The most devastating loss of my life, when my Dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack in his sleep at 5am, was on the morning of my first year mid-term university exams.
I had been stupidly stressed about the exams, which in hindsight proved a gift as it prompted me to take a long walk with my Dad to calm down. I didn’t realise at the time that it was a precious chance to say goodbye and one of the most treasured conversations of my life.
Early the next morning, the reality of his sudden death wouldn’t sink in. In shock, I wondered what would happen about my exams and felt guilty for doing so. I couldn’t understand how the world outside carried on as usual when my life had been turned on its head. Part of me was desperate to step back into that normality, but part of me wanted to shut myself off and deal with my grief.
My exams were ultimately unimportant, and postponed. At first I openly talked about what happened, and overcompensated to try to stop people feeling awkward around me. I was sick of being offered cups of sweet tea.
But a few months later, when it was naturally not at the forefront of people’s minds, my loss was still a huge part of my daily life, with my emotions being triggered at odd, unexpected moments. I was a student, with more freedom to step away if I needed to. But how do we cope with grief at work, when we are expected to be professional and the demands on our time remain relentless?
Everybody has different coping strategies
Therapists and counsellors agree that everybody copes with grief in idiosyncratic and personal ways and on unpredictable timescales. There is no one route through it.
“It’s a different story for everybody. Grief is very non-standard,” said Andy Williams, a psychotherapist at The Horsforth Centre, a group of independent practitioners who provide confidential counselling services.
“The other thing to think about is that grief tends to hook into earlier life experience, so for someone who’s had a very vulnerable background, it’s going to take them much longer potentially to recover,” he said.
“Or it can go the other way. If somebody is very resilient and then some event happens to them they might be able to rely on that resilience.”
Phased return to work
For somebody worried about going back to work after the death of a loved one, he recommends considering a phased return.
“If you can’t manage one day at a time, take half a day at a time and monitor your experience as it happens,” he said, adding to be aware of stages of grief, and the cycle of feelings that will repeat and overlay each other.
“We’ve got denial and isolation, a sense of anger, depression, maybe a sense of bargaining and trying to negotiate with yourself or even with the deceased person before you move through to some kind of place of acceptance. And really acceptance is the goal,” said Williams.
In rare cases, people can suffer from what is known as an unusual grief reaction, where something becomes very rigid and persistent and it won’t shift.
Signs to look out for would be finding it difficult to regulate your emotions for sustained period of time, difficulty in tolerating distress, and finding unhelpful ways to manage your feelings, like drinking alcohol, eating more, or over-exercising.
In these instances, seeking professional help would be a good option, said Williams.
“But the flip side of this is that grief is a very natural process as well, and so a period of watchful waiting is really appropriate rather than running off and seeing it as pathological,” he said.
“It should be an integrated part of life. Things have beginnings, middles and ends and people should be able to manage those.”
For co-workers of the bereaved
For co-workers of the bereaved, Williams recommends asking the simple question of how you can be most useful to them.
“It’s a very helpful question and it gives the person struggling lots of options. It makes something overt and helpful, rather than a covert process in the office where everyone is walking around the elephant in the room,” he said.
Caroline Frazer, a counsellor at Cruse Bereavement Care, the UK’s largest bereavement charity, agrees that “open dialogue” is crucial to dealing with grief at work, especially when it comes to concerns about “trigger” moments that could unleash emotion.
“It all comes down to an open dialogue between the employee and their line manager. That’s the area where I suspect organisations need more help because having that kind of a conversation is outside of the skillset of most people,” she said.
“If there isn’t that kind of dialogue then it is quite difficult for the employee if they’re having a moment just to say I need to leave for a minute, to be able to say what they need.”
One thing that employers can do early on is to check with the employee how they want to be communicated with, whether it is through a line manager, colleague or HR.
“The most important thing is to find out from the bereaved person what they would like. Some people want it to be acknowledged. Other people say I want this to be private, I want to be normal and be treated normally,” said Frazer.
“If someone has had something terrible happen to them, like losing a child for example, you can’t make it better but you can empathise and say how are you doing and really mean it and wait for the answer,” she added.
In 2014, Cruse contributed to guidelines by government industrial relations body ACAS [Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service], on managing bereavement in the workplace, to seek to address what is often a taboo and awkward subject.
Frazer believes every company should have a bereavement policy as a basic minimum, without losing sight of the fact that “each loss is individual” and that the long term impact of grief can last months or even years.
“I think a bereavement policy is a good start but it’s not the whole picture. It’s a dialogue, that’s the key thing,” she said.
“Be kind to yourself,” Frazer advised employees going back to work after a traumatic loss. “We’re very much all stiff upper-lipped, and often people need permission not to be ok.”
I don’t believe my 18-year-old emerged with great insights and wisdom about grief after losing my Dad, but I did learn to be kind to myself. I allowed myself to feel sad when I needed to, and to immerse myself in normal life as a welcome distraction.
Years later, he is still very much missed. The memories and dreams are still vivid, but over time have become no longer painful and jarring, but a more heart-warming, happier part of my daily life.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.