How to Handle Grief at Work

man grieving

While grief affects everyone, it impacts each of us very differently. And when you or someone you work with is in mourning after a tragedy, it can be hard to know what to say or do.

In this piece, I’ll explore how to cope with and talk about grief in the workplace.

Returning to work

If you’re still recovering from the loss of a loved one, a major life change, or any other grief-inducing event, returning to work may be the last thing on your mind, but it’s still something that you’ll need to be prepared for. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, employees are typically granted up to four days upon the death of a family member. This means that you’re likely to return to work while still in mourning.

When you return to work, you should ignore any pressure—whether that means pressure you’re putting on yourself or pressure you’re feeling from others—to pretend that everything is fine. Your grief will unfold in its own way over time, so the best thing you can do for yourself is focus on practices that support you as you cope with your loss.

  • Schedule a conversation with your supervisor. As you transition back to work, let your boss know if there’s anything you need to make your work life more manageable, such as the option to work from home.
  • Know your benefits. Talk to your supervisor or HR manager about available benefits, such as unused personal days or an employee assistance program that can connect you to a counselor. Even if these benefits aren’t formally offered, you may be able to find certain accommodations and support by opening the line of communication with your employer.
  • Get productive. Being productive at work may offer some temporarily respite and help you find renewed stability in the wake of your loss. Break projects down into easy-to-complete steps and work on getting them done one at a time. Don’t use work to ignore or numb your feelings; instead, let it ground you in the present by allowing yourself to feel good about what you’re getting done.
  • Expect awkwardness. People rarely know the “right” thing to say when someone is grieving. Some may offer their condolences, while others avoid saying anything altogether. Remember that in most situations, your colleagues are trying to be sensitive, so try to forgive any missteps.
  • Ask for help. Your grief may leave you feeling lonely at the office, but you aren’t alone. Seek out colleagues you trust and let them know if you need help with your workload. If you are overwhelmed by your feelings during the work day, reach out to a family member, friend, or professional, or take advantage of online counseling services—like BetterHelp or Talkspace—that can offer you the support you need. Don’t suffer in silence.
  • Find a sanctuary. Waves of grief may come at unpredictable times. When this happens, try to find a place where you can take a quiet break until you’re ready to get back to work.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s easy to neglect yourself while grieving, but your self-care practices are an integral part of your healing. Stick with small, easy things like being sure to stay hydrated, eat proper meals, get some exercise when you can, and spend time with the people you love.

Offering support

If your colleague is grieving, it can be difficult to navigate exactly what to say or do when they return to the office. You don’t want to inadvertently trigger sadness, but at the same time, you want to offer the sensitivity and support warranted by the unfortunate circumstances.

Acknowledge your colleague’s loss and offer your condolences, but follow their cues and let them dictate how much or how little they want to talk about it.

Try to avoid saying unintentionally painful things like: “You’re going to be fine,” “Your loved one is in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, you can say, “How are you today?” or “I’m glad you’re back—we missed you.” Keeping it simple can ease your colleague into discussing their feelings, which can help them with the grieving process as they transition back to their daily life.

If you’re willing and able, and it feels appropriate, let your colleague know that you’re there to offer any support they need. Pay attention to what’s on their plate and offer specific help. For example, instead of saying, “Let me know how I can help,” say, “I saw that paperwork on your desk. I’ll stop by after lunch to help you get it filed away.” This can make all the difference, especially if your colleague feels unsure of how to ask for help. It also serves as a powerful reminder that they have a support system at work.

No timeline for grief

There’s no standardized timeline for grief, so it’s important to be patient with yourself or with someone who is in mourning. And that’s why along with the practices described above, talking about grief is so important. Though that may bring up difficult thoughts and feelings, talking is a powerful tool to not only help you take care of yourself, but also to let others offer you what you may need in order to heal.

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Do you have any tips that have helped you or someone you know cope with grief after returning to work?

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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and content coach based in New York City. She’s passionate about helping female business owners and creatives become stronger storytellers and advocates of the work they’re doing in the world.
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