Dealing with loss, due to whatever circumstance, is difficult. It can be particularly difficult, however, to know how to interact with others who are experiencing a loss. Responses to this type of situation can range from avoidance to becoming overly-involved. The best response is somewhere in the middle.

People often hesitate to offer support or condolences out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Saying nothing at all, however, may be interpreted as the person not caring about his or her friend, family member, or colleague who is experiencing loss or significant disappointment. On the opposite end of the spectrum is saying too much or becoming too connected, personally, to a situation that may affect you but is not about you. Without intending to do so, focusing on the injustice or sadness of a situation or moving into “fix it” mode minimizes what the other person thinks or feels.

One way to help find the right balance in how to respond to others experiencing loss or disappointment is to imagine if the roles were reversed. Ask yourself, what kinds of support would I want? Would I want someone asking a lot of questions about the situation? Would I want to be left alone for a while? Would I want someone to try to figure out ways to fix the situation? Would I want someone to listen to what I think and feel?

By asking yourself questions about what types of support you would need in a similar situation, you can start to determine what the other person may need. Support is not about changing the situation or getting angry or sad for the other person. Instead, it is about acknowledging that something has happened and expressing that you value the other person’s friendship, contributions to the workplace, or presence in your life.

If you are a person who feels you must “do something” in order to be helpful, then focus on what the person actually needs and not on fighting his or her battles, righting perceived wrongs, or healing emotional wounds. The following is a list of ways you can stay connected without becoming overly-involved in the other person’s pain:

  • Send flowers or make a donation to charity in the name of the person who was lost.
  • Send a note a few weeks after the loss. People tend to flood a person experiencing loss with support and attention immediately following the loss, but recovery from a loss is an ongoing process. Show a person you care by acknowledging that pain last longer than a few days.
  • When reaching out to a former colleague who may have lost his or her job, ask him or her join you for coffee, a meal, or an activity. Try to keep the focus on how the person and not on work-related gossip, problems, or other things that will either hurt or anger the person.
  • Simply say, “I know this is a hard time,” or “Let me know how I can help.”

By acknowledging that there may be pain or letting the person know you are willing to help, you invite the person to tell you how he or she thinks or feels. It is best to not assume you know how the other person is feeling.
There are often no right words to say or actions to take when a person for whom you care is going through a loss of any kind. Not saying or doing anything, however, can leave a person feeling alone or isolated. It also can leave you feeling guilty or like a bad friend or uncaring former colleague. On the opposite side of the coin, smothering a person with attention may shut a person down, emotionally, rather than help a person feel better. It is best to work towards a balance of compassion and action and to be mindful of what is helpful and what could be hurtful.

It is normal to want or to expect a person to bounce back from a loss or disappointment. The most important part is to not push the person into bouncing back because you think it is time for him or her to do so. There will come a time when the person will need help finding or learning resilience skills, but it has to happen after the person has experienced the emotions associated with loss. It is best to give people time to recover without dictating how it should be done or in what timeframe. You can accomplish this by staying connected, offering support without prescribing support, and by listening to the needs of the person who has experienced loss.