How to Deal With Grief in the Workplace

Twenty-five years ago, when my daughter Dawn died from a heart problem, I was working on my first doctorate. It seemed impossible for me to continue, when just getting dressed in the morning was a great accomplishment.

Dr. Webber, the chair of my dissertation committee, advised me to continue on with school, reminding me that if I didn’t, I would lose my much-desired place as a doctoral student. At the time, I thought this was really unkind, and some perverse idea of tough-love.

I told him that I would have to take time off, and that I would try to return the next semester, reasoning that my life was going to go on, and I would have to choose what that would mean… not only for me, but for my husband and my son.

Upon my return, Dr. Webber directed me to a particular classroom where he felt I would have an easier transition. I sat in the back of that class, quietly weeping for one week and finally, went over to the professor to explain my situation. I told him I didn’t want him to think I was having a nervous breakdown, but that I had just lost my child and had no business being in this class. He kindly invited me to sit down and proceeded to tell me of the loss of his child, who died in a train crash at the age of 18.

He then suggested that I do my best, ask for help when I needed it and assured me that I could reach out to both he and my fellow students to ease my burden.

Years later, when I wrote my book, “The Only Way Out Is Through,” I realized how these very steps suggested by my professor were the same steps needed to re-enter the workplace.

Here are the steps to help you re-enter the workplace after loss:

1. Reach out to your boss and co-workers, tell them of your loss… and ask for help when needed. Share some of your burden. This is how we bond with people and become intimate. Surprisingly, people want to help, and studies show that when you let people in, when you let them help you, they like you more, because they feel invested in you.

2. Be gentle and treat yourself like your own child. Let yourself have your grief, knowing that if you let it wash over you, you will experience relief and can move forward once again. People who grieve, who allow themselves to have their grief, can live again. The key is to find balance, so that you also move, taking baby steps back into life.

3. Take action. Aristotle said that action, no matter what kind, is a positive. It reinstates a sense of control and stability. Consciously and deliberately, try to get back to some form of routine, even if you are just going through the motions. Remember to allow yourself down time each day, to rest, lower your defenses, and focus on your grief… then, step back into some form of activity. It is important to know that, at first, you will simply be taking baby steps – washing your face, getting dressed – but ultimately, little by little, if you allow yourself a designated time each day to grieve, you will find meaning once again in your life.

4. Have perspective. 
Remember Peggy Lee singing to you, “Is That All There Is?” That is the most valuable insight that comes from grief. You get a perspective on life, because now sadly, you know how fragile it is. And you can choose for yourself whether the time you have left in your life will be constructive or destructive.

You suddenly recognize that what you do with your life, whatever it is, will use up the seconds, the minutes, the hours, and the days. So, perspective gives you a chance to reflect on your friends, family, work experience, and future. Joining groups, such as “Compassionate Friends,” gives you a safe and contained space in which to contemplate and discuss these decisions and challenges.

The important thing, however, is to always give yourself time before making life-altering changes…and, listen to your own inner voice, that resource that can lead you out of the darkness and into the light.