So many people have lost loved ones during this pandemic. I have lost two. Whether you’ve lost a loved one from COVID or from other causes, the uniqueness of a pandemic means we don’t have the opportunity to have the closure that we do during normal circumstances. Celebration of life events, funerals, etc. are important rituals that allow us to honor the lives of our loved ones. And these events often occur before we return to work.
Without those, employees may be returning to work (virtually or otherwise) without having had that opportunity. It becomes more difficult to move through the grief process without those important rituals. In thinking about this, I realized many workplaces may be struggling with how to deal with grief as it spills over into the workplace even more now than it might in normal circumstances. And, although difficult, I thought it was a timely topic to write about.
How do organizations support employees coping with the loss of a loved one? If done well, it can provide enormous emotional support to the employee during one of the most difficult times in their life. If done poorly, it can compound additional grief onto an already traumatic experience. What kind of employer do you want to be?
When I was in my early 30’s, my sister died from brain cancer. She had battled it for 3 ½ years and I knew it was coming, but the loss was devastating, nonetheless. She was a single mother to two young children. Although my nieces still had their Dad, I was greatly worried about how they would cope emotionally through this loss. It was painful to watch my parents grieve the loss of their child. And I was grieving my own loss of my best friend. I had just started a new job and had only been with my employer for a few months, so I didn’t earn much vacation. I had already used up what I had and had even taken some unpaid time to visit my sister in CA during the last months of her life. I had disclosed her illness and my need for time off during the interview process, so my employer was already accommodating my need for time off.
The morning she died, my mom called my work because she couldn’t reach me on my cell phone. My assistant was the one who had to give me the news. My assistant, my colleagues and my boss all surrounded me in my office and were there to support me while I cried. I’ll never forget my boss’s words: “Take all the time off that you need. It will be paid.” I was floored. That single statement created so much loyalty for me to that company. I didn’t end up needing to take much more time, but it was the sentiment and compassion behind her offer that mattered. I sure didn’t want to take advantage of the situation and I probably worked even harder as a result.
Similarly, when my father fought the same battle with cancer and we had to go through the journey all over again, I couldn’t concentrate on much in those final weeks of his life or in the weeks following. I was with a different employer at this point. I tried to work from home and came into the office when I could, but my productivity was low. The compassion from my staff, my boss, and teammates, is what got me through. They supported me, helped cover the work, were flexible and understanding, left me cards, and sent me flowers. It’s what carried me through that time of grief. It created a sense of family at work and when others went through something similar, I returned the same compassion and support.
How your employer and the people you work with handles situations like this really matters. Not all people are comfortable in knowing how to handle these situations. Empathy and understanding goes a long way. I’ve been lucky that the people I was working at the time knew what to do. But for those that find themselves struggling when this happens, I hope this will help.
If you are an employer and are supporting someone returning to work who has lost a loved one, here are some things I would encourage you to do:
1. Express your sympathy for their loss. Give them your condolences for their loss right away. Upon their return, if your employee wants to share stories of their loved one, make sure you take the time to listen. I recently listened to a podcast about an executive whose daughter was brutally murdered and what his re-entry to work was like. He talked about how people didn’t know what to say to him upon his return and how much harder that made it. But he also spoke about a colleague who was in his office and noticed the electronic picture frame of photos of his daughter. She said to him, “When you are ready, I would love for you to tell me the story behind every one of those pictures of your daughter.” He said it was exactly the right thing for her to say. It was an acknowledgement of his loss, an invitation for him to talk in his own timeframe, and a willingness to listen.
2. Be flexible with your employee on their return. Most employers provide a few days of bereavement leave, but if the employee has experienced a traumatic loss, such as that of a child or an unexpected loss of a spouse, a few days will not be enough. They may need to take additional time off or work a reduced work schedule (e.g., intermittent FMLA or even disability) for a period. Be as accommodating as you can for as long as you can.
3. Be prepared to cover their work. It’s important to have processes documented and teams cross trained so that during times of unexpected absences, others can step in at a moment’s notice and cover for someone when they are out. When the employee tells you they need to be out, assign their work to others to relieve their pressure. Don’t expect them to find their own coverage. They will be dealing with enough at home.
4. Tell them what resources the company offers. Make sure the employee knows what benefits they have available to them. Have an HR person reach out to them directly if need be. Was their loved one a dependent covered under their life insurance? Does the employee have counseling services through the health insurance or an EAP plan? Don’t wait for the employee to ask about this and don’t expect them to go looking for the information on their own. They may not have the energy to do so. Provide the information proactively.
5. Check in with them periodically. Do this just to see how they are doing and if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. They may say nothing, but ask anyway and keep asking periodically.
6. Help their colleagues be ready to support them when they return. Some people don’t know what to say when a colleague loses someone close to them. The best thing to do is to help people talk about this and prepare for the person’s return. Provide information if you can and have received permission to share. Help people practice what to say if they are uncomfortable. Depending upon your workplace culture, you may decide to do this 1:1 or in a team meeting. At one of my prior workplaces, one of my direct reports had lost his spouse unexpectedly. His staff and colleagues were struggling with how to best support him upon his return. I had a representative from our EAP plan come to one of our staff meetings and talk about grief and how best to support him and each other during difficult times. It was a huge help to the staff, and they were very appreciative of that resource. They felt better prepared to support someone they cared deeply about upon his return.
7. Remember grief takes time and isn’t linear. When your employee returns, recognize that they will not likely be productive right away. It may be hard for them to concentrate, make big decisions and be productive in the initial weeks and even months. When it appears they are “back to normal”, they may have setbacks as anniversaries or other things may create a trigger for grief. Be forgiving and approach any discussions about performance gently and with understanding and empathy.
