When an immediate family member dies, most American workplaces provide just 3 days of bereavement leave. When a close friend or beloved pet dies, most workplaces provide no leave.
It can be overwhelming to think about “getting back to work” mere days after your reality is completely changed. With any loss, the foundation of your life can feel shattered, cracked, or badly shaken.
Grief Symptoms and Work
Grief often affects the physical body (but please don’t assume any new mental or physical symptoms are grief- report them first to your doctor, to rule out non-grief causes).
In her excellent book, “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand”, Megan Devine describes some common symptoms of grief as insomnia, memory loss, mental fatigue, trouble reading, and confusion.
If your job involves math, reading, writing or concentrating, it can be understandably hard to function well during grief. Being sleep deprived, fatigued and distracted can make it hard to focus on analyzing numbers or writing and editing.
Grief can also be an emotional roller coaster of feeling “ok” in one minute and overwhelmed with sadness or rage in the next.
So, understandably, if your job involves working with the public, you may dread being “seen” in your state of grief. Being asked to smile or present information to others may feel like an impossible weight on your shoulders.
Navigating Workplace Relationships After a Loss
Once you get back into the workplace, it can be also be stressful to navigate interactions with coworkers.
Due to widespread cultural avoidance of grief and loss, many grievers find that workplace peers seem uncomfortable addressing their loss. Some coworkers offer meaningless or hurtful platitudes like, “This happened for a reason” or “Keep your chin up, your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
Sometimes grievers find it easier to act like nothing happened, in order to focus on work and just get through the day. For these grievers, putting on a “social mask” and smiling or saying “I’m fine” helps them separate their loss from their workplace responsibilities.
At other times, grievers do want acknowledgement at work and are surprised and hurt if colleagues walk on eggshells, avoid eye contact or refrain from checking in about their loss.
Whatever your experience is when you return to the workplace, it’s understandable if you feel stressed and anxious about it. You are already dealing with an incredible amount of stress and navigating workplace relationships can add an additional load of expectations and unpredictable triggers.
How Our Modern Culture Makes Going Back to Work Hard
In modern North American culture, we are taught to be productive and industrious.
Our value seems to hinge on our ability to show up with a smile and perform high levels. So, in grief, when our hearts are broken and our bodies are exhausted, we no longer fit in. We can’t show up like the employee we were prior to our loss. We can’t keep up with the hectic pace of modern life. We’ve been changed by our experience.
In grief, what we need for healing is time and support. We need to be witnessed in our grief, supported in our pain, and nurtured by a community that understands there is no “quick fix”.
Going back to work is hard because our grief needs can feel at odds with workplace culture (and our larger modern culture in general). We aren’t our “old self” but we can feel pressure to pretend to be.
4 Tips for Going Back to Work While Grieving
1-Plan for “Grief Brain”.
Give yourself grace when it comes to memory, mental fatigue, confusion and reading abilities. Perhaps you can use Microsoft Word’s “Text-to-Speech” feature for reviewing documents and Outlook’s “Read Aloud” feature for emails. You can make daily to-do lists or use extra sticky notes to remind yourself of important tasks.
Most importantly, you can be gentle and understanding with yourself when you are forgetful and confused, reminding yourself that many other grievers struggle with “Grief Brain” too.
2-Pack a Survival Kit
The emotional roller coaster of grief makes it hard to predict how you will feel throughout the workday. Loss reminders can pop out of nowhere, so tears may come up unexpectedly.
Consider packing a grief survival bag each day, filled with tissues, face wipes/makeup remover and extra makeup (in case you want to touch up after crying). You could also pack some small comfort items in your survival kit, such as mints or candies, an aromatherapy roller, a gel-filled eye mask (to be chilled a lunchbox or refrigerator), and some soothing teabags.
When dealing with the stress of loss, our nervous system can stay in a reactive state. It helps to prioritize short relaxation breaks. Are you entitled to a lunch break? Take it. Are you allowed to take additional short breaks throughout the day? Do it.
Depending on your unique situation, you may go outdoors for breaks. Or, you might go to your car and listen to music. Perhaps you will close and lock your office door, creating a private space for decompressing. The most important thing is having a safe space to relax and unwind.
4- Find support
Your workplace may offer access to grief support through an employee assistance benefit. Don’t hesitate to explore grief support options early on. Many grievers also find that support groups help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, so it may help to also search for local grief group.
Online grief resources can also provide support. Three excellent grief websites that provide information on grief include “What’s Your Grief” (https://whatsyourgrief.com), “Modern Loss” (www.modernloss.com) and “Refuge in Grief” (www.refugeingrief.com).
Working with a grief counselor can also be enormously helpful. Grief counseling can provide a safe place to remove the “I’m OK” mask you may be wearing, to tell the truth about how your loss has been, and to gain strength to heal by feeling the grief. At Modern Era Counseling, we provide grief counseling services to North Carolina residents.
Visit our website at www.moderneracounseling.com to learn more and get started today.