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Lessons Learned

What I've Learned About Coping With Grief At Work

After suffering a heartbreaking loss, one woman learns how hard it can be to ask for support—and how crucial it is.

What I've Learned About Coping With Grief At Work

[Photo: man_kukuku/iStock]

"Nick’s in a coma," is all I can remember my sister saying on the phone. A few hours later, I was on a panicked, cross-country, red-eye flight home. I tried to calm my thoughts with an inflight movie, which happened to be about a girl’s brother who went into a coma and lived.

Life is, sadly, not like the movies.

Sometimes when I’m on the subway, I’ll remember the stark white hospital walls. Or when I’m walking down the street, I’ll have a flashback to my mother crying in the waiting room. And sometimes when I can’t sleep, I’ll remember touching my twin brother’s hand for the last time.

This past year has has been a storm of emotions, often hidden behind my bedroom door or concealed by waterproof mascara. The week after my brother died, I did the only thing I knew how: I boarded a plane back to New York, showed up for work, and tried to pretend everything was normal.

In school, I had learned how to solve complex math problems and how to write a cover letter—things that would help me advance my career. But when it came to grief, I’ve found myself at a loss as to how to cope, much less at work. "I think the biggest challenge in our culture is our fear about losing our jobs if we aren't 'on' 24/7," says Glenda Sullentrup, a St. Louis–based career counselor. Often, that fear (or some of it, anyhow) is self-imposed, and simply learning to ask for support is one of the best yet most difficult ways of grappling with it. Here's how I’ve learned to do that so far, even though I'm still working at it every day.

An Honest Conversation With Your Employer

Returning to work a week after my brother’s passing was tough. Even though my employer told me to take as much time as I needed, I thought that if I could get back to work, it would distract me from the pain I was feeling.

So my first day back, I plugged in my headphones and prayed no one would talk to me. Immediately, my manager asked if we could catch up. Walking to the conference room, I repeated to myself, "Don’t cry, don't cry," not wanting to appear weak or incapable.

"How are you doing?" he asked. My plan to suppress tears failed instantly. Unable to form a coherent sentence, I sat in front of him and sobbed.

He asked me empathetically, "Is there anything we can do?" and sent me home—something I knew I needed, but was too proud to ask for. Simply knowing my boss cared about me made the transition back to work more manageable and created an atmosphere where I knew my feelings wouldn’t be pushed aside.

If you’re working at a company that provides health care benefits, you likely have access to an employee assistance program (EAP). "I was blindsided by grief after my father-in-law died," recalls freelance marketer Allison Durazzi. "I tried calling in sick. My boss knew what was going on, but she needed me to phone in for a meeting—which I was in no position to do. I just started crying. I hung up and called my EAP. I was paired with a counselor that helped me balance working and grieving."

If you don't know what resources your employer may offer, your HR manager probably does. Or if you'd prefer to speak to your direct supervisor first, they can find out for you. The important thing is just to ask.

"How does one just go back to a normal routine when the most abnormal experience just occurred? Well, probably clumsily," says Gina Moffa, a private-practice psychotherapist and Clinical Director of the Addiction Institute of New York at Mt. Sinai Hospital. "There is no time after a loss that people will feel 100% ready to go back to work, but there is an irony there: The distraction can be very therapeutic. Having structure can temporarily take you out of a sticky tarpit of grief and keep your mind working and occupied."

Asking for mental health days or work-from-home opportunities can provide a safe environment while you ease back into your daily tasks. Having emotions at work doesn't make you weak. It makes you human.

There Is No "One-Size-Fits-All" For Grief

Coming back, I immediately tried to fall back into my fast-paced life, pretending everything was more or less fine. I went to brunches. I dated. I went out on Friday nights with my friends. On the outside, things were "normal." On the inside, I was a mess.

"You seem like you’re holding up well," was something I heard countless times on my return. It was a well-intentioned comment, but many didn’t know that my poker face was a facade I kept up just until I could find a moment to muffle my crying under the shower head. Not only did I feel pain about my loss, I also felt guilty that I wasn’t grieving the "right way." The most helpful advice I received during my hardest months was from a friend who told me, "it's okay to grieve in any way that feels right."

Whether it’s a counselor or a friend, Sabrina Osso, a consultant at Osso Safe, which counsels working professionals who are experiencing home violence, advises people to talk openly about grief. "Don't keep it inside. If you have to scream, scream. If you have to cry, cry."

For some, grieving might mean going to a counselor to talk through their feelings. For me, it meant going for a run to silently process the pain, or calling up a close friend I knew would understand.

Ask For Support From Friends And Coworkers, Not Just Your Boss

"How many siblings do you have?" an acquaintance asked. I felt as if he'd punched me in the face. "I have to use the bathroom," I replied.

Excusing myself, I found my way to the restroom and stared at my soggy makeup. Never in my life did I imagine having to respond to such a question with "three" instead of "four." I blinked away my red eyes, returned to the table, and changed the subject to the weather, a technique that soon became my coping mechanism for the next few months. When anyone asked about my brother’s death, I quickly changed the subject, not wanting to burden them with my emotions.

It wasn’t until more recently that I’ve learned to talk about those feelings. Not only have I been met with overwhelming compassion, it's created an opportunity to connect more deeply with people who care about me. Being transparent isn't easy to do, especially at first, but it lets others share in your loss. Societal pressure often forces us to carry grief within without verbalizing our feelings, and many people, wanting to be deferential, are glad to follow our lead.

"Grief takes time, and we often aren’t encouraged to take time to just 'feel'," says Sullentrup, the career counselor. "Grief will sneak up and grab you if you push it away—and usually at the most inopportune times, like when you're about to give that big presentation."

Lately, I’ve still had days when my emotions overwhelm my ability to complete the simplest of tasks. But now I know to reach out to a friend to ask for what I need. And I feel immense gratitude for the support I’ve been given from friends, coworkers, and family members.

The most important thing I learned is that, while everyone deals with grief in different ways, it’s okay to share what you’re going through with those around you, both in your personal and professional lives. It may even be essential to coping. How, what, and when you share is up to you, though. There's no single or correct way to do that. What's more, grief isn’t something you overcome. You just have to learn to live with it as best you can.

But it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to break down. It’s okay to be human. Grief is human—and you're a human first, a professional second.


Arianna O'Dell is the founder of Airlink Marketing, a digital agency that helps hotels, restaurants, and travel destinations attract and retain clientele.

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