The death of a loved one can be devastating. And while many companies provide bereavement leave, the leave is often only three to five days. Some of us are fortunate to be able to reduce work hours or quit work altogether for a while. Others have a manager who gives us unofficial time off. Even so, many of us must go back to work well before we’re ready.
Grief can be isolating because people don’t know how to connect with you when you come back to work, or when you experience setbacks from time to time. Because of this, you’re likely to face some challenges, particularly in how to deal with your personal grief while remaining productive and and how to deal with your colleagues, especially when they respond in a way that’s jarring.
Over the last year, my brother, my mother, a close friend, and six relatives died. My experience, as well as hearing from others who have lost people close to them, has helped me to think about ways to tackle common situations at work when you return after the death of a loved one. You may not be able to control what your coworkers say, but you can make your reactions work to your benefit. From answering difficult questions in a way that you’re comfortable to stopping awkward conversations in their tracks, here are a few tips to consider when facing colleagues after a loss.
Expect to be surprised. Support, and lack of it, can come from unexpected sources. Death and grieving are difficult topics at best, and the experience is unique for each person. You’ll see a range of reactions from your colleagues, from acting as though nothing had happened, to offering condolences in private, to publicly offering help and asking morbidly curious questions. Knowing that you’ll experience a variety of reactions can help you prepare a range of ways that you might respond to your colleagues.
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Control what you do, and don’t, want to share. Don’t force yourself to share when you’re not ready. Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it. You might want to talk through the details of what happened, but if not, think through short answers to probing questions. These answers might provide brief facts or simply say, “Thank you for your questions, but I’m unable to answer them right now.” Or you can direct the conversation to something you can talk about — for example, “I’d rather talk about what my mom meant to me than the specifics of her last few weeks.”
You might not always realize this during a conversation, but you can use what you learn to proactively discuss a topic the next time it comes up. Six months after my brother died, an acquaintance wanted to talk to me about her brother’s illness. I was fine during our conversation, but I woke up the next morning feeling traumatized. The next time someone wants to talk to me about their brother’s health, I might instead try saying, “I’m still feeling raw from having lost my brother. Is there a way I can support you without going into the specific challenges of your brother’s condition?”
Appoint an ambassador. You may not want to talk about things at all — or at least not in public or in the middle of a workday. Make your wishes known to a trusted colleague and enlist their help in communicating with the rest of the office. As things change, keep your ambassador updated so they can make your latest preferences known to others.
When I knew I had to teach a leadership class while my mother was in her last days, I emailed one of my cofacilitators ahead of time to let them know I might need to leave early. I also said, “While teaching the class, it will be too difficult for me to talk about my mom. I appreciate and know that you care about me. One way to support me when we’re teaching the class is to not talk to me about my mom. Please also let Shannon and Lisa know, as it’s difficult for me to communicate with too many people right now. I’d love to connect after our session is over.” This statement let them know when would be best for them to talk to me and ensured I didn’t have to worry about how to respond in a public setting when I needed to focus on getting a job done.
These three steps can help you control some of the external factors that you may face upon your return to work, but your personal and emotional needs are just as important to take into account. Consider these tips to help you take care of yourself in the workplace.
Create pauses. Grief saps your energy. There are days when you might feel capable of performing any task but your energy may not last long. A colleague of mine says that she’s had to tell herself, “This is the new normal,” moving her mind into a world where her loved one is no longer alive and where she relates to her surroundings differently. If possible, give yourself space between meetings and interactions with others. Use those times to catch up if you’re feeling productive or to care for yourself by going for a walk, doing breathing exercises, or meditating. Such pauses help you pace yourself so you can last the day and even the week.
Find a sanctuary. There are times when you might want to burst into tears or just escape for a while. Before you return to work, think of a private space where you can recoup. My car is my sanctuary. I have a pillow in case I need to take a nap, plenty of water, and a box of my favorite salted caramel truffles.
Carry tissues. You are likely to tear up when you least expect it, so keep tissues handy. People will understand because they know you’re grieving. At least with tissues you’ll be spared the embarrassment of sniffles and a runny nose during a business meeting.
Create a comfort box. Keep tiny items of comfort close by. A couple of months after my brother died, my friend Caron repurposed a chocolate box, decorating it and calling it Sabina’s Sunshine. She invited my friends to write notes about what they appreciated about our friendship and put them in the box. I have my box of sunshine next to me at my office desk. When I’m feeling particularly sad, or before a challenging meeting, I open the box and read a note. After my mother died, I asked my friends for objects they could contribute to a comfort box that kept one of my five senses occupied: essential oils, chocolate, beautiful pictures, fabrics with different textures, chimes, and so on.
Create a checklist and ask for help. A common side effect of grief is being spacey. You may forget things and make more mistakes than you usually do. Write down things that you usually don’t bother to. For important deliverables, create a detailed checklist; check it twice or ask a coworker to check your work for you.
Going to work while grieving is difficult — on you and on your coworkers. Anticipating others’ reactions and creating a planthat includes flexible solutions before you go back to work will help reduce the stress of returning to a professional environment, while still giving yourself the space to grieve.