When you've experienced a monumental loss, everyday tasks can be a struggle. Grief can make it difficult to wash the dishes and shop for groceries, let alone show up to work and give it your all. Yet, when returning to work is a harsh reality of life, how does one cope with grief on the job?
While it is possible, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. We all process grief in different ways. "Some people [can] easily compartmentalize and leave their emotions out of work. But for others, it's more difficult," notes Dr. Annie M. Varvaryan, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in California.
Working after a traumatic loss isn't easy, especially in the early stages of mourning. Here, mental health experts share strategies to make the transition easier on your heart and mind.
1. Tell your boss.
Since your grief will likely affect your work performance, it's important to update the person who oversees just that. By keeping them in the loop, you'll create some breathing room as you navigate the healing process.
"When you approach your boss, be straightforward," suggests Dr. Tami Frye, L.M.S.W., D.C.C., a licensed master social worker and faculty member for Walden University's Master of Social Work program. "Let them know you've experienced a loss. Give them enough information so they're [acquainted with] the situation, but don't feel like you have to give too much detail."
If you're not close with your boss—or if you don't know them very well—you may feel uncomfortable talking about your personal life. If that's the case, consider writing an email or letter instead.
2. Ask human resources about bereavement leave.
Contact HR to see if your company has a bereavement policy. You might be able to get paid leave to attend a funeral, prepare a memorial or simply have alone time. Plus, "when going through loss or grief, you're likely going to experience different emotions that come up when you least expect it," adds Dr. Varvaryan. Bereavement leave holds space for the initial stages of these emotions.
Most policies provide paid leave due to the death of a partner or family member. Others may include close friends, but this depends on the company, so be sure to ask HR both about the procedure and what the policy includes.
3. Plan a response.
Your colleagues and co-workers will likely try to express their condolences. If you're not ready (or willing) to talk about the situation, it helps to determine a response in advance. This simple step makes it easier to cope with these interactions while protecting your emotional boundaries.
"Think about a couple [potential] scenarios and ways you could respond," recommends Dr. Frye. This may vary depending on your relationship with that colleague. For instance, if you're close with a co-worker, you might say, "Thanks. Let's talk about it after work." For others, you could say, "Thanks, but I'd prefer to focus on work right now."
Try to be polite; your colleagues mean well. At the same time, though, know that you're not obligated to share more than you'd like. "If (and when) you're ready to talk about it, then you can do so," says Dr. Frye.
4. Take breaks often.
While it's natural to feel distracted while grieving, avoid forcing yourself to focus. Doing so could create an unnecessary mental battle, which may simply amplify existing stress and sadness. Instead, give yourself permission to hit pause.
This could be as simple as closing your eyes and taking a deep, restorative breath. Or, if your job allows for it, Dr. Varvaryan suggests briefly leaving your workspace and taking a short walk to clear your head. In either case, breaks let you practice self-care while embracing the ebb and flow of grieving. And by welcoming a break when you can't focus, you'll practice self-empathy when you need it most.
As you navigate grief in the workplace, consider speaking with a grief counselor, as well. They can provide personalized coping strategies for your specific work situation. Most importantly, be gentle on yourself and know that the daily grind will become easier in time.