If you’ve recently lost a loved one, then the grief is likely still fresh. But at some point you have to pick up the pieces and return to work. How you handle deep sorrow in the workplace will play a significant role in how well you’re able to heal and return to a semblance of “normal” after a great loss.
The Normality of Grief
Grief is a natural response to any kind of loss. We may suffer grief from losing a job, our health, a relationship, a pet, our home, or any other tangible (or intangible) object.
But the most intense grief follows the loss of a life: particularly the death of a close family member or friend. And because grief can be so intense in that situation, people rarely know how to respond.
“Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss,” explains Melinda Smith, M.A.
“The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried ― and there is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving.”
Some people can grieve for a few days and return relatively to normal. For others, grief happens in stages that can last for months, even years. The essential thing is for you to recognize the normality of grief and allow it to happen.
How To Deal With Grief In The Workplace
“Giving adequate room for grief is also vital to a person’s well-being. This is something that can be prepared somewhat prior to a loved one’s death,” explains Susan Fraser of In the Light Urns.
“If the dying person is a close family member or friend, those who are grieving may not feel able to go back to work or school right away. They can make arrangements ahead of time so that they do not feel the pressure to ask for accommodations while they are also coping with the loss.”
But what if the death is sudden and unexpected? After a few days away from work, how do you carry your grief upon your return to the office when there was no plan or chance to prepare? Consider the following tips and strategies:
1. Focus On Doing
Your natural inclination may be to shut down and do nothing, but being productive can be a substantial springboard for healing. By focusing on performing constructive tasks, you may shift your mind away from your distress for set periods of time and regain a semblance of stability in your life.
Don’t confuse doing with ignoring, though. Pushing emotions away and staying busy so you don’t have to experience your grief is something different. Work should only be used as a temporary distraction and route to recovery.
Grief needs to happen, but balancing it with familiar tasks that are unrelated to the death of your loved one can help you avoid becoming consumed by feelings of anguish and depression.
2. Let Others Help
If there’s ever a moment in your life when you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help, it’s in the wake of a loved one’s death. Not only do other people understand your situation, but they want to help.
Instead of closing yourself off and asserting that everything’s fine, be honest with your coworkers. This is something Anna Runyan realized when she went through the grieving process after two miscarriages and the loss of her aunt in a short span of time.
“I realized that, when I opened up and let everyone know what I was going through, they were able to understand better,” Runyan says. “They were happy to pick up my workload right away, and they didn’t expect me to be doing anything. Because they were so supportive, I could really focus on myself.”
3. Forgive People For Their Responses
Don’t be surprised if things feel a bit awkward when you return to the office. People can be very loving and compassionate, but we often struggle with a proper response to death.
We don’t always know how to speak to someone who’s lost someone precious, and there can be a lot of hesitation and outright fear of saying the wrong thing. A clumsy solution is to avoid the subject entirely.
While this is hardly the best thing people can do, you must try not to hold it against them. Recognize that they are trying their best to be sensitive to your emotional state and don’t wish to send you into a tailspin of despair.
Forgive others for their responses, but you should also not hesitate to let them know you’re a little hurt. This can open things up and lead to healthier interactions thereafter.
4. Understand Your Benefits
Did you know that many large companies offer an array of benefits for people who are going through personal issues … including grief? Take advantage of these opportunities if they’re there for you.
“I worked for the same company for six years and never understood my benefits,” Runyan points out. “I realized later than I would have liked to know that my company offered some amazing benefits, including free confidential counseling and research programs.”
If you’re not sure whether you have such benefits available to you, don’t be afraid to ask. The worst thing that can happen is your HR department or boss will say no, I’m sorry. It’s also possible that, even if you don’t have a particular service in your formal benefits package, the boss may offer to cover the cost associated with counseling on the company’s dime.
You never know until you put yourself out there.
5. Find A Quiet Place To Retreat
As you may know, grief tends to come in waves. You can be fine one minute, then encounter a tiny trigger that sets off an involuntary flow of deep emotion the next.
Because you can never know how “stable” you’ll be from one day to the next, it’s worthwhile to have a place where you can retreat to if necessary. The last place you want to break down is in the middle of a crowded conference or break room.
Your retreat may be as simple as closing your office door. But if you don’t have your own space? An empty closet, rarely used stairwell, or bathroom stall may be a fine temporary retreat.
When you feel tears coming on, excuse yourself from wherever you are and find some solace in your “quiet place.” You’ll feel better not melting down in front of the rest of the office and your coworkers will understand.
Take the Next Step Toward Healing
Grief plays a catalytic role in psychological healing after the death of a loved one. But because grief can last for weeks, months, or years, most people have to return to work while they’re still in the process of grieving.
When you get back to work, make sure you’re honest with both yourself and others. Recognize where you are, emotionally, and don’t fight the natural process of mourning. The sooner you’re able to confront and process your grief, the sooner you’ll be able to live the rest of your life in a healthy and productive manner.
It can be good to meet with a grief counselor or psychiatrist if you feel you could use some help coping with your emotions. This is not a sign of weakness, but an intelligent step in the right direction.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at strongertogether@