You receive a call from an employee on a Monday morning that their 21-year-old son has died by suicide over the weekend. Still in shock, the employee is dealing with the logistics of death and doesn’t know when he will return to work. After expressing your concern and reassuring him to take the time he needs, you ask permission to share the news with his work team.

The employee’s coworkers react as most would to this kind of tragedy—with shock and sadness and even anger and guilt. They’re also concerned for their colleague and express anxiety about how to support him when he returns to work. But what should they say (or not say)? What will be helpful?

I received a call recently from an employer with this exact scenario. The colleagues of an employee whose young adult child died by suicide requested help from human resources regarding how to support their colleague when he returned to work. The fact that his co-workers reached out for resources to help care for him speaks to the supportive nature of their workplace.

The essence of effective support is to reach out to an employee rather than staying away to avoid an awkward or uncomfortable situation. A simple acknowledgement of the colleague’s loss is sufficient and gives the bereaved space to say as much as they are comfortable saying. Be yourself and treat the colleague as you always have.

If you don’t know what to say, be honest and let them know you are there to listen. Avoid clichés like “they are at peace now,” which can be alienating. Don’t ask too many questions about the deceased’s behavior beforehand as it may reinforce feelings of guilt or blame. For specific language to use and avoid when extending care, refer to Conversations Matter’s fact sheet and review its “Conversations Matter to Those Bereaved by Suicide” overview.

What if you’re the manager? In addition to dealing with your own feelings, you have a unique role in facilitating the resilience of your team and empowering them through difficult times.’s “Supporting Someone Bereaved by Suicide” guidelines offer helpful suggestions, including accommodating an employee’s time off for counseling appointments or their gradual return to work with half-days or reduced hours.

Recognize that a person dealing with suicide loss may have trouble focusing and performing to their usual level. Ask the employee what would be helpful as they transition back into the workplace. Apply policies that help with that transition and be mindful of anniversary dates, which may be especially difficult. To help make the employee’s return to work easier for everyone, arrange for a lunch with colleagues outside of work to ease the transition back.

When a suicide happens, it affects everyone. You don’t know who may be struggling. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), make sure the family of the deceased is aware of the benefit as well as the rest of the work team. In addition to individual EAP sessions, consider having an EAP consultant come on-site to provide critical incident support to help employees understand what they may be experiencing and how they can help themselves and each other be resilient and return to full productivity.

For more information on how to set up critical incident support for your team, contact us today.