Returning to work after losing my mom was a hard reality to face. Being in meetings, answering emails, and meeting deadlines all felt so trivial and weird given that I was right on the heels of the most emotionally taxing time in my life. Dealing with grief at the office quickly proved to be a struggle—I couldn’t and didn’t want to check it at the door when I came in each morning only to pick up on my way out. But I didn’t know whether I should communicate my feelings at work. And if so, how?
Dealing with grief is complicated because it’s so personal and affects everyone differently. It can influence how you work, connect, and communicate, and figuring out how to navigate this new normal (even if it’s a temporary normal) in a professional setting can be an intimidating and daunting task. Two big factors in this discomfort? A workplace’s culture and its attitude—perceived and direct—toward grief, says career coach and human-behavior expert, Beverly Flaxington.
“We haven’t been taught how to be supportive and understanding, yet not intrusive, about the nature of grief,” she says. “Plus, in many workplaces, it’s all about the work. This can make it challenging for the person experiencing the grief, because they may be afraid and hesitant to bring up their grief.”
That said, some do prefer to disregard their emotional weight during business hours, because it can serve as a break or distraction of sorts from the more unwieldy and unpredictable feelings that are much tougher to control than something like, say, nailing a presentation. “Some don’t want to talk about it because they’re afraid they’ll lose control and won’t be able to work or function. Work can be their salvation,” Flaxington says.
No matter your preferences regarding how you want to communicate your feelings (or not!), certain strategies can make the transition back into a work routine easier. Below, experts take you through how and why to tackle tough conversations head-on—if that’s what you want.
Dealing with grief is hard, especially at work—but these 7 tips can help
1. Connect with your boss before heading back to work
Before you return to work, consider touching base with your manager about how you’re doing and any specific needs you may have. “You may have new responsibilities with taking care of family members, managing the estate or will, childcare, transportation, finances, etc.,” says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC. “This way your boss can help manage your workload and time in the office to help with adapting your life to the loss.”
Even if you’re not especially close with your boss, and even if you don’t anticipate needing any special allowances, addressing your grief and how you’re feeling may ease your own stress about returning to work. This is also a great time to consider whether or not you want your manager to share details about your loss with the wider team (and if so, to what extent).
2. Ask your superior for a flexible schedule
If you’re not feeling fully prepared to dive headfirst into meetings and small talk with your colleagues, Brennan suggests requesting a temporary work-schedule adjustment, like part-time hours, flexible hours, or working remotely a few days per week.
“Easing back into work could also mean reducing your workload,” says Brennan. “This could include reassigning projects or priorities to your superior or colleagues for the time being.”
3. Consider what you need, and proactively inform your co-workers
Your colleagues may mean well, yet it’s likely that many don’t know what to say or do or how to act around someone who is grieving. This may be something stressful for them, which can easily transfer into stress for you. That’s why Flaxington suggests proactively communicating what you need and want. Everyone handles grief differently, so it’s very likely that you and your co-workers have different pictures of how being supportive looks. This communication can also take place via email, in case that’s more comfortable for you than a face-to-face chat.
4. Be upfront about your feelings on hard days
Plain and simple, while you’re dealing with grief at work, some days are just going to be tough. When this happens, don’t be afraid to address it with you your closest co-workers, so they can provide the support you need.
“If you’re experiencing a hard day—it could be a birthday, anniversary, special day, or just a rough day—let co-workers know,” says Brennan. “Someone who is empathetic and supportive might be the best person to seek out.”
5. If someone says something hurtful, address it
“Remember that most people are not intentionally trying to say something hurtful or triggering,” says Brennan. “If it does happen, it’s okay to gently let them know it was not helpful to you or does not support your grief.”
She suggests saying, “‘I appreciate that you feel that way, although it’s not the way that I feel about it’ and then continue by sharing how you do feel.” While you might feel uncomfortable addressing this to others, it’s important to establish boundaries so you don’t feel resistant or uncomfortable at work.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time off
While some who are dealing with grief might feel comfortable returning to work ASAP, others might realize later on that they need more time to readjust than they initially anticipated. If that’s you, that’s okay. “Be honest with your boss and say, ‘Look, I love my job. My work is important to me, but I’m no good at this right now. My mental capacity isn’t quite there. What do you think is fair? What do you think we can work out?’” says career and life coach, Susie Moore.
While this depends on your specific work culture, manager, and job demands, being forthcoming and vulnerable about your grief and current mental-health state communicates that you value the company and your work. And, if you’re able to have this conversation in advance, you’re more likely to find a sense of understanding and a desired response.
7. Be kind to yourself
No one expects you to wear a superhero cape right now. “Take a break if you need it. It’s okay to be withdrawn, and it’s okay to not be happy,” Moore says. “You can just be yourself, and that’s okay.”
And, remember: There’s no right or wrong way to communicate how you choose to grieve. While it’s important to talk with your superiors and co-workers about your workload and what you can feasibly handle, don’t feel obligated to push yourself past your limit just to prove you can. Because, in reality, you almost certainly can—but that doesn’t mean you have to.
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