Helping Yourself or a Coworker with Grief in the Workplace

Although something as personal as grief may seem out of place in the work environment, an individual’s reaction to loss cannot be contained by the barriers we erect between our private and business lives. Whether it’s welcome or not, we carry our grief to work with us, along with our laptops and cell phones. This is actually a positive thing, for grief is a normal and healthy response to loss.

Many of us spend the largest part of our day in the workplace. Understanding grief can help us provide a supportive atmosphere where individuals can express themselves and grief reactions can be handled sensitively. You may be reading this because you have suffered a loss and you wonder how it will affect your professional life. Or, someone you know at work is grieving a loved one’s death and you would like to help. In either case, the workplace and its people can be a healing community.

When you grieve

In your grief you may feel numbness, sorrow, loneliness, a sense of abandonment and sometimes anger or guilt. Though we usually think of grief in terms of emotions, it may also take other forms. Grief may appear masked as relationship difficulties, an inability to concentrate or sleep, loss of appetite, bodily distress, even interruption of basic digestive functions. These grief symptoms can affect our work as well as personal lives.

You may be wondering, “How long will I feel this way?” Although companies typically grant 3 to 4 days of leave for a death in the immediate family, it is to allow employees to make final arrangements, not to address their grief. There is no timetable for grief resolution—the grief process is different for everyone. Remember, though, that people of every age and culture have faced the reality and pain of bereavement. Death is part of living. Each of us, in our own time, can complete the task of mourning.

Helping yourself

  • Try to maintain a regular schedule. Prepare and eat meals at regular times, go to bed at your normal hour, get up and begin your day as you did before.
  • You may not feel like returning to work right away. When you do return, you may wish to work fewer hours for awhile or temporarily assume a less demanding role. Discuss leave and scheduling options with your supervisor.
  • At work, you may wish to keep your grief to yourself. Or, you may choose to share your loss with coworkers. Whatever you decide, advise your supervisor of your decision. Let him or her know your preferences.
  • Expect strong grief emotions to periodically interrupt work. If appropriate, ask your supervisor to help you find a private place to address these feelings.
  • Some coworkers may avoid mentioning your loved one in conversations with you. They may be trying to protect you from pain or they may not know what to say. In an effort to help, others may say things about your loss that you find hurtful or offensive. In either case, accept that their motivations are well-meaning.
  • Should the pain you feel seem too deep and prolonged to bear, turn to a professional counselor, clergy member or a grief support group. Ask your funeral director, cleric or human relations coordinator if you need assistance locating help.
  • Many businesses sponsor Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are free or low-cost sources of confidential advice and support. Inquire about programs that may be available through your company.

When a coworker grieves

When a coworker loses a loved one, we often wonder how we should respond and what we can do to help.

How to respond to a coworker

  • Acknowledge the death. Attend the funeral or memorial service, send a condolence card or make a meal and deliver it. Say, “I’m so sorry.”
  • Try not to relate your own past to what your coworker is experiencing. Each loss is different, and we don’t know how our coworker feels or what he or she is going through. Be willing to listen without judgment.
  • Avoid making trite comments about the death. It may not be helpful to hear: “It’s good she didn’t suffer,” or “He’s in a better place now.” These types of clichés can be hurtful because they diminish the painful loss of the loved one.
  • At work, your coworker may wish to discuss the loss or instead may wish to concentrate on workplace tasks. Respect and support those wishes.

How you can help a coworker

  • Someone who is numb from loss may not be able to think of ways you can help. Look for things that need to be done and be specific when offering to do them: “I live near the airport and I can pick up your aunt tomorrow afternoon,” or, “I have some free time Saturday morning. Do you want some help with thank you notes?”
  • When your coworker returns to work, respect his right to grieve. Strong emotions related to the loss may appear unexpectedly, many months after the death. Be supportive, patient and understanding.
  • If you are able, try to lighten your coworker’s load. Ask if you can lend a hand with a project or help out by playing a stronger role.
  • Many bereaved individuals feel isolated and alone. You can help by inviting your coworker to lunch and after-work get-togethers.     
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