Death … it’s everywhere … sensationalized with news headlines about unspeakable tragedies that make us hug our children a little tighter before they head off to school. They remind us to text our partner a sweet sentiment, or call our parents vacationing in Florida to “check in.”
Strangely enough, as terrifying as it is to contemplate the loss of a family member or close friend, we tend to gravitate to dramas that play out this very subject matter – especially in films. Tear-provoking movies like Beaches or the Rabbit Hole put a lump in our throat as we grab for a tissue. By the time the film credits roll we are usually over the heartbreaking death of that beloved character. It isn’t real. It has no lasting impact. Usually, the other characters in the movie overcome their sorrow in a timely fashion to appease the sobbing audience.
In reality, however, there is no timeline for when a person’s mourning stops if it ever does. Unfortunately “bereavement leave” does have a beginning and an end. In most organizations, it’s approximately 3 – 5 days. This clearly isn’t enough time to work through an overwhelming loss. Yet, each and every day thousands of Canadians wake up, get dressed and walk into their job after losing a parent, spouse, sibling or God-forbid a child. After losing someone it is difficult to be present and sociable in informal situations, but to continue to be a focused, productive worker is an entirely different struggle.
Perhaps dealing with death and grief is something you had to learn early on in your life. Maybe you’ve been fortunate and haven’t been to a single funeral. Either way, eventually, loss is a part of life. Yet, learning to function and be an effective employee can prove difficult after the loss of a loved one. It’s clearly an uncomfortable topic, and it’s one that isn’t discussed within the workplace unless it suddenly affects you or a colleague directly.
So here are some guidelines that may ease the transition back into your work environment after a devastating loss:
Be Gentle with Yourself – Death is a Passage for you too.
Take the time to take care of your needs before anything else. Of course, in an ideal world, an employee could decide how long they need to be away from their job, but that isn’t always possible. So self-care in other ways, such as breathing exercises, therapy, yoga/ meditation, going for walks or to the gym and getting a healthy amount of sleep each night is vital. A nourished body and healthy mind are key to slowly getting your strength and willingness to go back to work.
A death in your family or the loss of a loved one is not the time to bottle up your feelings and/or needs. It is crucial that you be real with your staff, and or superiors about what you can handle, even if this shows some of your (understandable) vulnerability. Being open about taking more time off might be an option, such as taking leave for your health, or vacation time if necessary. You may need to put in shorter work weeks for a while. Seeking extra support from a trustworthy co-worker who may be able to help by proofreading your reports or handling some of the extra workload until you can focus better may be a good short-term strategy.
You Don’t Have to Talk About It
It’s hard enough to walk back into a work environment where everybody can see your eyes are rimmed red from days of crying. What is even tougher is trying to put on that brave face while being bombarded with sympathy and countless condolences. It might be wise to let HR or your boss know how you’d like to return, or rather what you do not want to discuss with your co-workers. You may find it less overwhelming when you let them know ahead of time. And, they can possibly prep the staff into a more graceful welcoming.
Find a Safe Space
Just when you thought you had no more tears left, a sad song comes on the radio from the cubicle behind you, and you can’t keep the “ugly cry” off your face. It’s bound to happen. There is no shame in it. But, let’s be honest — most of us prefer to shed our tears in private. So, if you have an office with a door that’s great. Simply close it along with the blinds and allow yourself some quiet moments to grieve. But, if you are in a cubicle or an open space what can you do? The washroom is an option to clear your mind and splash some cold water on your face, or maybe take the stairs of your building and go for a much needed early lunch break.
Don’t Blame the Job
It is common for people mourning a death to project their sad or angry feelings onto the people and places around them. Often those who have experienced a death in the family want to flee from their routine entirely. They feel too many triggers or memories associated with their loved one. Ask yourself if before the loss you were happily fulfilled at work? If you only loathe the job now it might be beneficial to take a step back to analyze if there’s a valid reason to quit. It could be part of your grieving process and really has very little do with the organization or your role. So talk to close friends, family, and co-workers before making any hasty life changes. If possible, give yourself a time to adjust to your new normal before making any huge changes personally or professionally.
Note, years after publishing this blog article, I came across “It’s Time to Rethink Corporate Bereavement Policies” in Harvard Business Review (Oct. 2020) so I’ve added it as a potential resource.
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