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Monday, February 11, 2013

When Grief and Work Collide

In the United States the average bereavement leave is from 1 to 4 days.  What happens when the grieving employee returns to work?  People who are grieving often want to get back to their normal routine and going back to work offers them that chance.  However while grieving the individual may be having trouble sleeping, have changes in eating habits, have decreased energy levels, and be subject to crying spells.  Add these issues to the stress of a work day and this can be a recipe for an emotional roller coaster for the employee and confusing for co-workers.

When my son was unexpectedly killed in a plane crash nearly 7 years ago I was fortunate enough to have an extremely understanding boss who allowed me to take extra time beyond the 3 bereavement days provided. When I returned to work I was surprised by the different reactions I received from my co-workers.  Some of my co-workers would see me, quickly turn around and walk away, unable to face me and their own feelings about death and grief.  Other co-workers regaled me—on my first day back—with their tales of loss and grief, or those of someone else they knew, as a way to bond with me in some strange way.  Then there were the co-workers who saw me and broke down in tears.  The co-workers who helped the most were the ones who just told me they were glad I was back and went on about their day.

As the weeks went on my co-workers went back to their normal routine, but I was still experiencing grief and having difficulty concentrating and trouble with my memory which made working more difficult.  Worse yet were the unexpected triggers during the day that could start tears running down my face.  It could be something as simple as hearing a song in the hall that reminded me of my son or someone on the phone might have the same name or date of birth as my son.  Through it all I thought I was moving ahead, wiping the tears away, and still doing my work to the best of my ability.  I didn’t know that my co-workers were judging me.  Most of them felt like I should be “over it” by now and that there was something more ominous and serious wrong with me.  The biggest lesson that business and workers need to understand is that grief is not a predictable, neat process.  Everyone will experience grief differently and react differently.  Grief and the symptoms of grief do not stop after the 3-day bereavement leave from work!
With approximately one in four employees grieving at any one time there needs to be more understanding of the effects in the workplace.  I think that there needs to be education provided by the employer in order for the griever and those working with the griever to know what to expect—or more importantly, what not to expect.  Someone in who is already in an emotionally fragile state should not have to be concerned about how they are perceived at his or her workplace.  I’d like to hear from others about their experiences when grief and work collide.

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