Back to Work After Loss: Navigating Grief in the Office

When I lost my maternal grandfather, I was only 8 years old. I was confused and sad, but was in the watchful eye of people who cared about me. My parents wrote a note excusing me from school for several days, and, when I returned, my teachers monitored my behavior closely as I processed the first major loss of my life.

If I was sad, I could put my head down. If I wanted to talk about it, a school counselor pulled me out of class. The adults in my life handled all of the “logistics” of dealing with death, and I was free to deal with my grief, no questions asked.

When I lost my paternal grandmother close to 20 years later, it was a whole different ball game. My grandmother had lived alone, almost six hours away from me and even further from my father. We had very limited help for things like writing an obituary and planning services. I had started a new job six months prior, so I had limited time off. And, on top of it all, she passed away just two days before my wedding.

To put it mildly, I was overwhelmed. Navigating the logistics and emotions of my grief on my own for the first time left me feeling like my life was spinning out of control and happening in slow motion all at once.

Figuring out the “rules”

When I learned my grandmother had passed, I was in the parking lot at work, heading to the airport to pick up a bridesmaid who had flown in from across the country. I panicked and called a coworker in tears (not the recommended first step). Clearly a saint, she calmed me down until my soon-to-be-husband arrived. I later connected with my supervisor, who talked me through company policy about how many days of bereavement leave I could take and what paperwork I needed to submit. While worrying about policies felt heartless in the moment, getting this out of the way freed me up to focus on spending time with my family.

Many companies offer bereavement leave — or paid time off after a death in the family — but the number of days may vary based on your relationship to the person you lost. Knowing these details up front can help you plan for the practical side of things, especially if you’ll have to travel for services.

Knowing how much to share

Overall, there’s no set rule as to how much you should or shouldn’t share with coworkers after a loss. The details of a death can be personal, and it’s up to you to determine how comfortable you are sharing with others. Depending on the size of your company, you may also have varied relationships with your colleagues. There may be some details that are relevant for all and others that are more appropriate to share with a smaller group.

When my grandmother passed away, my HR department offered me the option of putting information about my loss on our internal employee portal. I chose to take advantage of this and shared information about who I lost and an address where sympathy cards could be sent. I chose this because, working for a larger company, I wanted to generally tell others why I was out of the office (so I didn’t have to answer the same question over and over again when I returned) and provide a comfortable way for them to express sympathy. Details that I felt were more personal, like cause of death and how I was feeling, I reserved for a smaller group of coworkers I was close with.

Getting through the first day back

My company is generous in terms of providing paid bereavement leave, but I still felt unprepared to return to work after losing my grandmother. I found that the first day was the hardest, though, and there were a few things that helped me get through it.

  • Set a small goal. When I came back to work, I didn’t want to make a lot of small talk, I just wanted to get through the day. So, I set a small goal to focus on — getting caught up on emails. It gave me something to work toward and kept my mind and emotions from wandering.
  • Let others do something small for you. I knew my well-intentioned colleagues would want to help, but grand gestures from others make me tear up. So, I prepared suggestions of small acts for when they asked what they could do, like walking to the cafe to grab a cup of tea or sharing notes from a meeting I missed.

Navigating grief in the workplace can be a challenge, and there’s no perfect formula that works for everyone. Remember that grieving takes time and lean on support systems, as you feel comfortable, to help you ease back into your day-to-day office routine.

Original published on the October 10, 2018. 

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