Grief And Loss In The Workplace

By Denise Hellekson
Clinical Associate, Village Business Institute

When I sit down to write a blog post, I always ask myself a couple questions. “What seems relevant?” “What have I been seeing and experiencing in the workplace?” This month the answer that came to me was grief and loss. I have watched friends and clients experiencing the loss of loved ones, health, relationships, and jobs. I have visited companies that have lost valued employees, I have read in the paper and seen on the nightly news, stories of loss impacting organizations and individuals alike, and I have struggled with my own loss experiences.

Grief and loss aren’t the first things that come to mind when we think of work. But loss is an inevitable part of life, and we feel its effects wherever we go. Considering how much of our time we spend at work and the close bonds that develop when we are working together toward the same goals, it makes sense that grief impacts our work life as well as our personal life.

When we are experiencing challenging times of loss, it can be easy to forget how grief affects us or what to expect. So, for those of you that might be struggling, let me help you remember in hopes of easing your worries and helping you cope.

When we experience loss, it’s easy to forget how grief affects us and what to expect. Here are a few reminders I hope will ease your worries and help you cope.

Grief is a normal, natural response to all losses in life. While understanding grief doesn’t make the pain go away, it may be helpful to know that deep, sometimes frightening reactions, are not unusual. As difficult as it may seem, we need to grieve—it is important to experience the pain and to express our emotions after a loss. When we avoid or deny the pain, we stop the healing process and leave ourselves vulnerable to physical and emotional distress.

Grief triggers grief. It is not unusual to have memories or flashbacks of other losses in our life when we are grieving a current loss. It doesn’t mean we haven’t worked through the other loss. Allow yourself to express and release the emotions that come up, and to honor the feelings without judgment.

Most of us have heard of the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Knowing about the stages can be helpful in normalizing an experience that doesn’t feel normal. Most of us don’t feel “like ourselves” when we are grieving. We can feel like we are not in control of our emotions, and we can be shaken by the quickly changing and intense emotions that come up.

Remembering the typical stages of grief can help us to move through the process with less fear. However, keep in mind that these stages are not necessarily linear or chronological (“I’ve been really angry this week so I should be in bargaining mode next week”). They are fluid; you may experience all of the stages or just some of them, and they last as long as they last. Do not add additional pressure and false expectations by giving yourself a timeline to grieve. There is no statute of limitations on grief, so be in the moment and know you will feel better when you feel better.

Along with the stages of grief there are also common symptoms such as shock and denial, sadness, guilt, anger, and fear. Physical symptoms may include muscle tension, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite. Again, allow yourself to feel what you are feeling without judgment. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it depends on many factors. Listen to yourself and trust what you feel compelled to do.

I remember recently when I was processing my own grief, I felt compelled to stay home, turn on soothing music, and make soup; lots of it. I didn’t want to eat it (I gave a lot away to friends and family) but it was the act of preparing something that brought me back to times when I felt nurtured and taken care of; it was an act of nurturing myself and creating a safe place to feel my vulnerability.

The bottom line is, while there are typical stages and common symptoms to the process, grief is unique to the person experiencing it. Honor your own process. Remember, too, that you may have a different grief reaction with each loss because you are reacting to a new and different loss.

Other Self Care Tips:

  • Take care of yourself. Grief is hard work, so try to get sufficient sleep, eat nutritious foods, and practice stress management.
  • Avoid being self-critical.
  • Don’t buy into other’s expectations of how you should grieve. Trust yourself and do what feels right for you.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Use your support systems and access additional community support as needed (support groups; counseling; etc.).
  • Find healthy ways to express your emotions. Cry, journal, talk to people you trust, use creative outlets, engage in physical activity to work through anger, etc.

Support for Co-Worker’s:

  • Keep in mind we each have our own unique experience when grieving.
  • Don’t compare your grief reactions to those of your co-workers; there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
  • Don’t take it personally if co-workers are acting differently.
  • Communicate! Eliminate the stress of the unknown as much as possible. Let others know where you are at when it is appropriate, “I don’t think I’ll join you for lunch today. I’m feeling really sad and just need some time to myself. Let’s do lunch later this week.”
  • Be supportive. When you see others who seem to be having a difficult day, ask rather than assume. “You seem to be having a tough time this morning, is there anything I can do to help?” Grief can feel very isolating because it is so unique to each of us. Support and encouragement can go a long way in helping us heal.

One more thing to keep in mind for those of you who are experiencing the loss of someone you care about—as you move through the stages of grief (and you will), remember that your loved one is not connected to your mourning; your loved one is connected to you. As you begin to feel the light come back into your world, let it. Don’t be afraid that you are letting go of the person you care about by letting go of the pain. As Helen Keller once said, “Those we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose…for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute
Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute

About the blogger
Denise Hellekson provides EAP counseling, training, consulting, and crisis response services for The Village Business Institute. She has a master’s degree in Community and Rehabilitation Counseling from St. Cloud State University; and is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and a Qualified Neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (Mediator). Hellekson has many years of experience in counseling, advocacy, and consulting services.

The Village Business Institute’s unique team of professionals improve individual and organizational performance through business and organizational solutions. We serve both public and private organizations

VBI solutions include an employee assistance program, coaching, organizational development and strategic planning, workplace mediation, human resource consultation, critical incident stress management, management and employee training, career transition and outplacement services, and specialized services for nonprofits.

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