How to say sorry at work: Embarrassed colleagues can make a bereaved person feel worse. John Crace reports

'FOR the last six months of my father's life I knew that his cancer was terminal. I tried to keep my boss informed about his condition, but every time I broached the subject she would say: 'How terrible. I can't bear it. Don't talk about it.' I desperately wanted to be with Dad when he died, and when the doctors told me he could go at any moment, I cleared my desk and told my boss that I needed time off work.

'He died a few days later, on Christmas Eve. When I went back to work in the New Year I found a note on my desk saying: 'Why are you so many hours down this month? Please come and see Admin immediately.' No one had been told my father had died. People were coming up to me and saying: 'Where have you been? Did you have a nice holiday?' My boss couldn't face me. She didn't come to see me until about five o'clock in the afternoon. She didn't know what to say, she told me. I didn't want her to say anything in particular; I just wanted her to put her head round the door and say 'Hi'.'

Margaret's experience may be more traumatic than many, but her story is not uncommon. Every day 3,500 people in Britain lose someone close to them; one person is widowed every three minutes. Nobody can be totally prepared for a bereavement, nor be immunised against their pain. But people can be helped in their grief, and it as important that they should receive support in the workplace as at home.

Unfortunately, many find that going back to work means having to carry on as if nothing has happened. Few people set out to be deliberately insensitive. The reaction of Margaret's boss was not prompted by malice: her own father had died some years earlier and she had never come to terms with it. She was so paralysed by the situation that she couldn't even bring herself to let Margaret's colleagues know what was happening, which led to the upsetting note and comments on Margaret's return.

Facing the issue head on may not be comfortable for those at work, but it is usually the approach that is most appreciated by the newly bereaved. Richard had just begun a new job when he was told his father had only a few months to live. 'It was an extremely difficult time for me. There had been a number of redundancies at the company just prior to my arrival, and I didn't feel that secure of my own position.

'When I told my manager about my father's illness I was left to sort out for myself what hours I took off. I would much rather that they had told me what was OK and what wasn't, or at the very least reassured me that what I was doing was acceptable.

'I just needed things to be clear. But whenever I asked my boss's secretary a straightforward question about how much time I could take off, I got an equivocal answer. After my Dad's death I received a nice letter from my boss's boss, and one or two colleagues were very kind, but almost everyone else avoided the subject or didn't even know he had died.'

There are no statutory rights to compassionate leave: it is a matter of negotiation between employers, employees and unions. Terms vary greatly: in the police service, for example, two weeks is allowed, yet civil service workers get only five days. Extra unpaid leave is often an option - but only for those who can afford to take it. Some people, of course, may be more than happy to get back to work as quickly as possible. But anyone newly bereaved will be in a vulnerable state.

Just as no two people will react in the same way to a bereavement, so there are no hard and fast rules about how a company or workmates should respond. One person may be comparatively unaffected by the death of a relative, while another may be distraught at the loss of a friend. Yet bereavement is something which will affect most workplaces at some time or other, so some general pointers can be helpful.

David Charles-Edwards is a counsellor and the author of a booklet called Death, Bereavement, and Work. He and his wife Alison, a counsellor with the bereavement support group Cruse, run one-day courses to address the problems of bereavement and work.

Their approach is to talk employers through the different stages of the bereavement process, and provide ideas about how to support someone through a loss. 'Some of the advice is straightforward - like letting other colleagues know what is happening, acknowledging the loss to the bereaved, encouraging them to talk if they want to, and not setting a time limit on 'being back to normal',' says Charles-Edwards. 'But the main thrust of the workshops is to give people the chance to try out these ideas in a practical way.'

He advises some simple approaches. Just saying something like, 'I'm sorry to hear your Dad died' and 'If you ever want to talk about it, I'm here,' can make a big difference. Employers can ease the pressure on the bereaved person by letting them know that 'I know you don't feel up to much, so don't worry too much about your work at the moment,' or 'It's a lot better to let it out' if the bereaved person starts crying.

Charles-Edwards reports that few companies make much effort to train their staff for these situations, and as a result the bereaved often feel unsupported at work. He is under no illusions about this. 'Teaching staff to cope with bereavement comes fairly low on most firms' list of priorities. But this form of training can equip people to come to terms with all sorts of other losses, such as redundancy. Employers can only expect the same level of commitment from employees as the company shows towards its staff. That means treating people as human beings.'

But even when a company goes out of its way to help an employee, by giving as much compassionate leave as is required and by keeping colleagues informed to save the stress of explanations, the bereaved can be made to feel unsupported simply because people do not know how to talk to them.

Geoffrey's son, James, was born with a congenital heart defect and had transplant surgery when he was two. He appeared to be making a full recovery, but 18 months later he suddenly fell ill and died within 24 hours.

'I was allowed as much time off as I wanted when James was in hospital, and after he died several people from work came to the funeral. When I went back to work I talked to my manager about it, and quite a few people said how sorry they were. But no one wanted to take it any further than that. People are scared of saying the wrong thing and they're worried about reminding you of what's happened as if by not talking about it you might forget.

'I know that people don't get much practice at finding the right words, but I needed people to ask me about James so I wouldn't feel as if I was imposing on them. Everyone wants things to go back to normal, but the bereavement process can go on for months, or even years.'

FIND WORDS TO HELP

If someone you work with is bereaved . . .

DO:

Make sure his or her colleagues know about the bereavement.

Acknowledge the loss: encourage the person to talk if they want to.

Enable them to cry in safety, without loss of self- respect.

Reassure them that powerful feelings and dreams are normal.

Remember to acknowledge anniversaries.

DON'T:

Minimise the loss.

Let your feelings of embarrassment stop you offering support.

Expect the bereaved to be back to normal quickly.

Pressurise them to get on with work: if the job is that important, get someone else to do it.

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