Sadly (pun intended), I know a lot about grief. I lead a pretty charmed life, but this fall I had a really tough couple of weeks.
- On October 26, I said goodbye to my beloved doggie who I’d had for 15 years. I’m grateful I was able to give her a beautiful death at home, surrounded by people who loved her.
- On November 5, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack. He was not in great health, but you’re never really ready to lose a loved one. I’m grateful he did not suffer and, as my mom said, he couldn’t have designed it better. We should all be so fortunate.
- On November 8, my brother lost everything but his life and his car in the Paradise fire and spent weeks camping out in the Walmart parking lot at Chico. His life isn’t easy now, but I’m grateful he survived.
I have a theory that all the crappy stuff happens at once so we can get it over with and be happy the rest of the time. It certainly came all at once for me.
After the memorials and the cards and the visits, I was just numb. Everything was over and I’m like: what just happened? Meanwhile, back at work everyone’s just going about business like nothing happened, and I’m walking around, deer in the headlights, with a giant hole in my heart.
This is weird. I looked the same, but I was completely different.
My friend Frank, who’s a priest, reminded me that people in mourning used to wear black arm bands or dress in black so people would know to be gentle with them. In the Jewish tradition, those in mourning say a special prayer — Kaddish — and that’s a way everyone is reminded that they need TLC.
But we don’t have any of this at the office. So it’s up to you — considerate colleagues — to look out for your co-workers. Here’s three ways you can help your colleagues literally work through their grief.
I know people have a hard time knowing what to say, but you don’t need to say nearly as much as you think you do. “I’m sorry” is sufficient. That opens up the opportunity for a conversation if the bereaved colleague wants to have it. Listen more than you talk. Your presence is THE most important thing.
Don’t do this in the middle of a meeting with lots of people around or in an otherwise public space. Nobody wants to have a big melt down while they’re trying to do business. Find a private moment.
When I came back to work after my dog died, none of the staff at the front desk acknowledged even though they all knew and loved my dog. But I’m sure I was giving off that “don’t talk to me” vibe, and the lobby is a very public space.
But I was so moved when Luis, one our community service associates, otherwise known as a custodian, made a special trip to my office to share how sorry he was about Fuzzy. Yes, I shed a tear, but that was okay. It was a private and heartfelt moment. I had tissues nearby.
I was deeply grateful because I felt seen. Someone had acknowledged that I was not okay, not myself, life was not normal. I needed that.
Find a time to acknowledge and give your colleague space to talk and shed a tear.
#2 Pinch Hit
When I was in the corporate world, a bereavement leave was three days. Really?! My sister works for a big corporation and she got five days off when my dad died. I recently heard that Facebook now gives 20 paid days off when an employee loses an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member.
That’s more like it because, really, when someone dies you are on cognitive overload. Your brain just cannot handle very much. Why make someone come back to work when they’re not even coherent. Not good for them. Not good for the business.
When they do come back to work, pinch hit for them:
- Give your grieving colleague a pass on the big meeting.
- Prompt them to remember to say their smart recommendations when they do come to the big meeting if they don’t jump in as usual.
- Remind them, if needed, what deadlines are coming up or what the boss wanted to be sure everyone should know. I completely relied on my team for a while to know what was due and I’m grateful for them.
- Take some work off your colleague’s plate. They are not themselves. Don’t expect them to work like they are.
- Expect less. Be generous more.
#3 Keep an Eye on Them
Grief is like a wave except, unlike the ocean, you’re never totally sure when that wave is going to hit. So keep an eye out for your colleagues, but be careful, especially if you’re the boss. Don’t hover or make them feel like their performance is under scrutiny. If they’re a good employee, they’re worth your patience until they can get back to peak performance.
Consider giving them some mental health days or let them work from home once in a while. Not having the stress of getting to work – taking a shower, putting on makeup, getting dressed and fighting traffic – it’s all a lot to do when you’ve only got a little to give
If You’re Grieving
According to an article in Quartz, a recent study from Rice University found that “talking about something potentially stigmatizing and personal to one’s colleagues was more likely to deepen relationships rather than to push people away. This was especially true if a person’s condition was not readily visible—for example, if they had mental health issues—and that person revealed it to their colleagues, the co-workers tended to react positively.”
I put grief in the category of mental health. So ask for help if you need it. People will be gentle with you in the beginning, but as weeks and months go by, they’ll forget. If you need to, schedule a meltdown. Ask to be excused from a business trip or a big meeting. Let your boss know you’re committed, you’re just not as capable right now.
If they can’t give you some of the above, ask for it. Share this article with them.
A few months after my dog and my dad died, and my brother escaped the fire, I shared with a friend from church that I still cried every day. He is a deeply empathetic person, but he was concerned about this. But I know it’s healthy.
I’m grateful that the bathrooms at my office are like closets. I’ve spent a great deal of time there, crying. I have a process now. When I feel it coming on, I head straight for the giant handicap closet, sit on the floor farthest away from the toilet, and have a big cry. After a few minutes I feel better and I go back to work.
Routine is great and can help the grieving feel like life is at least a little bit normal. But I’m not a fan of just keeping busy. Our bodies need space to let out the grief or it turns into colds, flu, indigestion or, in my case, a feeling like someone is stabbing a knife in the middle of my back.
Most importantly, be compassionate with yourself. Self-compassion is the root of empathy or compassion for others. You won’t ever be the same – that’s the worthy price we pay for loving someone – but you will get back to doing great work just like you did before. It’ll just take some time and lots of TLC.
Tell me, what’s been your experience with grief at work? What has helped you? And check out my Facebook Live about this.