Handling Grief at Work: Advice from Experts
July 12, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
“Life doesn’t stop for anybody,” wrote Stephen Chbosky in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, and that includes those grieving the loss of a loved one. This sentiment carries double weight at work. The time off for bereavement that companies typically offer is three days paid leave. Unless your company is extra-compassionate or can afford to give you more, after that you’re on your own. Not surprisingly, most people return to work and cope as best they can. Here, we asked grief experts how best to manage the challenges of grief at work.
When You Are Grieving
Dr. Andrea Goeglein, a Las Vegas-based psychologist, says that grief can’t be compartmentalized and spills over into the rest of your life in unexpected ways. “You never know when a life situation will appear that causes you to go into deep sorrow. The only thing you can know for sure is that deep sorrow does not have to last forever,” she explains. If your company offers you extra time off, take it if you can.
Jacob Brown, a psychotherapist specializing in grief counseling based in the San Francisco area, agrees: “It’s very difficult to process grief while you’re working. You need open and unstructured time to work through your feelings.” In most cases, he says, you’ll do it more quickly if you take time off.
If you can’t take time off, or only a few days, a more flexible work schedule may be easier to manage. Talk to your supervisor about making temporary changes to your daily calendar.
A few other things you can do to ease up the pressure during this time:
In the last two years, Rachel R. lost both her parents to brain cancer. After a few days of bereavement leave when her second parent died, Rachel returned to work and quickly realized that she could not manage diving back fully into her job. “I had to be kinder to myself about needing to take a step back to go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee, even spend an extra minute in the bathroom to do some deep breathing. I needed to protect my energy. If that means going a bit slower, taking more breaks than usual, so be it. Just functioning and breathing is an accomplishment!”
Talk to someone.
If you don’t already have a colleague with whom you can speak openly, try to find one. As Goeglein says, “you are only alone in your grief if you don’t allow others to help when they can.” Asli A. K. experienced this first-hand when she reached out after suddenly losing her son. “When my son passed, my boss made it very clear that there was no pressure for me to come back to work until I was ready,” she says. “I attempted to return a few times and left early. Sometimes I couldn’t make the commute and would turn around and go home. Through it all, I communicated with my boss and my co-workers.”
As her extended leave was unpaid, Asli eventually returned to work. “I would take breaks to go outside or even close my office door to cry,” she says. “If I needed an extra break, I let my boss know. It’s okay to show emotion at work.”
On that note, if a colleague has been friendly in the past, discussing their personal life, try opening up to them a bit and see how it’s perceived. Gently opening communication can allow you to show emotion and feel more comfortable grieving at work.
When Susan Y., a family-centered treatment therapist, lost her father to prostate cancer at age 25, she went back to work five days later. “It was difficult to embrace my grief because of the needs of the families I served,” Susan says. “I did not want to place the burden of my caseload on other coworkers. I had a hard time accepting help. Grief is an exhausting and unpredictable beast. Life and work do not stop for grief. Allowing ourselves to experience and ride the waves is the best thing we can do.”
When Your Co-worker Is Grieving
If one of your colleagues experiences the death of a close friend or relative, the most important thing you can do is let her process her grief at her own pace, says Brown. He suggests avoiding statements such as “he wouldn’t want you to be this sad” or “she’s in a better place now.” Whatever your intentions, “these remarks are not helpful,” says Brown, “and they send the message that work isn’t a safe place for them to have their feelings.”
A coworker’s mourning may also trigger some of your own grief. “Another person’s grief may remind you of [someone] you’ve lost or of your own mortality,” says Brown. “Sometimes we unconsciously shun the [bereaved] because their grief is too painful for us.” In cases like these, “give yourself time to process your own feelings of loss,” he says. Simply acknowledging how you feel may be enough, but talking it out with someone close to you or a licensed counselor may be necessary if you feel overly triggered.
If you feel comfortable acting as a support for this person, suggest going for a walk at lunch or after work. “This sets some limits so that you’re not trying to meet their needs at the expense of your work responsibilities,” Brown says.
As a sympathetic colleague, you can make gentle suggestions that may ease any anxiety the bereaved might feel about work, including taking time off. For Susan, a colleague helped her understand that she needed a break when she couldn’t see it herself. “A coworker called and encouraged me to stop working when I clearly needed to take time off,” she recalls.
When Your Team is Grieving
It’s hard coping with the death of a coworker—harder still if your company is not positioned to handle it, which can lead to misinformation and increased distress. “Although most companies have complex training on every subject from onboarding a new employee to resolving conflict,” says Goeglein, ”few have a procedure in place to help a group grieving the loss of a co-worker.” One way to address this situation is to encourage management to bring in a grief counselor. “A counselor can set up in a conference room,” says Brown, “and people can book an appointment. Or, even better, your company can offer to pay for a few sessions offsite with a local therapist.”
This allows everyone to grieve in their own way. For some, that will mean burying themselves in work. Others might need to take time off. “Everyone grieves differently,” Brown says. “Some people will be sad and cry on and off for days, while others will seem to go on as if they don’t feel anything. Don’t judge how others grieve. They are each working through their feelings in their own way and doing the best they can.”