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How to deal with work when you’re grieving

Processing loss takes as long as it takes. There’s no set timeline for getting over grief.

And during the current global pandemic situation, many people are dealing with loss in circumstances that make it impossible for them to attend the funerals and memorial events that are such a key part of mourning for many.

On average, companies offer 3 days of bereavement leave for the death of a close family member (domestic partners, siblings, parents, and children). While your leave may give you enough time to attend services and gather with friends and family, it’s probably not nearly enough time to get you through the entire grieving process.

So it’s no surprise that even if we’re fortunate enough to have access to generous bereavement leave, most of us are still carrying our grief with us on our return to work.

When we lose something or someone we care about—whether it’s a close family member, a cherished pet, or a home, it can take a serious toll on our emotional and physical health. Per Johns Hopkins’ Medicine, symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, excessive sleeping, overworking, distraction, memory lapses, irritability, depression and more are people’s natural mental and bodily responses to bereavement.

It takes lots of emotional work to process loss and sometimes coping with our grief on top of the demands of work and home feels like too much.

No one can make dealing with loss easy, but if you’re looking for help coping during your workday, here are a few things to try:

Coping with grief at work

1. Communicate your needs.

You can’t assume everyone at work knows what you need (or is even aware that you’ve experienced a loss). Make this difficult time easier on yourself, by clearly communicating your needs to your coworkers.

Share what happened in as much or as little detail as you are personally comfortable with—if you don’t want to talk about it at all, say so.

Or if you’d like your coworkers or manager to mention the person you lost by name and check in with you regularly, share that. As far as how to communicate, email, messaging, and asking your team lead or HR to convey your message for you are all options—do whatever’s easiest for you.

2. Give yourself (and others) the benefit of the doubt.

If you have trouble managing your work, your grief and everything else in your life, that’s completely understandable. You’re not going to feel 100% for a while. Studies show grief can cause difficulty concentrating, apathy, forgetfulness and impatience. You’re doing your best, given the circumstances—so give yourself a break.

By the same token, try to remember that even though the people you work with may not be offering you the support you need, they’re probably well-intentioned and only want to help, even if many of them aren’t aware of the best way to do that.

A grieving person sits with their arms held in front of them over their knees and legs and their hands clasped together.

@julietfurst via Unsplash

3. Have an escape route planned.

Most of us are uncomfortable with strong shows of emotion at our jobs. Unfortunately, while you’re mourning your loved one, chances are there will be days and there will be days. And sometimes the sadness will hit you when you least expect it, and you’ll need a few moments to yourself.

Figuring out an escape route isn’t something you want to have to do after you’ve been triggered. So before it happens (and it likely will happen) figure out a few ways to take the time you need to compose yourself, undisturbed.

On video calls, turn off your camera and mute your mic—if anyone asks, you can always say your internet connection is acting up. Or if you’re in the office, have a safe space scoped out in advance, whether that’s the third-floor bathroom or a rarely used stairwell, it’s good to have a quiet place where you can let yourself "go’.

4. Take breaks and time-off

While you’re figuring out how to live with a new reality that doesn’t include the person who passed on, make sure to give yourself as many breaks as you can throughout the working day. If you need help finding some calm after a crying jag, try journalling your thoughts, or practising deep-breathing.

It’s also a good idea to take extra personal or vacation days as needed if that’s something you have available, especially around dates that may remind you of the person who died.

Whether you use that time to rest at home or to celebrate your loved one’s life doing voluntary work for a cause they supported, giving yourself the gift of time is a crucial part of moving forward.

You’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are directly affected by death and loss on a weekly basis….and they too are coping with grief as best they can.

As much as we'd all love to skip over the pain and the grief, loss is an unavoidable part of life for everyone. But sometimes you just need to have a conversation with a real, live person.

If that’s where you’re at right now, here’s a list of Grief Hotlines from the Grief Resource Network you can call or text for support.