Few things in life are more awkward than wanting to help a co-worker who is grieving—but not knowing how. Grief is one of those hard heartbreaks that words and actions can’t heal… but there are some things that make the grieving journey a little lighter.

As someone who talks a lot about grief for my job, one common principle is, “The closer you are to someone, the more you are expected to be there for her.” I call this “The Target Theory,” which allows us to visualize the outer, inner, and center rings of the relationships in our lives that require different levels of commitment on our end—and vulnerability on their end.

So where does your co-worker fall on that target, and how can we help in a way that is appropriate?

Here are four ways to help you find out for your unique situation:

  1. Acknowledge That You Know.
    • No matter what level of closeness you feel, it’s important you let her know that you are aware of the situation and that you’re thinking of her. The griever probably doesn’t know who knows, which can be stressful and hard. Remember, she is thinking about the loss—you sending a note that she can open on her own time is not going to “bring it back up.”
  2. Give Her Patience.
    • Depending on the loss, it can be all-consuming. Most people don’t have the luxury of just hitting “pause” on working while grieving; they need to put food on the table. Remember that your co-worker is not the same person as she was before the loss—and that’s ok. She will eventually get her mental sharpness back and not be as busy with all the aftermath of a loss, but this can take months. Let her know it’s ok.
  3. Show, Don’t Tell.
    • I’ve interviewed a lot of grievers on my show, and one common thread is this: Do not put the responsibility on the griever to ask for help. Don’t say, “If you need anything, let me know…” Instead, give however you can. Money for food and housecleaning is always appreciated. A simple treat with a note left at your co-worker’s desk is very kind. Whatever you do, don’t expect her to open up to you just because you gave something—give without expectation.
  4. If You’re Going to Ask, Be Ready to Listen.
    • Don’t treat grief like a passing “How are ya?” that you use interchangeably with “Hello.” Grief is vulnerable—if you ask, be present. Prepare yourself for the possibility of her actually sharing her hard truth—because the more she talks about it, the more she will process her grief. Perhaps wait to ask until an appropriate time of the day (aka not right before your meeting or just in advance of something big on her agenda). Lastly, don’t expect a response. If she gives a “Fine, hanging in there” while avoiding eye contact, it’s a pretty good sign she doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s ok! However, she might really love that you asked, even if you aren’t that close—you never know until you, well, ask.

The more intense the grief, the more it is important for you to remember that grief never just goes away. If your co-worker’s loved one died in March, you can be assured that the holidays the following winter will be tough. And March will probably be tough. And depending on the severity of the loss, any random day could be tough for the rest of her career!

Your job isn’t to fix her grief—because no one can. Instead, just use the guidelines above and be kind to her in a way that works for her.

If you’d like to learn more about hope after grief, please head to my website, www.mikispeer.com, and grab your free copy of the grief exercise, “My Heart Still Remembers.”

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” – John 15:12, NIV