When psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do was 23 years old, she lost her mother to a brain aneurysm. Three years later, her 26-year-old husband died of a heart attack. A few years after that, her father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Somehow Morin had to figure out how to process her own grief while simultaneously helping patients deal with their problems.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one or an illness can make it difficult to concentrate on work. I spoke with Morin about her tips for working through the grief without causing your work to suffer.
Tell your coworkers what you’re going through and how they can help. "Well-meaning coworkers may pause during the day to ask you how you’re doing or to pass on their sympathies, but while they’ll likely be able to move on with their day after the conversation is over, it may completely derail you," says Morin. If you prefer not to discuss your issues in the office for fear that it will cause you to break down, let your coworkers know. You may want to send out an email thanking them for acknowledging your loss, but let them know that you aren’t feeling like discussing it at the moment, and ask that they defer to talking about lighter topics at the lunch table or the coffee maker.
Creating healthy boundaries that let you separate your work from your personal life can help you to stay on task at work without causing your emotions over your personal crisis to intervene. This may mean refusing to take personal calls during work hours. Let family and friends know not to call you while you’re at work unless it’s a true emergency. Changing out of your work clothes when you get home can also be a physical reminder to you that you can now turn off work mode and mentally process your loss.
Dealing with your emotions outside the office can help you to be more present while you’re at work. Often, Morin says, people will try to distract themselves by being as busy as possible after work hours to avoid dealing with overwhelming negative emotions, but avoiding your grief can have disastrous consequences. "The saying, time heals everything, is actually not true. It’s what you do with your time that matters," she says.
Giving yourself the downtime in your off-work time to deal with your emotions is the key to having a healthy work-life balance down the road. It’s uncomfortable when we’re grieving, and we don’t want to think about it, but if you don’t think about it in your personal time, your brain is going to try to process it and work through it while you’re in the office," says Morin.
Find a support group or lean on friends and family to help you process your grief. If you don’t seek outside social support, Morin says, you may begin to rely on coworkers for support. "That really mixes home and work life and can get messy sometimes," she says.
It’s common when dealing with a life-altering loss to become overwhelmed by a wave of emotion at the most inopportune times. Emotions can be triggered by something someone says in a meeting, or the smell of someone’s perfume, or even a song playing in the lobby. To control your emotions, Morin recommends creating a mantra such as "not helpful" or "I can do this"; something you can repeat to yourself over and over when you feel your eyes welling up.
If you begin to feel emotional at an inopportune time, avoid telling yourself not to think about it. "The more we say, ‘Don’t think about it,’ the more our brain actually thinks about it," says Morin. Acknowledge the emotion and tell yourself that you’re going to deal with it when you get home. Going for a walk around the office or switching tasks—doing something that gets your hands busy or your body moving—can help your brain to change its focus.
Give yourself permission to be slightly less productive than you normally would be. Help yourself stay on task and get through the day by breaking up your day into smaller chunks. Prioritizing and making a to-do list can also help you stay focused. "We get scattered when we’re in the midst of grief," says Gorin. Checking things off your to-do list also gives you a sense of accomplishment that can make you feel better about what you’ve done with your day.