Talking about death and grief can feel scary, especially at work. Read our advice for language best practices that you can use when discussing death and dying with colleagues. 

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Faith Holloway

by Faith Holloway

Compassionate Employers Lead at Hospice UK

Talking about death and dying in the workplace


Dying Matters Awareness Week in 2024 is focused around having open, honest conversations about death and dying between healthcare professionals, patients and their families. 

But what about workplaces?

Talking about death and grief can feel scary, especially at work. 

The words we use can be crucial in making sure we don't offend others or increase their pain. 

The risk to our work relationships can often feel so high that we may avoid talking about it altogether. 

Yet we know that grief can be incredibly lonely, and that work colleagues can play a huge role in helping a bereaved person to cope and move forward with their grief. 

Faith Holloway, Compassionate Employers Lead at Hospice UK, shares three tips for language best practices when discussing death at work to hopefully make these conversations a little easier.

1. Use clear and direct language


Imagine you return from bereavement leave and a colleague approaches you. They say "Hey, how are you doing?"

What's the next thought in your mind?

Likely it's something like... "do they know? What are they referring to? Maybe they don't, so I'll just pretend everything's fine..."

Meanwhile this colleague had every intention of helping. When their bereaved colleague says they're fine, they believe them. And assume they don't need any support.

This is a really common miscommunication. But it can be avoided by being direct and clear. 

It can be more helpful to say "I'm sorry to hear your mother-in-law died" or "I'm aware you've experienced a bereavement recently. How are you coping?"...

...than something vague like "How are you doing?". 

This way the person is clear that a) you have heard the news and b) you are opening up the conversation to talk about it. 

2. Mirror their language


Generally I get told by bereaved people that they don't enjoy euphemisms. These are phrases we all know and have heard. Things like, "They've gone to a better place" or, "At least they had a long life."

Overall, it's best to avoid these sayings. I've never had someone tell me they found them helpful. And even if the bereaved person uses one themselves, it doesn't mean they want us to use them too. 

In saying that, bereaved people will often use specific words that they feel more comfortable with. For example, some of us say 'passed away' and others of us will prefer to say 'died'. A person may refer to a miscarriage as their child while others refer to it as a foetus. This is usually very personal and should be respected.

So while we want to avoid clichés completely, the other person can send you signals of how they want to be communicated with through what words they use. And it can show a great deal of respect by listening out for these words and mirroring them, while also highlighting that you are being a good listener. 

3. Correct your language use if needed


We won't always get conversations right. We may notice on someone's face that we've upset them or they go very quiet on a phone call. 

Often times colleagues will know our intentions. Even so, it's important to acknowledge if we do say something that causes harm. It's important to note this very rarely happens. If someone gets upset it is likely that you have helped them to share the pain they were already feeling, rather than causing the pain yourself. 

But we are all human, and you may feel uncomfortable or panic and slip in a 'silver lining' phrase or a poor wording choice. 

If you notice this, check in with the person first, and if it's confirmed that you have said the wrong thing be reassured that we can resolve this easily.

For example, maybe you say: "Well at least that weren't in pain that must make it easier."

* you notice your colleague furrows their brow and looks offended *

You could say: 

"I'm sorry, I can see that wasn't helpful to say. I didn't mean to undermine your grief. Do you want to talk more about how you've been feeling?"

Here we've successfully:

  • apologised
  • acknowledged the impact
  • redirected our attention back to the bereaved person 

Other tips


Educate yourself on best practice. A common example is that rather than saying someone has committed suicide it is now understood to be much more appropriate say 'died by suicide'. More information on that here.

Practice these conversations. The more you have them, the less scary they become. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you about a difficult moment or experience they've had and practice listening and responding. Ask for feedback. 

Give yourself patience and compassion. These conversations are tough, so look after yourself too! Afterwards take some time out to decompress or talk to someone if needed. We can't pour from an empty bucket, so make sure to factor in time for your own wellbeing too. 

Did you find this helpful?


Compassionate Employers is Hospice UK’s wellbeing in the workplace programme. They can help organisations look after their people and foster a proactive, positive environment where supporting a colleague through grief, dying, and caring is no longer awkward or uncomfortable. Get started by taking the free mini-assessment.

To get your organisation involved in Dying Matters Awareness Week, check out our handy resources and ideas.