If you are someone who has lost a loved one and find yourself needing to return to the workplace, there are some things I would encourage you to consider:
1. Everyone’s grief process is unique. Be careful not to judge yourself against anyone else’s grief journey. Wherever you are in your process is where you need to be. It’s important to honor that and you can and should expect others to honor it as well.
2. Know your limits and set boundaries for others. Most companies provide some amount of bereavement leave, but if your loss is significant such as that of a spouse or a child, it likely will not be enough. If you can’t go back to work full-time, have a conversation with your employer (and possibly your doctor) about this and discuss your options. If you are in a role that requires significant interaction with people, high levels of stress, or a leadership position you may or may not be ready to jump right back in. Be honest with yourself and your employer about what you can and can’t do. You may need to ease into it. Pull in your HR rep to the discussion if needed. Ongoing communication with your employer about your needs is critically important.
3. Reach out for support from a counselor or support group, if needed. Check to see if your employer offers an Employee Assistance Plan or of your medical plan covers counseling services. Most do. Counseling after a significant loss can be a helpful resource in sorting through grief, particularly if there were any unresolved relationship issues with your loved ones. Support groups can also be enormously helpful as they pull people together that are going through similar experiences. Groups can be either grief specific or loss-related specific, such as for parents who have lost a child or people who have lost someone from a particular type of cancer. For a period, I attended a brain cancer support group through my local hospital system, and I found that to be an enormously helpful source of support.
4. Don’t take things personally. Many times, people who are trying to be helpful may say things in the interest of trying to be supportive, but they end up saying the wrong thing, things that are outright hurtful or they just don’t say anything at all. Sometimes, these are people that have not experienced grief firsthand and cannot relate to your experience. Other times, they are just stumbling over what to say and they want to say something…anything and it just comes out wrong. Just know that it’s not about you. Be forgiving. Understand their intention is good and move on.
5. Focus on healthy behaviors. Keep yourself physically and mentally healthy. Exercise. Eat right. Stay away from numbing your feelings with drugs or alcohol. Spend time with people who bring you joy, even on the days when you may not feel joyful. When you feel like laughing, then laugh. It’s okay. If you feel like crying, then cry. It’s okay to let it out. I’ve often described crying from grief to others as being like draining a wound. Crying is cathartic and it helps the healing of the wound. Then the wound heals like a scab. Something happens and the scab gets knocked and bleeds a little bit. That happens over and over and eventually the scab heals, turning into a scar. Some wounds are deeper than others. Some take longer to heal than others. Some scars are left bigger than others. But they all do eventually heal.
6. Be good to yourself. If your loss and grief are profound, there are days you may not want to even get out of bed. Those are the days when you need to focus on the small wins and celebrate just getting up and getting dressed. Other days, life will feel normal and much easier. With the passage of time, the normal days will outweigh the bad days. And remember grief is not linear. You will feel like you are making progress and then you’ll have days of major setbacks. Especially around holidays or milestone events, like birthdays or the anniversary of the day your loved one passed. Each of these will get easier over time.
7. Do something to honor your loved one. I think this is an important part of the healing process. For some, it’s simply a celebration of life event where people gather and remember together, share photos, etc. For others, this may need to be more, especially if the loss was unexpected, or the individual was young and hadn’t had a chance to live their full life. When my sister passed, we supported her kids in both participating in a fundraising walk for the National Brain Tumor Foundation (NBTF) and we also installed a reading bench and planted flowers in her memory at her daughters’ elementary school. I’ve participated in several NBTF fundraisers in her memory since then. I know of others’ who have created scholarships in the name of children they have lost, people who have planted trees, and others who have installed memorial benches at loved ones’ favorite lookout points for the community to share. There are so many wonderful ways to honor your loved one. Find something positive and unique to them that you can feel good about and involve others in doing it. They want to help.
8. Share memories of your loved one. Sometimes when people die, others become afraid to talk about them. They become afraid that talking about the person is bringing up painful memories for the people closest to the loss. In fact, not talking about the person who has passed is what is the most painful. After my sister died, I made a point (and still do) to talk about her and share memories so that her girls remember her. Talking about your loved one is an important part of keeping their memory alive and helps with the healing process. It may be hard to do this in the beginning without tears, which is often why people avoid doing it…it’s painful. But after a while, you will be able to do it only with smiles.
In addition to my own thoughts, here’s another article from Harvard Business Review for more ideas on Returning to Work When You’re Grieving: Returning to Work When You’re Grieving (hbr.org)
If you have a co-worker returning to work after facing a loss and you aren’t sure what to do, my biggest piece of advice is this - Don’t not say anything. Silence is the worst, but chose your words carefully and be careful not to minimize their loss. Here are a couple of articles that will help if you aren’t sure what to say:
3 Things to Say to a Grieving Co-Worker When You're at a Loss for Words | Inc.com
Supporting a Grieving Employee - Workplace Options
We can’t separate our work lives from our personal lives. We must teach our teams that empathy is a critical skill in the workplace. Loss is a part of life. We will all experience it at some point in time. All employers will be faced with helping those who do navigate the re-entry to work that follows.
Employers who do this well have programs in place that support employees going through the grief process. Employers who haven’t considered this yet, need to do so before they are faced with handling such a situation. If you don’t know where to start and have an Employee Assistance Program, I would suggest starting there. They are a great resource for information on grief and how to help people going through the grief process. If you don’t have an EAP and need help beyond the tips in this article, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.