions about the circumstances.
DON’T ask what you can do
It may be your instinct to ask how you can help or what you can do for them, but this only puts pressure on the person who is grieving. They have enough to think about, and although your question may be simple, answering it is one more thing they have to do.
Instead, make sure they know you are there if or when they need you. Leave them with a statement and not a question so that there’s no action needed on their part. Make sure your coworker knows they can come to you whenever they need or want to. Try compassionate statements, such as “I’m here for you if you need me,” or “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” versus “What can I do to help you?” or “How can I help you?”
DON’T ask if they are feeling or doing better
When you ask a coworker if they are feeling better, you’re going in with an expectation. If they aren’t feeling better yet, they will only feel worse by giving you their answer. Just like the other questions that can interfere with a grieving person's wellbeing, asking if they are improving is one more thing for them to think about, and it invites judgment on both sides.
People who are grieving are often unable to consider their own progress, and any progress they do make may leave them feeling guilty. In moments of happiness during the grieving process, they may feel like they are forgetting about or leaving behind the person they lost. Even if your colleague seems like they are doing well or better, don’t mention it to them. Instead, you could say something else supportive, such as “It’s good to see you,” or “I’m glad you made it to this event.”
DON’T ignore the coworker
Grief takes up a lot of space, and it’s not always the best to be around. Even though it can be unpleasant, you should never avoid a colleague who is grieving. Give them their space, but don't ignore them.
Do your best to treat them with empathy and understanding, but at the same time, don’t treat them with overt or obvious sympathy. Even if you feel sorry for the person dealing with a loss, don’t act like you are sorry for them by expressing pity, as it can make them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Sorry for Your Loss Message to Coworkers
Condolences for work colleagues should be based on how well you know the person and the specific situation. That said, there are some common phrases you can use when crafting a card, email, phone call, or in-person message. Whatever you choose to say, make sure you mean it sincerely, and don’t offer more than you are able to give.
- “I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
- “Please accept my deepest condolences for the recent loss of your loved one.”
- “I’m holding you in my thoughts.”
- “I’m thinking of you.”
- “Thinking of you in these difficult times.”
- “Sorry to hear you lost someone you cared so much about.”
- “Please accept my deepest condolences to you over your loss.”
- “Our hearts go out to you and your family.”
- “Know that I’m here for you and your family if you need anything during these difficult times.”
- “I know words do little to ease the pain you feel…”
- “I can’t imagine the sadness you must be feeling from your loss.”
“May the pain you feel now be nothing compared to the joy you feel from the memories.”
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