Dear Matt: I recently had to deal with a personal tragedy that is going to be hard to overcome. I was not motivated to return to work and my co-workers did not know how to approach me. Do you have any tips for individuals and co-workers dealing with tragedy in the workplace?

Matt says: There is no one-size-fits-all way to handle this type of situation, but Jody Bertram, a senior EAP consultant with Midwest EAP Solutions (, has outlined some tips for both an individual dealing with loss and their co-workers.

If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), reach out to them right away, says Bertram. The EAP can provide free and confidential support, access to grief/loss counseling and local resources for additional support, such as support groups. “The EAP can also get involved on an organizational level to meet with management, staff and close co-workers of this employee to discuss best practices around re-integrating into the workplace,” says Bertram.

Bertram provided these strategies for coping with tragedy while returning to work:

• Your co-workers want to be supportive, but may not know how to approach you or talk about your tragedy. Letting them know its OK to talk about it will help alleviate some of the awkwardness that they and you may be feeling.

• Don’t be embarrassed if you become emotional — it’s part of the healing process. Give yourself permission to feel bad and share your feelings with others. Talking heals; don’t become isolated.

• Structure your time and keep busy. If getting through the day is hard, set milestones and take a self-care break when you need one — a 10-minute walk outside, a healthy treat, a short phone call with a loved one.

• Talk to your HR manager or supervisor about what will make things easier for you as you get back into daily work. They can also speak with your co-workers to relay your wishes and the kind of support you need.

For co-workers, Bertram offers these tips:

• Be yourself. You can’t take away your co-worker’s pain by saying the “right” thing. Sometimes just a warm smile, or squeezing someone’s arm in a comforting way, conveys enough of a caring message.

• Simply sharing your caring and sympathy can go a long way. Saying things such as “glad to have you back” “we missed you” and “sorry for your loss, it is good to see you back at work” can go a long way.

• Include the co-worker in social events; don’t assume they wouldn’t attend.

“Don’t let your feelings of helplessness cause you to avoid your co-worker,” says Bertram. “Expect tears and other displays of sadness. They’re normal and part of grieving.”