Navigating Workplace Cheer While Grieving
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
“Anything mentionable... is manageable,” Brooke repeated to herself. She’d just heard it said in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which she was watching with her co-workers. The theater visit was part of her office’s holiday outing, and the quote really resonated with her.
Times had been hard. A few years back, her boyfriend, Joe, died unexpectedly. And although she had been working at her new job for a few years, she had been very hesitant to talk about Joe with her new colleagues.
“I don’t want people to pity me or not know how to talk to me afterwards, so I don’t really mention my loss at work,” she said.
Yet now, in the theater, she was faced with a flood of sad memories, unexpectedly triggered by the movie, and she couldn’t hide from her co-workers.
Usually Brooke is alone when she thinks about Joe and can manage, but this was a tough one. She didn’t expect to have to navigate the memories in front of the people she works with.
Yet, hearing the quote, suddenly made her realize that it would be OK to talk about Joe with her co-workers. And quite possibly, it could help her manage her sad feelings over the long-run too.
Navigating Workplace Cheer
The holiday season is one filled with laughter, special foods and friendly gatherings. But if you’re grieving during the holidays, it can sometimes be difficult to join in.
And it can be even more complicated if you’re grieving while at work during the holidays.
Consider these tips/suggestions for ways to navigate the workplace during the holidays, or anytime while you are grieving:
Take bereavement leave.
Joe’s death occurred over a holiday weekend, providing Brooke with a couple of days uninterrupted time to start processing her loss before notifying her employer.
Once ready, Brooke contacted her company’s human resources (HR) department. They informed her of the organization’s policy on bereavement and other leave types (sick, vacation, leave of absence) available to her.
“Bereavement leave” is a policy that offers employees time off from work (usually unpaid) to plan or attend a funeral, or mourn the loss of a relative.
In the United States, most employers have created their own bereavement policies, since there are no federal laws that require employers to offer bereavement leave.
As of 2014, Oregon is the only state to require certain employers to offer bereavement leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act.
Brooke’s employer offered three days of “bereavement leave,” which she used immediately. She then had to return to work the following week.
However, over the next two months, Brooke was able to take off, intermittently, a total of four weeks using her combined vacation and sick leave to grieve the loss of Joe.
Inform co-workers and/or stakeholders of your absence.
Since Brooke had a highly visible position in her organization and interacted with outside stakeholders, many colleagues had to be informed of her absence.
HR notified the team members and key stakeholders of her time off, and colleague were able to re-assign some of her projects.
Brooke admits that while this part was very uncomfortable for her – she is a private person and did not like the idea of people knowing about her loss, she understood the need to inform the team.
And, in a way, it turned out to be a bit of a relief as she didn’t have to have what felt like would be a million uncomfortable conversations about her absence.
Create a “return to work” plan with HR or co-workers.
Brooke said that when she returned to work, like most employees who have experienced a sudden loss, she did not have a plan.
The benefit of creating a plan is that it helps make the transition back to work seamless. The plan can be in the form of an informal meeting and covers the following questions:
Which assignments will need to be re-assigned?
What counseling resources are available in the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)?
Does the person grieving prefer that no one mentions the death of their loved one?
Will a Thinking of You card signed by co-workers be comforting?
Who should the employee notify if they need another day-off related to grieving?
When she returned to the office, Brooke's co-workers were comforting and tried to make her smile. She found this helpful.
And from time to time, when the grieving returned more strongly, Brooke needed to go to ladies' room and cry. And that was ok. She came to understand that grieving is a journey and sometimes crying at random times is a part of it.
Identify a work-related ritual.
Taking the metro-rail was always and remained a huge part of Brooke’s daily life. Riding the train became more of a ritual in the first few months following her loss. Taking the train to work began to signify the start of a new day without Joe.
Sometimes the new day started by dragging herself to work. But the feeling was usually the same when she arrived at the Metro station. “You’ll be okay. You made it to the metro today.”
Prepare to discuss your loss.
For Brooke, “what is mentionable, is manageable.” Brooke has thought about what she wants to share and what she wants to keep private. She’s decided that sharing short stories about Joe and their relationship is manageable.
The decision not to shy away from conversations even if it requires her to talk about Joe a little bit, means that she can be more relaxed with her new co-workers and not worry about making them uncomfortable.
Keeping Things Realistic
Returning to work after the death of a loved one can be difficult. Many employees return to work due to finances or to create some sort of normalcy. No matter the reason, it’s always helpful to be prepared.
Creating a plan to navigate the workplace during the holiday season, or any time, when you’ve experienced loss can enable you to make it through the grieving process with some comfort.
When overwhelmed with feelings, consider this:
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” – Mr. Fred Rogers
About The Author
Tiffany Oscar, LICSW, is a program manager at The Washington Home. She oversees the development and implementation of charitable programming that aims to connect social and community resources with the elderly and terminally-ill residents, in the Washington DC metropolitan area.
Prior to joining The Washington Home, Tiffany worked as a social worker in various capacities including: learning and development, outreach, and providing clinical counseling services to vulnerable populations.
Tiffany earned a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Texas-Austin, and a Master’s in Public Administration from American University. She is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington, DC.