Although it’s been eight years since it happened, I remember the phone call as if it was yesterday: “Your husband has been in an accident. He didn’t survive.” Keith had been riding his motorcycle and was killed instantly.
After several weeks I returned to work, thinking the routine would be a distraction from the grief. But it was harder than expected because my co-workers acted awkwardly. They were uncomfortable, saying things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” “He’s in a better place,” and “Time heals all wounds.” These well-meaning words enraged me. I wanted to scream obscenities at them.
I realized then that many people have trouble dealing with colleagues experiencing grief. As a result, the workplace becomes a source of pain for a grieving employee trying to cope with a difficult new reality.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Allowing employees to open up about their grief creates a culture of trust.
How do you do it? While there is no "one-size-fits-all" method for dealing with grief, providing information to your managers can play a crucial role in helping a grieving colleague heal.
As Gianpiero Petriglier and Sally Maitlis wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Grief ebbs and flows. It doesn’t then unfold in a neat, linear manner. Mourning workers will experience both progressions and regressions after a loss. That’s why managers should understand the three phases and the most helpful response to each.”
Here are the details on each phase:
1. The void
There will be good and bad days. A person may feel heartbroken, exhausted and disoriented. These emotions can be intense and inconsistent.
What to do: Don’t fix the problem. Instead, acknowledge the loss and take cues from the employee about what he/she needs from you.
2. The absence
Flexibility helps people benefit from the structure of returning to work without being overwhelmed. Employees are looking for a way to feel and act normal after experiencing a loss.
What to do: Work with the person to renegotiate work expectations, and provide ongoing structure and support. Strike a balance between patience and encouragement.
3. The new beginning
There is no timeline for the emergence of hope and resolve after a loss. Feelings regarding a loss don’t disappear or fade, but an individual will begin to grow emotionally and he/she will have the ability to fit other feelings around the grief.
What to do: Acknowledge the change and help to embrace the employee’s outlook toward a new beginning and the person he/she is becoming.
Dr. Patrick O'Malley, a psychotherapist from Fort Worth, Texas, explains, "Grief is about love; grief is not an illness. The power that management folks have to help that transition for somebody working would make community and society better.”
The healing process is a very personal experience. Grief is not about moving on but moving through the pain. Loss changes an individual. It alters the way a person regards the world, the dreams he/she had and what he/she considered possible. But life isn’t joyless. There will be new dreams and new hopes for the future.