Grief is one of those things that everyone knows a little about – a stat, an article, a story – but no one can truly appreciate until it happens to them personally. How do you handle grief at work?
Unfortunately, I know grief too well. We lost our gorgeous little nine year old son, Hugo, in 2009. It was devastating in a way that can only be imagined. The only thing I hung on to was that as a child I had lost my father when I was just eight years old. From that, I knew that despite how it feels, you do find your way back to happy. As a person, and as a family. The best memories eventually replace the sadness.
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So, when we put together content for mwah.’s knowledge base, the content on ‘grief’ was always going to be deeply personal. No matter how many times I thought through the professional side – taking great advice from psychologists, counsellors, and HR specialists – I couldn’t help but scrutinize it through a much more personal lens.
As a result of going through grief as a mother, I’ve also read a lot on the topic. You see, as a mother, (or father), you aren’t just ‘dealing with grief’. You’re also trying to make everything OK for your other children. When they look at you and ask “are we going to be happy again?”, you want to say ‘Yes’ and mean it.
When we lost Hugo, I had a big kickass job in a big kickass company. I had an awesome team, achieving some amazing results. I was flying around the world, and being global. I’d just won the NSW Telstra Business Women’s Award, and I was on the way to ‘Nationals’. In those crazy few months I would be awarded both the Telstra National Corporate Business Woman of the Year, HR Leader of the year, and lead the team that won HR Team of the Year. It was the maddest time. So desperately sad, so trying to be there for our young girls, and trying to hold on to any light in the tunnel.
Do I consider myself an ‘expert’ on grief? No.
I’m just a person who knows a little too much, and the scars have taught me a few things. Like, I know it’s different for each of us. Despite all the theories of ‘grief processes’, we all take that ride through the dark differently. I know that losing someone you love is a gap in your heart for life. You don’t go through five steps and out the other side. I know that memories take over the sadness.
I know that working is not a bad option – even though you initially couldn’t imagine how you’ll rock back up to the workplace, you eventually find a way. You walk back in, and appreciate the distraction. The opportunity to think about other things. Talk about other things. The normal-ness.
Based on my personal experience, I also know how important great work mates and a great boss are. I recommend both.
For better or worse, and in the simple hope that they’re helpful, I offer some of the things I’ve learned about grief, and specifically grief at work.
About you –
- Don’t be hard on yourself. Be gentle and kind. Treat yourself like you’d treat other people.
- Don’t let death and grief define you. They add scars and pain, but they also add understanding and perspective. They become empathy.
- The best of memories will replace the saddest. Talk about them both.
- Don’t rush. You owe no one else your story, until you’re ready (if ever).
- Keep the people you love close by, and look after each other. Go to the back of the cave and pull the skins over if need be. The world will be fine without you for a little while.
- Don’t take advice, find your own way. We were advised over and over to make a charity. That wasn’t right for us, or for Hugo’s memory. Instead, we took the donations and gave them to an already existing charity that was doing great work.
About grief at work –
- If you’re lucky to have a good boss, they’ll reach out to you. They’ll offer support. Stay close to them, and keep them in the loop. Don’t lose touch with them. They’ll care. Let them, but respect that they have a day job looking after the whole business and everyone else in it too.
- If you’re lucky enough to have great workmates, they’ll reach out to you. They’ll offer support. Stay close to them. They won’t know what to say, and that’s OK, because there’s nothing to be said. Let them know you don’t need any ‘words’. Just being there is pretty awesome.
- You don’t have to tell the story or explain it anyone. Just ‘be’.
- Having a little time is important. Take it. Be grateful for the time off to collect your life back together.
- You’ll need work again too, so don’t lose sight of it. There’s a time when ‘work’ won’t make your top one hundred priorities but it will gradually rise back up as your life gets organised again.
- Once back at work, other things will pop up that need time. If you haven’t used all your credibility bank, you can take a little more as its needed much later.
- Be conscious of some special days. You’ll be braced for anniversaries of events but birthdays and Christmas can catch you unexpectedly. Maybe plan a work-from-home day, or lunch with a good friend, on the most difficult days.
- Some odd people will try to ‘out grief’ you with their own stories. Walk away. There’s no ranking or comparisons. Grief is deeply personal.
- Most people will walk up and awkwardly say “sorry”. Say ‘Thank you’. There’s no good words, and everyone is trying to do right by you. People are like that. Kind. Caring.
And that’s the summary from me. Nothing grand or crazy.
Just a few thoughts from someone who’s lived it.
I wish you every strength in finding you way back to happy, and a new version of normal.