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Grief At The Office: When A Coworker Loses A Loved One

In 2003, Allison Ellis was in a new job after taking some time off to have her first child. She had been hired as an independent marketing consultant to get a new website off the ground for a company and was just getting rolling on hiring her team and creating a budget.

One Sunday, the day before she was supposed to make a presentation to executives, her 39-year-old husband, who had been training for a marathon, died suddenly from a heart attack, leaving her with a 10-month-old daughter. She took a week to arrange the funeral and memorial service and then went back to work.

“I went straight to [my boss’s] office, and she said, ‘Listen, nobody knows what to do with this, and they keep coming up to me, saying, “What are we supposed to do?,” and I told them, ‘Get back to work, focus on the work, that’s what we’re going to do,’” Ellis recalls.

Though Ellis felt this was the right thing to do and a “blessing,” she says that, after this conversation, “Nobody said a word to me. I was an outside contractor and I hadn’t established the kind of long-term relationships you would in a normal job situation, so I was literally ignored. I was off in a cubicle and nobody said anything to me except related to work.” Her boss never spoke of it again either.

The awkwardness she and her coworkers felt after her husband’s sudden death is a universal one.

As Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said last week in a widely shared post mourning the loss of her husband David Goldberg, “For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?”

Our culture’s discomfort with death stems partially from our obsession with youth, which then leads many of us to be unsure of what to say or how to act in the face of death, says Jodi R. R. Smith, of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

And death in the workplace is an especially awkward manifestation of our society’s general discomfort with grief. “When we’re in a properly functioning workplace, we have boundaries between ourselves and others in the way we dress, in the way we speak to each other and in the way we behave,” says Smith. “For example, when people come to my house, I hug them as a greeting, but in a workplace setting, I may not hug them. When we talk about grief in the office, we are blurring that boundary. In general, somebody passing away is really part of our personal lives, but it is so important and affects us so deeply that it does come about in our professional lives.”

Here’s how to deal with grief in the workplace, whether you are the mourner, the mourner’s supervisor, or a colleague.

When A Sudden Tragedy Occurs

If your loved one has suddenly passed, contact your immediate supervisor or your human resources department to give them whatever details you know at that point. For instance, “My grandfather has died. The funeral is Tuesday, and I’ll be back in the office again a week from Thursday.”

If the death is of a spouse, child, parent or sibling, who are generally considered immediate family, say, “My spouse passed away, the funeral is Tuesday, I have no idea when I’ll be back in the office, the funeral will be at X, it’s an open ceremony.” The HR person can share this information with your coworkers. Don’t feel like you need to personally send an email to your colleagues to break the news. If you can (though everyone will understand if you don’t manage to), set up an auto-response saying there’s been a death in the family and relaying a colleague’s contact info.

At this point, the HR department will tell your team or department. The company should contact the funeral home to find out what the appropriate observance would be since some religions or cultures may welcome flowers while others may not, or they may want flowers only of a specific color, or any flowers but those of a particular color. If the obituary names a charity, then the company can also make a donation there. Coworkers can also show their support by attending any public mourning events so that the mourner can look back and see the entire place filled with people, says Smith.

Everyone at the company should be careful not to post anything on social media right away. Smith has seen instances in which social media posts were the way that immediate family members found out about the death of their loved ones. For instance, one man who could not be reached by phone found out his father had died when he saw people posting RIP on his father’s Facebook wall.

Companies should also make every effort to be flexible. In 2003 when my childhood friend Julie Suh, a lawyer, was 28 and working at the Justice Department, her brother called her on a Thursday at work to say their mother had died in her sleep after returning from a business trip. Suh had only been working for the government long enough to be eligible for three days of leave. In her sudden grief, she managed to fill out the proper leave slip before leaving the office but said she didn’t know how many days she would use.

The very next day, her supervisors called and asked her how much administrative leave she would take. Suh, who already had Fridays off at the time, took the next Monday as her second day and returned to work the next Tuesday but soon realized she needed to use that third day to help her father. Her supervisors forced her to use a personal or vacation day instead.

“Something broke in me in terms of my interactions with them afterward,” Suh says. “They were very particular rule-following types, so I could see how they were like that even in that moment, but I did feel like that was extreme. From that moment on, I was still a good employee from their perspective, but I never felt like I had to go above and beyond. It was a stupid mistake on their part. One small act of kindness extended to me at that time, I would have been a better worker for them.”

Smith advises that anyone in a similar situation to what Suh experienced can also turn to Human Resources for help.

“We have such a short period of time in our culture we have for grief in the workplace,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist and author of “After This: When Life Is Over Where Do We Go.” “We give people a standard of four or five days to attend to their business, and we expect them to come back and get on with things, but that’s not always realistic.” Grief usually does last longer than that, and can cause anxiety and depression, she says. She advocates that companies allow people up to two weeks off.

When A Loved One Is Diagnosed With A Terminal Illness

If you learn your loved one doesn’t have much time left, you need to at least inform your supervisor, but you may also need to tell others, depending on your role and the corporate culture, says Smith. If you’re a back office coder who doesn’t interact much with anyone else, tell your superior and HR. If you’re a coder who works closely with a whole team of programmers, you should let them know as well.

If you manage 100 people, you may need to announce at the staff meeting, “I have a loved one who has been diagnosed with a terrible disease and the outcome is not going to be good. Here are some people who will be helping me with my workload over the next couple months.”

