Within the past year, a dear friend of mine received the call that everyone dreads — her close relative had died unexpectedly. My friend stepped out of a meeting to take an urgent call and her life changed drastically, right before her colleagues’ eyes.
Less than a month into a new job at a small company, my friend found herself struggling to deal with her profound grief, ongoing arrangements and details required by the deceased’s estate, and the expectations she — and her boss — had about when she should be ready “to get back to work.”
There’s no federally mandated law when it comes to bereavement leave, so companies are left to determine their own policies about who qualifies as a “close relative” and how much time away from work is appropriate for grieving employees. And while a good bereavement leave policy can make it easier to navigate an employee’s time away from the office, it doesn’t address the awkward difficulties they might face when coming back to work. Here are three things to keep in mind when dealing with death in the workplace:
Grief is personal…and personalized
Americans are notoriously bad at dealing with death and we’re not much better at understanding grief. Over the years I’ve heard the phrase “grief is personal” used many times in the workplace — often as a justification for not doing or saying something that might ease pain or bring comfort to a grieving coworker because it felt unnatural or as though it might transgress a professional boundary.
Yes, grief is highly personal — but it’s also one of the few things that’s completely universal. It impacts all of us without exception. And the way deal we deal with it looks very different from one person to the next.
Instead of using the notion that “grief is personal” as an excuse not to engage with grieving coworkers, think of grief as being personalized. Let your employees or coworkers take the lead on how or if they want to discuss their grief, but don’t shy away from asking how they’re doing or expressing your concern.
For some people, talking about their loved one is therapeutic and for others it’s too painful for casual workplace conversation. Mourning the death of a loved one is not a one-size-fits-all process so don’t have strict expectations for what it looks like when your employee returns to work.
Grief is not linear
Two weeks after the funeral, my friend was back at her desk. For three whole days she was able to focus enough on the tasks at hand and make it through her work day. And on the fourth day she crashed, hard.
Unfortunately, her ability to get through three days of work set an expectation for her boss that she was totally fine and ready to get back to life as normal.
Yet, the grieving process is anything but linear or predictable–and it’s important to understand that an employee who recently lost a close family member might appear fine one day and be unable to function the next.
Grief is isolating
Another friend of mine recently shared a story that highlights just how isolating grief can be. Her boss, the CEO of a company, found out that his father died while attending a big conference with my friend and a number of his subordinates–many of whom work remotely.
More than a month later, my friend dialed in to her scheduled performance review with her boss and kindly inquired how he was dealing with the death of his father. For over twenty minutes, the whole scheduled duration of the call, he talked about how sad he was, how he’d been hesitant to express his grief to anyone for fear of showing weakness and that he so appreciated that my friend has expressed interest in his well-being.
When I asked if she was frustrated that time dedicated to her own professional development and career had been spent talking about the CEO’s grief, my friend gently reminded me that it was actually an honor that her boss trusted her enough to break out of his “I’m fine, everything is fine, back to work” facade–and that she never wanted to work for a company where couldn’t spend twenty minutes connecting with someone about the things that matter so much more than the bottom line.