When Grief Follows You on the Job

When a close friend or family member dies and you find yourself having to return to work when that is the last thing on your mind, what can you do? How can you take care of yourself? What is appropriate? Explore options for making your return easier as you travel your grief journey.

by Sherry Williams White

If you’ve experienced a recent loss, your job may seem like a trivial task at this point. You may find that it feels senseless, or you may find that you enjoy having it as a distraction and a return to some kind of normalcy. Either way, understanding what you are experiencing can help you at work.

You know by now that whether or not you think it is appropriate to grieve at work, grief has no boundaries. It wells up in you at anytime. It strikes you at every level: physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual. It has no timetable and lasts far longer than anyone expects.

When you return to work after a death – even long after a death – you may feel numb and like you are moving in slow motion. You may be surprised by strong feelings of emotions that can be overwhelming. You may find yourself unable to concentrate. You may even become physically ill. It is normal to experience headaches, anxiety, shortness of breath, irritability, sudden bouts of crying, or restlessness.

Grief sometimes comes in waves and can seem paralyzing. Handling these reactions at work may be difficult and embarrassing because there are few places or opportunities to express your grief. If you can, take a break and find a private place where you can freely experience your emotions: sit in your car and cry or yell, or take a few minutes? Maybe you could even come up with a hand signal to let your co-worker know that you are struggling at the moment, without even having to say anything. Is there someone outside of the office you can call when you are troubled?

Anger and guilt are common emotions as you grieve. You may feel angry with God, your spouse, your family, yourself, or others. You may feel angry at your employer because you have to return to work as if nothing has happened. But the reality is that someone you loved has died and your world has changed forever.

If you feel that no one understands this, your feelings of loneliness and depression can further isolate you and create awkward moments with co-workers and employers. They may not know what to say or how to act. Sadly, you may have to help them help you. If you know someone else who has experienced a profound loss, talk to him or her. Ask what was most difficult for him. What helped her? Does he have any insight for you on what to do at work when your emotions take over?

Try to be patient with your co-workers and, most of all, be patient with yourself. Let them know what you need. For instance, talk about your loved one so they will know it is okay to mention him or her in conversation. Ask if you can tell them a story or the circumstances of your special person’s death. Tell them if you are struggling at work, if you are finding it hard to concentrate, and ask for their help. Usually, they really want to help, they just don’t know what to say or do.

Here are some things you can do to help you in your grief at work and anywhere else.

  • Take care of yourself physically by drinking lots of water, taking short walks, and eating food that is good for you and that you enjoy.
  • Be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others.
  • Don’t try to lesson the pain with drugs or alcohol. They only provide temporary relief and can intensify the grief later.
  • Find ways to release your emotions in safe, non-destructive ways. Scream in the shower, pound your pillow, or hit tennis balls: just put some motion to the emotions.
  • Focus on one worry at a time.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings. Seek out friends or family who will listen. You may find a good listener at church or other social outlets you have previously participated in.
  • Try keeping a journal. If you aren’t comfortable with that concept, try writing letters to your loved one in which you express your feelings.
  • You may find comfort in a support group.
  • Find ways to memorialize your loved one and ways to hold onto the memories. Create photo albums or scrapbooks.
  • Remember that how you live your life from this day forward can be a great living tribute to the love you shared and to your loved one’s life.


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