If you’re not certain who needs to know or not, ask your supervisor.

Any coworkers receiving this news should acknowledge it, even with a simple “I’m so sorry, that’s terrible news.”

“What they should not do is immediately offer up, ‘I had a cousin/neighbor/best friend/uncle who had at the same exact thing,’” says Smith. “You want to acknowledge the person is going through a terrible time and then take your cues from the individual. If the person says, ‘Do you know anybody who had X/Y/Z?’ you could say, ‘Actually, my friend’s uncle had it. Do you want me to find out which doctors and clinics they used?’” But take your cues from the affected person. If he or she doesn’t want to talk about it, respect his or her need for privacy.

As that person needs to spend more time with his or her loved one, whether for medical appointments or to spend time in hospice, coworkers should ask what they can do to lighten that person’s workload, and if they are particularly close, whether that person needs help with meals or any other planning. Bidwell Smith says she’s heard of coworkers offering up their own vacation days or other paid time off to colleagues who may want to spend more time with a dying family member.

Once the loved one passes, the company and department should do follow the same guidelines outlined above for sudden deaths.

When The Mourner Returns To Work

Smith recommends that the mourner go back to the office on a Thursday or Friday to have a shortened workweek and then a break, in order to ease back in.

Colleagues should greet that person and then say, in a deliberate, sincere way, “How are you?” Asking the mourner with an inflection that shows you really want to know how she is opens the door for her to tell you how she is feeling, if she wants to go there.

“If, however, they are suppressing their feelings so they can get through the day with some normalcy, they may say ‘Fine, fine, how are you?” and then you move on,” says Smith.

Reserve the heartfelt “how are you” question for a more private moment. In a more public setting such as meeting, say something like, “Good morning, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you,” so you acknowledge the situation but don’t put them on the spot.

Coworkers who may not naturally run into that person should stop by and say, “I’d love to meet you for lunch. Do you think you’ll be up for it?” Keep reaching out to this person even if he keeps saying no. When he is ready, he’ll join you again.

Above all, say something — anything — no matter how uncomfortable you feel about it.

“Believe it or not, as an etiquette consultant, I’d rather have them say something potentially wrong than not say anything at all,” says Smith. “People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing to the mourner, they err on the side of not saying anything and not acknowledging it in the least, and that is a greater problem,” because it can make the mourner feel even more isolated. (For this reason, she felt that the supervisor for Ellis, the independent contractor whose husband died suddenly, was “absolutely and completely wrong” in having no one say anything. “It would have been better to announce it at the staff meeting and have everyone express condolences when they saw or spoke with the contractor,” says Smith.)

Just a simple “how are you, I’m thinking of you, just wanted let you know I heard what happened” will get the conversation going, she says. If you have a more distant relationship with the person — perhaps you’ve worked together but never gotten lunch together — send a card to the person’s home or leave it on his or her desk and say, “I heard about what happened and wanted you to know you’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

But overall, follow the mourner’s lead to see how much you should ask about it. However, as in the case of terminal illnesses, you still want to avoid bringing up your own loss. “The main thing is not overselling our own story in that person’s tragedy,” says Bidwell Smith. “You may have lost a person in your life, but that person may not be able to take that in. When they’re newly grieving, it’s not the place. You can tell them you’ve lost someone but not go into the whole story.”

If you are the mourner, decide before going back to work how you’d like your coworkers to handle it. Whether in person, by email or through an intermediary, thank coworkers if they came to the funeral or sent flowers or food, and then state your wishes. Whether you say, “I’m going to try not to talk about it at work. It’s still too new and too raw,” or “Every once in a while, I’ll need a hug,” your coworkers will know how to act around you.

If it’s too hard for you to state your needs out loud in person, see if you feel comfortable with Sandberg’s method of using social media to explain what her needs are right now. If you’re Facebook friends with some coworkers, a post there might help you get your feelings across in a general, public way without having to tell people in person or repeat your wishes.

Balancing Grief And Work

Then, there’s the matter of actually needing to get work done while all this is going on.

If you’re working on a project with someone who’s recently suffered a tragedy and have to ask them something related to work, instead of emailing her, stop by her office. If you work in a different location, call her. Begin by acknowledging what happened to her and expressing your condolences. Then mention the project or upcoming work deadline and ask her what tasks she feels ready for.

“Oftentimes, people return to work because they’re ready to have a bit of a distraction,” says Smith. “There’s a point in time where you mourn 24/7 but there’s a point where you simply can’t mourn all the time, so you want to be busy. If I’m going to be at work, I don’t want to be at my desk twiddling my thumbs.”

Supervisors should also keep an eye on the mourner in the following months. If it seems that his grief is interfering with work, Bidwell Smith suggests the supervisor ask the mourner how he is handling the work or whether he needs a therapist, a support group or time off. Have a frank conversation and find out what tasks the mourner feels up for. Potentially look into temporary supplemental help. Even if the mourner seems fine, supervisors should regularly check in with him or her — perhaps every week or every other week in the beginning, and then maybe at monthly intervals. Communication, even if only reserved for these moments, can only help.

Sandberg, in writing about her coworkers’ fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, said, “Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, ‘It’s the elephant.’ Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.”

Contributor ~ Laura Shin

6/08/2015 @ 7:30AM

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