How to Cope at Work When You're Grieving a Loved One's Death

Don't be too hard on yourself or others

Office worker crying
Managing your grief when you return to work can prove challenging. Photo © Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

The death of someone we love and the grief it triggers often proves to be life's most difficult experience. It can take a toll on one's emotional and physical health alike. Unfortunately, most employers expect workers to return to their jobs well before they feel ready to resume their "normal" activities. This article offers practical and healthy suggestions to help you cope with your grief when you return to your job, office or workplace after the funeral, memorial or interment service of a loved one.

Don't Assume

While you have undoubtedly found it difficult to avoid thoughts about your loved one, you should not assume that all of your coworkers know that you're grieving after you return to work. Unfortunately, the days of wearing mourning clothes, such as "widow's weeds" or a black armband to visually signal your inner anguish to those around you is a thing of the past.

The truth is that most companies and businesses handle the reality of death just as poorly and awkwardly as most people do when someone dies, regardless of whether that loss involves an employee or an employee's loved one. Death makes us uncomfortable and often leaves us tongue-tied and at a loss for words, which is why we usually resort to death-denying euphemisms, saying the wrong thing or (worse) saying nothing at all.

Thus, assuming your employer informed everyone you work with about the death of someone you love during your absence is probably a mistake.

While some businesses might let every employee know companywide, many others will only inform the coworkers in your department/division, or just your immediate supervisor, and presume that the word will "get around" before you return to work.

Therefore, you should make a point of informing your coworkers/professional peers that someone you love died and that you're grieving, either before or after you return to work, so you won't need to continually relive it as people discover what happened.

You can accomplish this in a variety of ways:

  • Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Cards, letters, texts, emails and/or phone calls
  • Asking your supervisor or human-resources department to let people know
  • Inviting someone/everyone you want to inform to meet you for coffee, a drink or a meal before you return to work
  • Asking a close coworker to let others know on your behalf
  • Holding a brief meeting with your coworkers shortly after you come back to the office
  • Talking privately to individuals you want to inform at your workplace

One of the benefits of personally communicating like this is that you can also help your coworkers help you while you're grieving. You might, for example, let them know that it's okay to mention your deceased loved one by name around you or to express condolences or share their favorite memories, if they wish. On the other hand, because each of us mourns loss in our own way, if you're hoping that returning to work might help take your mind off of your inner pain during the workday, you could let your coworkers know that you appreciate their sympathy but would prefer they not mention it in the office for a while.

There is no correct or "proper" way to grieve, so the choice is yours and you should do what's best for you right now.

Plan Your Escape Route

Many American Westerns glorify or idealize characters that can cope with any adversity without showing the slightest expression of emotion, including after a death occurs. When you return to the office/work after a loved one dies, however, please understand that you are not a cowboy in a movie. In other words, don't expect that you can always hide your grief during the workday.

Even if you followed the suggestion above, and no matter how much you might hope that returning to work will help distract you from your painful thoughts and feelings for several hours, you should expect that your grief will tap you on the shoulder when you least expect it and trigger sadness and even tears in the workplace, despite your best efforts.

This is the challenging, insidious nature of grief after someone we love dies. Grief is difficult, if not impossible, to escape for long because the littlest thing can trigger thoughts/reminders, such as the lingering aroma of a coworker's perfume or cologne in a hallway or stairwell; a colleague who happens to mention a movie or song that your loved one enjoyed; suddenly noticing that someone wears the same hairstyle or a similar outfit; the time on a clock indicating lunchtime, the end of the workday, the start of the weekend.

You cannot possibly anticipate everything that might trigger your grief once you return to work, so you should plan how to handle the moments when your loss-response will interfere with how you want to act. If you find yourself crying suddenly, for example, where is the nearest restroom, stairwell, exit or private space you could use while you compose yourself, should you need it?

If you're starting to feel sad about the death of your loved one during the workday, could you hold off until a scheduled break, lunch period or your finish-time arrives? Would your company temporarily allow you to work from home (telecommute), come in later or leave earlier for a while or allow you to exit the workplace for 10 to 20 minutes if you feel overwhelmed by your loss?

Remember, allowing yourself to feel sad and even cry is perfectly normal and natural when you're grieving, so instead of fighting it, you should plan for it.

Forgive Others

As noted above, most people (and, therefore, most companies) often fail to respond as we might wish or need after we experience the death of someone close. The bereaved often keenly sense this after returning to work following a brief funeral- or bereavement-leave period or after using their vacation time, sick days or "P.T.O." in order to arrange a funeral, memorial or interment service.

Therefore, try to understand that your coworkers probably want to help you feel better in some way but just don't know how, so you should try to forgive them in advance. If you return to your workplace, for example, and discover that a colleague now feels distant, or you sense that people don't seem to drop by and chat with you like they did before the death occurred, you're probably not imagining things.

Despite the many practical ways people can help someone grieving a death, most people simply don't know how to comfort the bereaved and worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, so they unconsciously distance themselves. If you understand that this might happen when you return to work, then you will be less likely to feel intentionally isolated or take things personally.

Time will eventually soften the rough, painful edges of grief, so trust that both you and your coworkers will eventually find a new state of "normal" after the death of a loved one.

Forgive Yourself

Death creates an immense and immediate void in our lives that instantly shatters our sense of comfort, joy and happiness. Regardless of our relationship to the deceased -- whether parent or child, sibling or spouse, friend or family member -- we never truly "get over" the grief caused by the death of a loved one, and certainly not before the end of the inadequate funeral- or bereavement-leave periods businesses usually offer employees.

The truth is that grief hits many people hardest after the funeral, memorial or interment services end, which is often around the same time you need to return to the office or workplace. No longer focused on the many details and decisions that must be made when arranging a funeral or memorial service, as well as the influx of family members and friends during this time, the reality that a loved has died often sinks in after the fact. Try to imagine, for instance, the emptiness a husband feels when he enters the house alone for the first time after his wife's funeral, or the sadness of first entering "the baby's room" when a couple returns home after experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Because grief affects us emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, you should not expect that you will return to work at 100 percent or like "your old self." Instead, you will probably experience some of the following mourning-challenges during your workday:

  • Apathy and/or questioning if you should quit your job or find a new one
  • Daydreaming
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on a specific task
  • Failing to accomplish more than you wanted to get done
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling sleepy or exhausted during the workday
  • Forgetfulness
  • A higher than normal rate of errors or inaccuracies
  • Irritability or impatience

Right now, while you're grieving, you should avoid making any major life decisions, such as quitting your job and finding someplace else to work. Moreover, you should understand and accept that the invisible weight of your grief will affect your job performance or satisfaction for a while once you return to work. You are simply not your usual self during this time, so instead of denying it, you should forgive yourself when you fail to act or perform as you hope you would in the workplace.

Again, communicating with your supervisor and coworkers can prove critical at this time in order to help them better understand what you're dealing with, as well as to dispel any confusion about your recent performance or possible resentment by other coworkers that they need to "pick up your slack."

Don't beat yourself up too much right now because things will gradually get easier with time.

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