The passing of someone in your life is one of the most palpably painful experiences one could have. Grief is potent and an extremely personal process. It could take years to grieve properly, as there is no set timespan and every situation is unique.

Because of this, grieving people must at some point return to their “regular” lives. This often means returning to work before they are fully ready, putting them in contact with people who are not experiencing a loss. This can lead to feelings of isolation, making it harder to go about daily activities.

In order to reduce the feeling of isolation, let’s talk about the grieving process in hopes that others can be more empathetic to someone who is coping with loss.

The Complexity of Grief

As noted, the grieving process is extremely personal. You may have a hard time understanding what you’re feeling and that may become even harder when balancing a workload. Though everyone has individual experiences, there are some common symptoms people might go through after a loss. These can be emotional, behavioral, and even physical. This includes the following:

  • Emotional symptoms: Shock, numbness, sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, panic, loneliness, depression.
  • Behavioral symptoms: Denial, forgetfulness, slowed thinking, listlessness, hypersensitivity, preoccupation, isolation.
  • Physical symptoms: Trouble sleeping, stomach aches, tightness in chest, exhaustion or fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, decreased resistance to illness.

Remember that it is okay to have these reactions and deal with them appropriately when they arise. Know that they are normal, that not everyone will experience these symptoms, and that this is all part of the grieving process. Make sure you talk to your line manager about stepping away for a moment when these feelings are especially potent. A flexible schedule could help a lot here, as neglecting your own self-care when you are experiencing some of these symptoms will negatively affect your ability to cope.

If you are grieving right now, know that though you may feel alone, you are not. Your family, friends, and loved ones are grieving with you and want to support you. If they are a support system for you, be with them as much as possible (at a safe distance these days) and talk about what you are going through as much as is comfortable. You may feel raw and vulnerable right now but know that not every day will feel like this.

Helping Others with Grief

If a coworker is experiencing a loss, it may be difficult to know what to do to help. Unfortunately, there is not a specific thing you can say or do that will make it better. However, there are some ways you can make work less isolating for those who are grieving.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not ignore the loss: For those who are grieving, it sometimes feels like the world is moving on while they are stuck in this one terrible place. Things are far from normal for them, but others are going about their days as if nothing has changed. You can assuage this by simply asking how they are doing and listening to what they are comfortable saying. Saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss and I am here for whatever you need,” can go a long way. It is also okay to talk about the person that they lost if they are open to it. Others mean well when they try not to bring up a memory about that departed person, but it can sometimes be cathartic to share a fond memory and acknowledge the impact they had.
  • Listen, don’t share: A good rule of thumb is to listen for 80% of the conversation and only talk for 20% when speaking about someone’s loss. Sharing your own experience or trying to say the right thing is often more harmful than helpful. Everyone goes through grief differently, so you truly may not know what the other person is going through or what symptoms they are experiencing. The best way to help them cope is to make them feel heard.
  • Include them: If your friends or coworkers are having a conversation or going out somewhere don’t exclude the member of the group who is grieving. They very well could decline the invitation or say very little but give them that chance to do so. They may need a distraction, or they may need to be alone. Either way, a simple gesture can help them feel less isolated.
  • Embrace emotions: When talking about a loss, the grieving person may cry. This may be outside the norm for the workplace but let them release their emotions. Make sure they know it’s okay by being a good listener and maintaining your empathetic demeanor. If you are moved emotionally, let that show. It is important to be genuine with your emotions in this situation, so be transparent with your own emotions. This will make it easier for them to do the same.
  • Give them time: Grieving takes a long time and it varies by person. Be receptive to the cues a grieving person gives and don’t expect them to be okay within a certain timeframe. Give them the space they need and don’t pressure them to do more work than they are capable of, even if some time has passed. Remember, they cannot, “snap out of it,” or, “get over it,” so never ask that of them. Be patient as they work through their grief.

At the end of the day, counseling is one of the most effective ways to deal with grief and loss. Explore what options are available through your workplace EAP or health insurance. If it is a coworker dealing with loss, gently encourage them to do the same if they so choose.

To learn more about mental health in the workplace, please browse our advice section.

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