A manual for grief: How to handle loss at work

6 mins read
FILE PHOTO: Candlelight vigil marking one million U.S. lives lost in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Santa Ana

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than one million American lives have been lost to the COVID pandemic, a staggering milestone. The challenge, of course, is that America’s Type-A, hard-charging culture is famously bad at coping with the emotional realities of pain and loss.

Even so, grief does not have to derail your career.

If you face up to those feelings, work with them and adjust the components of your job, you can come out on the other side.

That is the message of Rebecca Soffer, co-founder (with Gabrielle Birkner) of the Modern Loss community (modernloss.com) and author of the new book “The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience.”

“The whole point of the book is to help you stay connected to the person you’ve lost, to yourself, and to the world around you,” says Soffer, who helped start the Modern Loss community after losing both parents. “I wanted to go deep into what it feels like when you go back to work, and to continue in your career, while also taking care of yourself at the same time.”

While there is no national policy regarding bereavement leave, corporations do seem to be getting better at understanding the subject of grief, mainly because they have no choice after the last couple of years.

And from an individual standpoint, there are strategies you can employ to help you survive in the office, and navigate your post-loss world.

A few ideas from Soffer:


ADJUST HOW AND WHEN YOU WORK

If there is anything certain about grief, it is that it is unpredictable. Waves might come at different times, making it impossible to be clear-headed or productive during working hours.

As a result, you (and hopefully your boss) should be flexible about how you structure your day and get work done. Maybe you find you work better early in the morning, or late at night. Take frequent breaks, and actively build them into your schedule.

The good news: “I do think more companies are being much more flexible right now,” Soffer says. “They had to, because when everyone started working from home, they had to accept non-traditional situations.”

HAVE A ‘POINT PERSON’

If you are undergoing a loss that has shaken you to your core, the last thing you want to do is recount the event to a hundred different people. That is where a designated ‘point person’ can come in: Someone you trust, who can listen to whatever information you want to be known (and what you do not), and then do the disseminating for you. That saves you time, and emotional exhaustion, and helps you focus on the tasks at hand.

ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS

Corporations are still muddling their way through this era, because grief is such a delicate emotional issue. So if you are going through it on a personal level, you can help them understand what employees need and what they do not, suggests Soffer.

That might include putting together a resource kit, for those who need the tools to cope. It might mean assembling an employee discussion group, for those who need to talk things through. Or it could mean advocating for official company policies, such as paid bereavement leave. Having a purpose like that could give you some direction, in a moment of life which can often feel direction-less.


REDUCE THE PRESSURE

Whatever steps you can take to reduce burdens on yourself are probably a good idea. That includes a potential switching of roles, at least on a temporary basis.

“If you have a performative role, like being a professor, maybe you could switch into a more administrative role for a period of time,” Soffer says. “That way you won’t feel so exposed.”

Another idea: Discuss with your boss a two- or three-month period that will not count towards your annual performance review.

The main thing to remember about grief: “No feeling is final,” says Soffer. “When you’re in the worst of it, I guarantee you will not feel that way for the rest of your life.

“Grief is such a sneaky thing, and we are expected to handle it with such grace and courage and power,” Soffer adds. “But it’s okay to feel like a mess sometimes. It’s not just okay – it’s normal.”

(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)

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