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Coping with bereavement at work

Grieving woman in a meeting at work, struggling to cope with bereavement

Returning to work after bereavement can be difficult to cope with. While some people prefer the distraction and routine of working, for others trying to get back to normal feels nearly impossible.

In an ideal world, we would all have as much paid time off as we needed to adjust to the death of a loved one. Recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called on U.S. employers to implement better bereavement leave policies to help their employees adjust to life after loss.

“Compassion at work shouldn’t be a luxury; it’s important to develop policies that give people the time off and support they need so we don’t have to rely on the kindness of our bosses,” she wrote in her book, Option B.

Unfortunately, for most people this kind of support isn’t available – only 60 per cent of private sector workers in the U.S. get paid bereavement leave and even then it’s usually only for a few days.

This means that you might have to return to work while you are still very much in the rawest stages of grief. You might find yourself distracted by upsetting thoughts, struggling with your workload when you’d usually be fine, or having difficulties with your co-workers. Here are a few tips that could help you adjust to normal working life again.

Talk through your options with your boss

In the U.S., bereavement leave policies can vary widely from state to state and company to company. Small businesses and start-ups are probably less flexible with compassionate leave, but it really depends on the philosophy and policies of the individual business.

This might mean that your boss’s hands are tied in terms of the amount of paid or unpaid leave they can offer you, but it’s always worth talking about what’s possible. A phased return to work, or moving to part-time hours, might be a good compromise.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s boss is understanding and approachable. If you can, double check your employee handbook or contract before discussing bereavement leave with them, so you know exactly what you’re entitled to.

Make sure your co-workers are prepared

If you’re planning to return to work, you may have been in touch with your boss to discuss when you’ll be back. This might be a good time to speak to them about how much to tell your co-workers.

You might prefer that your co-workers know what has happened, or might want them to not know any details. Making this clear to your boss will help them handle the situation better.

Address the elephant in the room

Another big challenge with grief in the workplace is the ‘elephant in the room’ – when everyone knows someone has been bereaved but don’t mention it.

Sheryl Sandberg described it happening to her at Facebook after her husband Dave Goldberg’s sudden death in 2015: “At first, going back to work provided a bit of a sense of normalcy. Then I quickly discovered that it wasn’t business as usual.

“As hard as it was to bring up Dave with friends, it seemed even more inappropriate at work. So I did not. And they did not. Most of my interactions felt cold, distant, stilted.”

Annie Broadbent, the psychotherapist behind Funeral Guide’s bereavement advice column , says, “It’s better to make mistakes through trying words of sympathy, than not being there for someone because you are afraid.” But your co-workers might be anxious about trying to talk to you.

It shouldn’t be your job to address this elephant in the room, but the fact is that so many people are terrified of saying the wrong thing that they’ll say nothing at all. A quiet word with work friends should be enough to let them know whether or not you’re okay to talk about your loss.

You could even ask your boss to tell people that it’s better for them to not purposefully avoid talking about your loved one. Getting rid of that elephant in the room can make it so much easier when you’re having a particularly bad day.

Develop strategies for staying focused

Grief plays havoc with your concentration. Citing another example of grief’s impact on her work life, Sheryl Sandberg described the daily challenges of returning to work after a bereavement: “My grief prevented me from thinking clearly. In the middle of a meeting, an image of Dave’s body on that gym floor would flash before my eyes.”

Whether it’s intrusive thoughts about your loved one, or a general sense of lethargy, grief has all sorts of ways to distract and distress you while you’re trying to work. Even if you’ve never needed a personal planner before, organizational tools could help you keep track of everything you need to remember.

If the type of work you do allows it, taking short, regular breaks is a great way to improve productivity and concentration, and could help you not feel so overwhelmed.

Forgive yourself for your mistakes

Part of coping with grief at work is accepting that you’re not going to be back to your normal level of productivity straight away. Even if you’ve had several weeks off work to plan your loved one’s funeral, easing back into the everyday routine of working life is unlikely to go completely smoothly.

Whether it’s forgetting a meeting, missing an important email in your inbox, or just a small, easily avoided mistake, being distracted is normal. Although easier said than done, try not to beat yourself up about it.

If mistakes keep happening, you might want to discuss things with your boss. Being open about how you could improve – and more importantly how they could help you improve – should be a good starting point for discussion.

Find a quiet place to be alone

Be prepared for the fact that there may be times when you feel overwhelmed at work, when your grief becomes un-ignorable and you have to take some time for yourself. Having a quiet place where you can be alone could be invaluable.

If there’s no place that immediately springs to mind, you might be able to talk to your boss about where you could take a five-minute break if you need to.

Keep talking to your manager or employer

They say that communication is key, but when you’re struggling to cope with grief, probably the last person you want to open up to is your boss – but it’s important to keep discussing how you can be supported in the workplace.

A good manager will instigate discussions with you about how you are doing. These might be scheduled reviews, or less formal catch-ups to ask how you are. If your boss doesn’t start the conversation though, don’t be afraid to ask for ten minutes of their time to talk about how you’re coping. It’s important that they know what you’re feeling and how that’s affecting your work.

For more help with coping with grief, specialist bereavement support organizations can offer expert information and advice.