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I burst into tears at work, thankfully my boss heard me


We recently talked about what organizations can do to support employees who are grieving (ICYMI read more here) but what if you’re the one who’s grieving? Or, what if it’s one of your colleagues?

We know that grief can happen anywhere and that we can’t just leave our hearts at the door. And while we’d rather just stay at home and cry, those bills need to be paid even when our hearts are breaking. So instead many of us take a deep breath, straighten our spines, slap on a brave face, and find ourselves back at work before we really feel ready. 

Today, let’s talk about how you can navigate grief at work with compassion for yourself and your co-workers.

‘Cause, we’ve all been there…the devastating phone call about a death in the family, you and your spouse decide it’s time to go your separate ways, or you’re trying to navigate a medical diagnosis. You know you’re not yourself and you know that you simply have no choice but to pull it together and get your ass to work.

I still remember the last time I heard the quick clicking of her heels as she walked out of my office. 

Her tiny frame hoisted her big 90s-permed hair that flowed in the breeze she created when she walked. The next day, my last day at the York Region District School Board, I was greeted by a card on my desk from her. The sentiment was simple but hit me right in the heart “I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say goodbye. Have a great trip! Love, Tracey”. 

I smiled and tucked it into my bag and went about my day, saying my goodbyes to my colleagues before I embarked on my year-long journey to the land down under – Australia.

A few months later, I was doing a temp job as an Executive Assistant at the Australian Federation Of AIDS Organizations when I got a call from my father. Tracey had been killed in a car accident. 

I was DEVASTATED. This was the first time in my 26 years on this earth that I’d had such a close friend, so close to my age, die tragically. I burst into tears and given my desk was right outside my boss’s door, she heard me sobbing and came rushing out to see what was wrong. 

She gave me the day off to be with my friends back at the hostel. I didn’t quite know what to do, but that felt like the right thing, so off I went. The next day I returned to work and threw myself into it. Not realizing, this was how I was trying to cope with the pain. Distraction! My boss recognized this and signed her beloved backpacking temp up for 6 weeks of therapy. I protested. She demanded. Off I went…and life has never quite been the same since.

I share this story because I felt I couldn’t have gone through this experience at a better workplace. I mean, they KNEW death and grief…it was a national AIDS organization after all.  At the time I didn’t know anything about how to process this kind of deep grief and I think most of us are like that. None of us came into this world knowing how to navigate difficult times so we’re all just figuring it out as we go.

My colleagues supported me through loving hugs and thoughtful questions about my friend. They offered concrete tools like ‘go down to the Opera House, sit in the park, and write a letter to her’ to help bridge the geographical and emotional space I was so deeply feeling. Afterward, they suggested I send that letter to my colleagues back home so they could put it in the grave with her and go back to the Opera House at the same time as the funeral back home and BE with her energetically. I did all of these things and they helped me immensely. 

I honestly don’t know what I would have done without their support…and over 20 years later I’m still in touch with my old boss Robin because of this (we’re chatting this weekend!). She cared for me so beautifully in that vulnerable time. 

We don’t all have the benefit of working for an organization that understands how to navigate grief but we can learn how to ask for what we need and show up for our colleagues who are grieving.

If you’re grieving at work.

MANAGERS AREN’T MIND READERS.

Be upfront with your manager/boss/employer. They can’t support you if they don’t know what’s going on. If your loss is a death ask about the company’s bereavement policy. If you need extra support, for example, if you’re conducting interviews maybe ask for someone to sit in on them with you and help take notes. If you’ve got a presentation maybe someone could help set up the room, make sure invites go out and the tech is working, etc. If you’ve got deadlines that are flexible or able to be shifted maybe ask for more time.

BE PATIENT

Be patient with yourself. Ask others to be patient with you too. Grief doesn’t come with a neat little checklist that you can tick off on your way to being healed. It’s nonlinear which means some days you’ll feel nearly normal and others you’ll want to hide in a bathroom stall and cry. Having hard days even months or years later doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or you’re somehow regressing – it’s all part of a natural response to loss.

BUILD YOUR NETWORK

It’s important to know who you can turn to when you’re feeling vulnerable. Who are the people you trust? Who can hold space for you when your emotions feel intense? It could be friends, family, colleagues, your therapist, a grief support group, etc.

TAKE MORE BREAKS

It’s not your imagination, studies have shown that when we’re grieving it’s harder to concentrate, be productive, or multitask. Do some stretches at your desk. Eat lunch in the courtyard for fresh air. Take more trips to refill your water bottle or go to the bathroom. Or even take 5 min to play Candy Crush on your phone. Work may not be the best place to sit with your feelings but giving your grieving brain more opportunities to rest might just help you get through the day.

SCHEDULE TIME

Although work may not be the best place to feel it all it IS helpful to give yourself that time. I know first-hand how tempting it is to throw yourself into work as a way to avoid and distract yourself from the pain. But even if you need to block out time in your calendar to just sit with your feelings, – cry, journal, eat chocolate, cry some more – it’s better for your mind/body/spirit to feel and release than bury and deny.

If your co-worker is grieving…

REMEMBER THIS

Grief doesn’t look the same for everyone. It can look like…

  • Fatigue
  • Low morale
  • Irritability/ expressing anger
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sadness
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Keeping super busy with work
  • Mood swings

And just like we all have unique ways of expressing grief we also have different ways of dealing with it. Maybe you need to talk it out (especially if you’re a verbal processor).  Maybe your colleague prefers to move their body – it’s okay if they don’t want to talk about it or aren’t ready to share stories.

AVOID THE CLICHÉS

Things like “move on”, “snap out of it”, “just keep busy”, “it happened for a reason”, and “they’re in a better place/ at least they’re not suffering” aren’t helpful. Or in the case of a divorce/separation/breakup avoid saying “you’re better off without them”, “you deserve better”, or “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”  Or in the case of illness avoid, “just think positively”, “have you tried…” or “My Uncle had that, and he…”.

It’s better to be a heart with ears. Let them know you’re available to talk if they need someone (and you have the capacity to hold space for them). Ask (or offer) your support with work-related tasks if you can. Or send a thoughtful, and funny, card like this from Emily McDowell.

IF YOU’RE THE ONE EVERYONE CONFIDES IN

If you’re someone people have always seemed to confide in you wherever you go – sometimes even complete strangers, I want to remind you that it’s okay to have boundaries. While it’s an honour, it can also be a lot some days. Honour your capacity and be honest with yourself about whether you can take this on right now. Listen to understand rather than to respond or fix. Avoid unsolicited advice and ask before you advise. Gently point them in the direction of help by asking if they’ve thought about joining a grief support group or mentioning that you know an amazing grief coach. ????  Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is nudge others toward the kind of support they really need.

It would be nice if we could pack our grief into a neat little box and only open it when we had the time and space to deal with it but that’s not how life works. Our heartbreak follows us everywhere – even to the office. It’s a natural response to loss. It’s a chance to extend grace and compassion to ourselves and others. To recognize our shared humanity and support one another when we’re struggling. And every workplace can benefit from more of that.

p.s. if you, or someone you know, think grief coaching workshops could benefit your workplace…let me know! ????

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