How to Talk to a Bereaved Colleague When They Return to Work

7 December 2022

National Grief Awareness Week is sponsored by The Good Grief Trust, taking place from 2nd – 8th December 2022.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of the impact of grief, and how early access to support can prevent serious mental and physical health problems.

Communicating with both those who are living with bereavement and those who have never experienced a significant bereavement, Grief Awareness Week seeks to normalise grief and encourage conversations around grief, normalising grief and making it an easier topic to discuss.

Talking about bereavement with colleagues

The National Bereavement Service’s experienced bereavement advisors have put together this guide for Grief Awareness Week, focusing on what to say when a work colleague has experienced a bereavement.

Death is a notoriously difficult topic to talk about, even with those closest to us. So, when a colleague suffers a bereavement, it’s no wonder that many of us don’t know what to say, or even whether we should say anything at all.

Concerned about saying the wrong thing, many people take the option of saying nothing to avoid upsetting their bereaved colleague, or perhaps to sidestep any awkwardness they may feel themselves. The problem is that saying nothing can result in the bereaved colleague feeling their loss has not been acknowledged, or is not considered important, which could amplify their sense of loss and loneliness.

How can you support a bereaved colleague?

1. Acknowledge your colleague’s loss

Even if you do not know the person well, acknowledging their loss will demonstrate to them that people in the workplace care and empathise with the difficult time they are going through. By simply saying ‘I’m sorry to hear about your sad news,’ you will communicate that you know they are coping with grief.

2. Mention your bereaved colleague’s loved one by name if you know it

One of the things people often find difficult following a bereavement is that the name of the person who has died is no longer spoken. If you know the name it can help to acknowledge their importance in your colleague’s life. If not, ‘I’m sorry to hear about your mum/husband/daughter/brother’ etc is a good alternative.

3. Take a lead from your colleague on how much they want to talk about it

We all experience grief differently, so while some people might want to talk about how they are feeling or reminisce about the person who has died, others may prefer to accept your condolences and distract themselves with work. Try to read the signals and respond accordingly.

4. Check in with your bereaved colleague over the days and weeks after their return to work

It takes time to work through grief and even someone who appears to be coping well much of the time may have bad days when they are finding it hard to disguise their sadness and other emotions.  From time to time, ask them how they’re doing; they may need a listening ear, or just to know that colleagues understand they are still dealing with difficult emotions.

5. Help out if you can see your colleague struggling

Not all empathy needs to be expressed in words. If you can see that your bereaved colleague is struggling or having a bad day, think of ways you can help by sharing their workload. Sometimes even making them a cup of tea can make a big difference to how they feel.

6. Offer specific practical support

One of the most commonly used phrases people use after a bereavement is ‘let me know if there is anything I can do to help’, but this puts the onus on your colleague to think of what they might need. Instead, think about what you could do and be specific. For example, you could offer to pick up some groceries.

7. Be sensitive and focus on your colleague’s experience

It is very rarely appropriate to discuss your own experiences with your bereaved colleague unless they ask you to. We all experience grief differently and what you felt and what helped you may not be right for them.

If you have experienced bereavement in similar circumstances to your colleague, such as the death of a child or death from suicide, simply mentioning your own loss and using a phrase such as ‘if you ever want to talk to someone who has been through a similar bereavement’ is the best approach, because it allows your colleague to choose whether or not to continue the conversation.

8. If you are the bereaved colleague’s line manager, talk to them and the rest of the team before they return to work

The best way for the team to get the balance right when a bereaved colleague returns to work is for their line manager to have a chat with them before they return. You can brief the team and let them know if there are any sensitive comments they should avoid.

It’s not always clear why someone has been off work and they may only have been away for a day or two, so briefing the team can avoid any unfortunate incidents such as someone asking after the person who has died (‘is your mum still in hospital?’) or making comments about how sad the bereaved colleague looks (‘you look like you’ve lost a pound and found a penny’ or ‘cheer up, it might never happen’ when in fact, it just has.)

Death is never an easy topic but the subject, like death itself, is unavoidable. Following this advice might just help to make it a little easier.

Contacting the National Bereavement Service

The National Bereavement Service supports anyone who has experienced a bereavement with practical information and advice and emotional support.

We help you to comply with legal requirements, signpost you to providers such as funeral directors and solicitors, and provide a listening ear that helps you through a very difficult and unexpected time.

To find out more about bereavement training for employers, call the National Bereavement Service for free on 0800 0246 121 or visit