Workplace Tips

3 rules for handling grief in the workplace.

Last week, I learned one of my former bosses passed away. Jack was one of my all-time favorites and – while the news was not unexpected given his age and recent health issues – it did strike me as sudden and overwhelmingly sad. I immediately searched for an obituary or death notice and, when his photo popped up on my computer screen, I was moved to tears at my desk.

A colleague walked in my office right then to tell me I was needed in a meeting and she froze when she saw me crying. All I could manage to blubber was “I’m having such a bad day” (which wasn’t even true). We were both embarrassed – me at my out-of-context emotion, her I presume at stumbling into my private moment, and she left my office without a word while I tried to compose myself before joining the folks waiting on me.

Nothing about this scenario follows the rules I suggest for grieving in the workplace. So, it strikes me as a teaching moment that could be helpful for everyone, myself included.

When it comes to grieving in the workplace, I believe that following “Three Rs” can make the process more comfortable and productive for everyone involved

3 rules for grieving in the workplace:
1. Be REAL.
2. Be RESPECTFUL.
3. Be RESPONSIBLE.

It’s worth noting that I offer these rules for most grieving situations, including pets, but not including losses that have the power to flatten you. If you lose a friend or loved one and you believe that your grief is natural and manageable, these guidelines can be helpful. If you lose someone so central to your being (think a spouse or child) that you’re having difficulty imagining life beyond the loss, I recommend you seek the services of a grief recovery specialist whose therapeutic resources are far better suited than this article to guide and support you through the healing process, in general, and as you return to work, in particular.

Be REAL.

This rule suggests you own your grief. Acknowledge your sadness and its source to yourself and your closest circle of colleagues, and don’t try to hide behind fake smiles and cheer. You won’t fool anyone and speculation about your mood usually leads to off-base hypotheticals that do you more harm than good. A simple acknowledgement of your grief might sound like: “I’m feeling pretty sad today. My neighbor died this week and my husband and I were pretty good friends with his whole family. I apologize if I caught you off guard with my mood.”

The simplicity of this kind of message is due to three, key attributes:

It is brief (in this case, three sentences starting with what’s up).

It is straightforward (“my neighbor died and I’m sad”).

It acknowledges mutual discomfort — assuming, of course, your grief is obviously noticed by others. (If not, you can probably assume you’ve done a good job keeping your composure and grieving in private.)

Notice the three things this explanation DOESN’T do:

It doesn’t offer gory details (“He was only 32 and he died of pancreatic cancer a month after being diagnosed. His wife doesn’t work and they just had a baby six months ago”).

It doesn’t apologize for the way you feel (“I shouldn’t be crying at work. I’m so lame.”)

It doesn’t speculate about the future (“I promise I’ll get myself together and be fine tomorrow.”)  

Being real means being honest and upfront about what’s going on. It doesn’t mean dragging other people into your sadness or speculating how you’ll feel at a later date.

Be RESPECTFUL.

The key elements of demonstrating respect in workplace grief are discretion and courtesy.

When considering discretion, think of it this way: If your aunt died, it’s your story to tell. If your neighbor’s husband died, it’s not your story. As the idiom suggests, discretion is the better part of valor, and it’s also essential to handling grief well in the workplace. If it’s not your story, avoid the temptation to dwell on it at the office. If you feel compelled to work through the details of the story out loud, do it with a limited audience, preferably somebody outside the workplace.  And if you’re observing someone else’s grief in the workplace, you don’t need to share her entire story with your colleagues. In the spirit of creating less discomfort for everyone, you may want to say something like “Susan’s cousin died and she’s pretty down today,” but refrain from any details you know about the cousin (“He died in a freak car accident”) or Susan’s condition (“She’s a wreck and looks like she hasn’t slept.)

Courtesy suggests you allow others to approach grief in their own way, and it may be different from yours. If people are more or less upset than you, if they don’t seem to understand or appreciate your feelings, if you can’t understand why they react the way they do, let it go, at least while the grief is acute. (If you think it’s essential to avoiding a future misunderstanding or strengthening the relationship with a co-worker, you can always broach the subject at a later date when everyone’s emotional state is back to normal.)

By the way, if someone else suffers a loss, don’t suggest the manner or length of time they grieve. Being courteous means no suggestions such as “I can’t believe she’s taking this so hard,” or “It’s time he moved on.” Respect that grief is individual and focus on matters essential to your own work.

Be RESPONSIBLE.

This advice speaks for itself. Continue to be reliable and accountable for the timeliness and quality of your work, even while grieving. This can be challenging for anyone, but doing so improves your chances that co-workers and supervisors will be more sympathetic and accommodating to you now and to any future situations you encounter. After acknowledging your grief honestly and respectfully, do your work to the best of your ability while being courteous to those around you. In the end, that’s all anyone can ask – and it is sufficient.

Postscript: As for my own situation, I suspect I caused no real concern beyond temporary discomfort by my recent display of tears. But I could have handled it so much better had I simply said “It seems you’ve caught me crying. I just found out my former boss died and I’ve had a sudden rush of emotion. May I compose myself and get back to you in a moment?”

We’re all human, and we all make missteps, including me when surprised by a sudden death. But EmpowerMentor seeks to reduce the number of mistakes you make from lack of planning and/or awareness, and to help you put your past experience to work improving your future. Reach out if I can help you. I’m ready to go to work on your goals.

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