Grieving at Work: Coping with Loss While Managing Responsibilities
Mourning the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, receiving news of a debilitating health issue, or even the passing of a pet can affect people differently. Grief, and especially grief from a traumatic event(s), can trigger significant emotional and psychological impairment including the potential for developing PTSD.
Everyone has unique obligations and job/career situations, however getting back to work and daily responsibilities are often a requirement even when still grieving. If employed part-time or self-employed, there may be additional flexibility available to you, yet taking an extended mourning period is not always an option. Other responsibilities such as education, home, family and finances also require your time, which leaves less time dedicated to grieving and healing from a loss.
With life’s responsibilities often vying for your attention, finding the necessary time and energy to grieve is not always possible. These additional stressors can exacerbate the grieving process or cause other symptoms which may include: gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension, headaches, dissociation, memory issues, depersonalization, emotional detachment/hypersensitivity, autoimmune or long-term health issues.
Grief is a natural response to a loss, which may include a traumatic loss such as purging a trauma bond from a narcissistic relationship that ended, or grieving the loss of personal safety from surviving an assault. Grief includes cognitive, emotional, psychological, behavioral and existential reactions which may include both immediate and delayed responses.
According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, “the five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.” Grief can affect everyone differently, there is no timeframe on “how long” the grieving process will last, and it is very common to move through the stages several times until finally reaching acceptance. A misnomer is that with acceptance should come peace, or re-experiencing your life how it was before the grieving process began, which is not always true. Instead, reaching acceptance is more of a coming to terms with the reality of the loss, and in finding healthy ways of coping with the pain.
It is important to give yourself time to get back into the groove of things once you’re back at work and not to compare your productivity today to where you were productivity-wise before your grieving began. Grieving is a process and it can be slow and painful for many. Some things to consider for helping you adapt back into your job may include:
Be Kind with Yourself
Expecting yourself to jump back at the pace or intensity of your job or life you may have had before grieving is not realistic and may impact your grieving process. There is no “right” way to grieve. Some may be more emotional, others may express less outward emotion. This is not to suggest they aren’t processing grief effectively.
Give yourself a short break during work, even if at your desk, if you become overwhelmed or experience an emotional flashback. Practicing mindfulness, breath work and grounding techniques can be very effective in helping calm and redirect when feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Talk with your Boss
This can be effective in helping establish boundaries for when you return to work. For example, you may request to have bereavement or condolence notices stop when you return to work, to minimize emotional flashbacks. Asking about your company’s bereavement policy prior to returning to work can help clarify how much time you have available at home and to complete any necessary paperwork that may be required. Be honest and genuine with your boss or the human resource department in explaining your needs such as having extra support if needed when you first return to your job, or to return on a part-time basis for a specified time until you are more fully healed.
Reframe Grief into Self-care
If you feel that grieving holds a negative connotation, try reframing it into something more positive such as “self-care.” For example, if you feel a rush of emotion or begin crying, be kind to yourself and respect that crying is part of the healing process for many. If possible, get up and use the restroom, splash some water on your face, and take a few moments of self-care. Or, go for a quick walk outside the office, if time and company policy allow, to get some fresh air and to help you in refocusing.
Increase Healthy Habits
Grieving taxes your mental, emotional and physical energy, leaving you more susceptible to physical disease or psychological diagnoses. Take up new and healthy options at work and at home to help you in processing your grief. For example, meal prep your lunches for the week on a Sunday night, including lots of fresh fruit, whole grains and fresh vegetables. This will also free up your time during the week to engage in self-care. Opt for a brisk walk during a lunch hour to get some fresh air, or read a lighthearted book to help clear your mind from the grieving process.
Find a Work Buddy
Having someone to turn to is important for healing, as having a reliable and trustworthy emotional support system is necessary for moving through the grieving process. Ask a friend at work to be your emotional support, or to sit with you at lunch or break. Having someone to talk to can help get your attention off of grieving and help you re-engage in life.
Cash in on Extra Sleep
Sleep is restorative for mind and body and is perhaps even more important when grieving. Sleep can be disturbed when experiencing grief post-traumatically, which may include having trouble falling asleep each night, trouble staying asleep or experiencing nightmares, making it that much more important to get a complete night’s sleep. Try disconnecting from social media a few hours before bed, engage in a hot bath or shower, use essential oils such as lavender to aid in sleep, or keep your room cool and dark to help promote sleep.
Speak with a Grief Counselor
Sometimes the grieving process can be overwhelming, frightening or filled with uncertainty. You may not know what is seen as a “normal” grieving process, or you may have questions. Speaking to a trained clinician is an excellent way to gain insight and awareness into the process of grieving, along with learning skills that can help foster your personal healing journey.
Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York: Scribner.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 57. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4816. Rockville, MD.
Tanasugarn, D. (2020). Grieving at Work: Coping with Loss While Managing Responsibilities. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/grieving-at-work-coping-with-loss-while-managing-responsibilities/