Handling Grief at Work

A few years ago, I had two immediately family members die within almost six months of one another. My uncle committed suicide and my grandpa was in palliative care in the hospital.

Work was literally the last thing on my mind.

I didn’t want to face the reality of going back because I hadn’t moved on. I wanted to stay back at home with my family members and contemplate life - not sit at my desk and contemplate the best way to organize a spreadsheet.

I also didn’t want to hear every single person say I’m sorry for your loss—despite them having good intentions—because it would just be another reminder that they were gone.

Everyone handles grief differently.

People want to acknowledge that you are in a tough spot and they want you to know that they’re there for you… but they don’t necessarily know how. In my opinion, I appreciate them trying to make me feel a sense of normalcy in a time where I felt extreeeemely uncomfortable.

Here’s what got me through 2016 and reflecting on what I would have done different:

Take it easy.

Use your bereavement - that’s what it’s there for. While you may want to work to take your mind off of things, I regret not taking more time off to focus on myself and coming to terms with loss. I had a boss whose father passed away and said boss took the day off for the funeral and that was it. Like I said, everyone handles grieving differently and for this person, it was easier to work through it to take their mind off of things. That’s their prerogative and it worked for them. Great, but that’s not what would work for me.

Also, at the time, my team did not allow us to work from home. However, I think it was on my way to work that I found out that my grandpa had passed away, and I commutes around 35 miles one way that equated to about an hour in traffic and I was not about to turn back. Instead, I grabbed my laptop to tie up loose ends and worked from home to wait out flying back to Illinois the next day for the funeral. There’s just some instances where there are exceptions to the rules.

Be vulnerable

You don’t have to conceal it. People understand. You don’t have to be strong. You are allowed to be weak. Don’t fight back your tears; it’s completely okay to cry if you feel like you need to cry. Buy those mini Kleenex packs and keep one in your desk drawer and one in your purse!

Let people share their stories.

Have an open door policy. When my uncle passed away, I felt like people didn’t know what to say to me. I didn’t even know what to say to myself - I was in utter disbelief for my relatives. I would find myself randomly crying at my desk over my keyboard, like ugly crying. I will never forget how many people stopped by my office to tell me about a loved one they had that had been struggling with mental health. One colleague, who I barely knew, came to my office and told me her son had committed suicide. It was comforting for her to share her story with me and I think it meant a lot to her that I would listen, because not too many people understand what it’s like to feel that void.

Something I will never, ever forget was the CEO came to my office and cried with me. This had such a huge impact on my life that she literally made time on her calendar, to come to my office, and mourn with me. That small gesture meant the world to me, and while I thought I didn’t want the company, I really needed that. I think that spoke volumes about the type of organization I worked at and our leader. Find those people that truly care about you as a person because they will help you get through it!

Eat.

Even when you aren’t hungry and the thought of food disgusts you, just make a conscious effort to eat. I’m not one to normally forget to eat. I’m usually a stress eater, but I’ve noticed that when people pass away, I lose my appetite. Which, makes matters worse because I then I feel faint. If people bring chocolate or coffee to your desk, have it because it’s good for your soul!

Make Time to See a Therapist

This is something I didn’t do and in hindsight should have. My employer has an employee assistance program (EAP) that offers five free counseling sessions per instance and I never used it until a whole year later. You call a number, tell them what you’re going through, and they connect you with a psychologist that specializes in the area you need expertise.

I knew I wanted to see a therapist to talk it out because I was angry and didn’t know how to cope. I also took on a lot of guilt in both circumstances. But, with the hustle and bustle of my calendar, I thought I couldn’t squeeze it into my work day and quiet honestly, I was somewhat embarrassed that I couldn’t handle the situation myself.

Fast forward to a year later, I got the courage to call and do it. I schedule the appointments during lunch and was out of the office for about two hours including traffic and the one-hour session. At first, I felt guilty leaving the office - I always said I had a doctor’s appointment because I didn’t know how to bring it up with my boss. But eventually, it just became routine and I realized it mattered more that I had a strong sense of self than the fact that I was gone two hours a day from work.

When I went to my first appointment, I felt so uncomfortable. I had seen a therapist before in college, but it was super casual and she had a bunny. This was different. It felt cold and sterile. One of the first things she said to me was why have you been bottling in this trauma for years—you’be got to let it out! What I learned most from the sessions was this, when you feel like you’re stressed and you don’t have control, focus on your senses.

5 - Point our five things you see.

4 - Recognize four things you hear.

3 - Touch three things near by.

2 - Two things you smell.

1 - What do you taste?

The exercise should just take you two minutes, but the purpose is to feel grounded and to focus on the present. Our mind goes down rabbit holes of reflecting on the past or focusing on the future.

All-in-all, take time to invest in yourself and trust the process.