In 2018, I lost my husband of 25 years to cancer. We had been so fortunate to be best friends and partners in everything. I was in a daze for the first six weeks. I did what had to be done, but I was sleepwalking. Everything seemed daunting—even dropping off a jacket to the dry cleaners. No one grieves a loss in the same way, but all are affected by the loss of a loved one.
Profound grief is like a giant computer program, taking up most of the space on the hard drive, leaving little room for other programs to run. After Matt died, I could not drive safely or organize a coherent paragraph. I had no desire to continue my work as a consultant even though work had been a balm for me in facing other losses. I thought I would never do any professional work again. Grief was taking up almost all of my mind and heart.
Now almost two years out, I no longer feel like Mr. Magoo behind the wheel. I was recently asked to speak at a conference and I joyfully said yes. I could not have faced it a year ago. Although I will never “get over” losing Matt, I am slowly building a life on my own.
In many workplaces with employees nearing retirement age, spousal deaths are not uncommon. The death of children or parents can happen at any time. Bereavement leave may or may not be available to people or it may be just a few days. On average, four days are allotted for the death of a spouse or child, according to the SHRM 2016 Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey.
When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse will be inundated for months with paperwork, phone calls, and estate details, not to mention planning, expense, and travel for a funeral or memorial. At the same time, the individual may feel great pressure to continue working in the face of a 50% or more loss of income.
Profound Grief is a full-time job. The usual home, kids, and work scheduled may be too much for people to handle while paralyzed with grief. Grieving is exhausting and profound grief is a full-time job.
You as the leader need to talk to a member of your team who has lost someone. Here are some important steps and practices to consider:
- Find out what the individual needs right now in terms of work accommodations. What options might there be for that person to take some extra time off instead of returning to work immediately? Is part-time possible? Working at home? A special project? Is Family Medical Leave needed and possible? Talk with the whole team about who will help get essential work done.
- Some people may feel better going back to their normal work routine and should be welcomed back with open arms. No judgment!
- Express your feelings simply and sincerely—no sermons necessary. The worst thing, however, is to say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing.
- Ask the bereaved their preferences for communicating what has happened to co-workers. Some companies and organizations invite others to donate sick days to give the individual more grieving time away from the pressure of work. An Employee Assistance Office may be able to provide support to the grieving individual. Human Resources very likely has resources as well.
- In the short term, learn when the visitation, funeral or memorial event will be and ensure that co-workers do not intrude on that space with emails, texts, or calls. Send flowers or a team memorial gift. Several people from the team, including you, should attend the visitation, funeral or memorial.
- Rather than asking, “How are you doing?”, Ask “How are you doing today?” The latter is a question that a grieving person may be able to answer.
- David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving, says that how you address the deaths of family members is a critical juncture. “This is one of the most crucial experiences you will interact with your employees on. They will remember how you handled this. This is a moment that will be important in retention.”
- Additional Resources.
- Gentle Comforts: For Women Grieving the Loss of Their Beloved Life Compaion Kathleen A. Paris (ACTA Publishing, March 31, 2024)
- Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO. “How to Support Employees through Grief and Loss,” by Lisa Roepe.
- Blog first appeared on Journey of Facilitation in 2020 and is edited here.