How to deal with grief in the workplace professionally

Life throws you curveballs. Sometimes, a friend or family member may pass on or someone you love may become sick. After taking the time to process, returning to the workplace can be more difficult than expected. It can feel like the whole world is still moving while you’re stuck in a cycle of grief.

It’s important to know that this is common. What’s more, everyone experiences grief differently, so there is no wrong or right way to work through your feelings. For example, another co-worker who recently lost a loved one may be able to throw themselves back into work while you struggle to stay composed in meetings.

Dealing with grief at work is tough, but there are ways to make things a bit more manageable for yourself. Consider this your guide to handling this challenging time in your life.

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What to tell your boss and colleagues

If you need time off to attend a funeral or simply because you need a break, speak to your boss or an HR representative. Even if you have a close business relationship, it may be difficult to let them know what’s going on in your personal life. The desire to hide or minimize your grief is understandable, but experts suggest trying to be as honest as possible.

You don’t have to give all the details if it’s uncomfortable. However, it’s best to let them know that you experienced a death or other tragedy with a loved one and need some support at work. Some employers offer bereavement leave if a family member dies, so having an honest conversation with your boss can ensure you get to take advantage of this time to be with your family or process your feelings.

During this conversation, you may want to discuss what to tell your co-workers. Perhaps you’d like to keep it vague, such as a “family emergency,” or maybe you’re okay with people knowing but would like to tell them on your own time. This conversation can help smooth out your transition back to the office.

Schedule time to cry

Tasks you once found meaningful may not feel as important when you’re dealing with grief at work. That’s understandable — you’re going through a challenging ordeal. Give yourself a few moments each day, even just 15 minutes, to grieve. Experts say doing this doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t be sad at other times throughout the day. However, it does ensure you have a few minutes to just completely feel your feelings and may help your emotions from visibly spilling into your workday (such as snapping at a co-worker for asking a question).

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What to do if you start crying at work

You can’t always just schedule crying or turn your emotions on and off. You are not a faucet, after all. Your mind may drift toward your loved one, and tears may start to fall.

Before you return to the office, think about an escape plan. Consider where the quiet, private places are in the building, such as a staircase or single-stall bathroom. If you start crying at work, retreat to this place, let your feelings out, and focus on your breath as you compose yourself.

If you feel the tears coming on but want to try to stop them first, try focusing on your breathing until you get the chance to excuse yourself quietly.

Be kind to yourself and others

Dealing with grief in the workplace is a complex process, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to handle it. You’re probably going to have moments where it’s hard to focus and times when things feel almost normal. Either way, you don’t need to feel guilty about how you process these feelings.

Also, understand your boss and co-workers likely mean well. They may say the wrong thing or come off insensitive when, in reality, they’re trying to be supportive. Take a deep breath before speaking so you don’t snap at someone who is unintentionally causing harm.

Make your desk a safe space, too. As part of your self-care, decide whether it would be helpful or hurtful to be reminded of the loved one you are grieving. For some, a photo or trinket may feel comforting. For others, it could be a trigger.

It’s hard losing someone we love. Some people may find going back to work is a source of comfort, a way to add normalcy to an otherwise tumultuous time. Others may feel like it’s difficult to focus. If you find yourself struggling to focus or remain composed at work, be honest with your boss, and advocate for yourself to get the support and time you need to recover. If your grief feels all-consuming, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for help.

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