Coping with grief at work is difficult
I had a very supportive workplace so my work became a prop, an emotional crutch to help me cope with the death of my mother. It enabled me to continue to have some stability in my life and to have an avenue where I could be something other than bereaved. It gave me a daily focus and a structure to an otherwise alien place.
So how did I cope? Well, the truth is I didn’t all the time, and not many of us will, but a few things may help you if you’re grieving and trying to continue to work.
A few fundamental things
- Be prepared for people to say they are sorry to hear about your loss
Supportive as it is, it can be distressing when people bring up the bereavement in a work situation. Usually a ‘thank you’ will suffice and keep the conversation at bay, but if the individual is inquisitive about the circumstances surrounding your loss and you don’t want to elaborate at the time, be prepared to say that you’d rather not talk about it at the moment.
If you do want to talk about the circumstances of your loss, try to consider how appropriate it is to talk to the person asking at the time they ask and how much detail it is appropriate to go into.
- Be prepared for people to not say anything or ask any questions.
Sometimes people you expect to say something may just carry on as if nothing has happened. Don’t take offence at this, hard as it is to experience. Sometimes people either don’t know what to say, or won’t say anything for fear of upsetting you.
- Find someone you can talk to and who you trust. If you are really struggling with life in general and with work, you should consider bereavement counselling, which is free through your GP or available privately. Always ensure your counsellor is accredited by an organisation such as the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists.
- Try to break your work down into manageable chunks.
Management coaching may be an option
I was fortunate that I was in already in receipt of management coaching and, although my coach didn’t specifically help me with grief, he did provide me with an independent perspective and support. If you are not able to fund coaching and if it’s not available through your workplace, see if you can talk to a colleague who works at a different organisation on a regular basis. Try to choose someone objective and set regular dates for meeting. Remember the person may not be trained to support you, but use the opportunity to talk about any difficulties that you are experiencing to someone external to your organisation. Ask them to keep things confidential.
- Be alert to any circumstances which seem to make your ‘symptoms’ worse. I found journeys on trains difficult as I felt exposed and isolated among strangers in confined spaces and would often get distressed. I’d also often get upset driving, but at least was able to grieve in relative privacy on these occasions.
You are very likely to cry at some point. If this happens excuse yourself as discretely as possible. Try to find somewhere private. Ideally you want to let the tears out, but if you can’t because you’re in public try to focus on the task to hand. If you find yourself unable to control the tears and in public, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Usually someone will come to your assistance in these instances. If they don’t, leave the room as soon as possible and, if necessary, return home. I found it useful to phone my partner or a friend when I felt very emotional.
I was made redundant 14 months after my mother died, and although I was offered work immediately after leaving, I turned it down. During the weeks following my mother’s death, my father had an aneurysm and came very close to death himself; he was in hospital for four weeks and lived in a different city to me. He wanted to move into a care home near me, and as an only child the burden of sorting out care for my father and managing my parents’ estate fell to me. It’s miraculous that throughout all of this and grieving for my mother I only took ten days off work (in addition to annual leave of course), which included going to my mother’s funeral.
Whether I would have taken off more time if I wasn’t fearful (rightly so) for my job is hard to say, but on reflection, if I had been in a secure job, I would have liked the option to take a period of extended unpaid leave. The post-redundancy period turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for me to spend time doing the things I love doing most. It created space to think about what I wanted to do next, which has resulted in setting up The Bereavement Coach.