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7 ways to deal with grief at work

Returning to work after the death of a loved one is hard. But these strategies can help you communicate your needs.

7 ways to deal with grief at work
[Photo: Andrew Neel/Unsplash]

Many employees aren’t able to take much time off from work to process a loss. While 88% of employers offer bereavement leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, it averages about three days. That amount can vary greatly, however, since no federal requirements for bereavement leave exist. The Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t specifically cover it, and the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require paid time off to attend funerals.

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Because of this, many people have no choice but to return to their workplace while still in the early stages of mourning. While some appreciate the distraction that work can provide, the emotional burden can also create uncomfortable workplace interactions.

“We have jobs and responsibilities, and grief can knock you off your game,” says Tracy Y Washington, a certified grief recovery specialist. Grief is a “process of adapting to a new normal,” she says. It can take weeks, months, or years, depending on the person and the loss they experienced. Imposing a timeframe or blueprint on grief can delay the healing process.

Grieving a loss can affect your ability to focus and communicate. Here are seven strategies for transitioning back to work during this difficult time: 

Ask for help

Discuss the situation with your boss and human resources representative, and work out a plan for taking time off and returning to work. Request any needed accommodations, like a temporary lighter workload, to give yourself time to readjust.

Asking for help takes courage, Washington says, but it’s an essential part of healing, since grief consumes so much mental and physical energy. 

Role-playing the conversation in your mind may help you identify your true needs and how to communicate them, says S. Craig Rooney, director and counseling psychologist at the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Office of Clinician Well-Being. “You know your boss and how sensitive or not they are to personal matters, so take that into consideration,” he says.

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Use work as a distraction, not to avoid feelings

“In my clinical work, I’ve known more people who were really grateful for their jobs as a place to get busy again and to refocus during their grief process than those who felt unable to get back to work,” Rooney says.

But using work as a distraction sometimes creates an illusion of dealing with your feelings, Washington says. If you worry mourning is affecting your performance, ask a supervisor who knows what you’re going through to monitor your work in a non-punitive way, Rooney suggests.

Designate a space to be emotional

A song or random comment that reminds you of the person who died may trigger your emotions. Plan for these instances, and designate a safe space where you can step away to cry or have a quiet moment.

“This [plan] could include what you’ll say or a code word or gesture that indicates that you need to get to a private or less public space for a while,” Rooney says. Public emotional displays are nothing to be ashamed of, he says. Everyone will experience a loss at some point, and coworkers, clients, and supervisors will likely understand.

Know that coworkers likely mean well

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” or “she’s in a better place” are phrases grievers often hear from well-meaning coworkers who want to show support. Society generally is ill-equipped to deal with grievers, Washington says, and the comments sometimes come across as insensitive and may trigger anxiety, especially if you don’t know how to respond.

“I think most people simply don’t know what to say so they either stumble through a rambling, ineffective statement or they lean on age-old platitudes that aren’t helpful to many of us,” Rooney says. 

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Remembering that most people are genuinely trying to help and don’t mean to be insensitive or rude will help you be less reactive, he says.

To help, come up with some pre-canned responses, like “Thanks for your support. Yes, it’s a difficult time. Maybe we can talk more when it’s not so raw for me?” A simple “thank you,” works, too. 

Communicate how you want coworkers to show support

Many offices send flowers, make donations, or even have colleagues attend funerals in order to show support. Some grievers appreciate these actions, while they can make others feel uncomfortable. If that’s you, talk to your supervisor and communicate it to your team. Rooney suggests saying something like, “Thank you so much for asking about the service, but I would really just like some time with my family without being conscientious about coworkers being there.”

Be sure to show appreciation to coworkers or supervisors for any support by sending an email, card, or text, Washington says. “It can be helpful to remind ourselves that others do care about us and want to be helpful when we’re suffering,” he says. 

Remember that all grief is equal

Many life events cause grief, but Rooney says the death of a family member or friend tends to be the most accepted. He urges workplaces to offer support in other situations, like divorce, miscarriage, family estrangement, or a pet’s death.

All grief brings individual emotions, and no type of grief should be viewed as more important than another, Washington says. “We don’t compare losses, and we don’t grieve the same way,” she says. “It depends on the relationship that we had with the individual.”   

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Seek out resources for help

If dealing with grief becomes too much, Rooney suggests speaking to a grief counselor or mental health provider. An employee assistance program or HR specialist can connect you with resources and benefits available.

Everyone mourns in their own way, Rooney emphasizes. Forcing yourself to ignore your feelings or imposing a time limit on your grief could make you feel worse. “Knowing we need professional input and seeking it out is a sign of strength, not weakness,” Rooney says.

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