When the Grieving Employee Returns to Work

When the Grieving Employee Returns to Work: Helping grieving people heal

It’s been said that hurting people hurt people, and healing people help people heal. Sooner or later, someone that you know, that you work with, that you supervise, will be hurting from grief. What can you do to help them heal as they return to work? Here are a few suggestions: 

Allow them to grieve. We are all different and we all grieve differently. Grief is a normal reaction to loss, and we should all be allowed, sometimes encouraged, to grieve the way we need to grieve. A large part of grieving the way we do has to do with who and how we are. Generally, people grieve in the same way they cope with other life changing events. Some process externally (they talk their problems to death), and others process internally (they go inside themselves and wrestle their problems to death). Anger is many times a part of grief, allow for that as well. Anger, appropriately expressed, is not a bad thing. 

How we grieve is not important. That we do grieve our losses is important. It is important to grieve because there is no way around grief; you have to go through it. There is no way to “get over” grief, you have to go through it. If you bury your grief, it will keep sprouting until you go through it. If you ‘self-medicate’ to drown your grief, it will be there when the hangover goes away, until you go through it. The best thing you can do for those who grieve is, as best as you can, allow them the time, space, whatever they need to grieve. 

How long should it take? That’s an interesting question, and it’s expressed more by those who are grieving than by their peers or supervisors. It is usually true to say that you probably won’t hurt as much a few months after the loss as you hurt the first few days, but that doesn’t mean that your grief is finished. Most people find that a couple of years is more realistic than a couple of months. Many people find that a month after the funeral, when everyone has gone back home, the initial outpouring of support wanes and the grief begins to settle. It might hurt more a month after the funeral than during the funeral. Check on your friend a month after the loss, they might need a listening ear then. 

Is Grief that hard? Depending on which author you read, statistics indicate that about 75% to 85%of people who experience a close personal loss will grieve,process through their grief and get back to “normal” life, or find a “new normal.” About 15% to 25%of the people will find themselves “stuck” in their grief. Grief will dominate their lives and influence every decision they make, large or small. Those who get stuck in grief (complicated grief) need help. It’s not impossible or hopeless, though they might feel hopeless, but they need help to get “unstuck.” The other 75-85%may well recover from grief better with some resources that are available. They may find their “new normal” easier or quicker with help. 

So, as their supervisor, how can I help? Attending the funeral or visitation is always appreciated. When you talk, keep three things in mind; 1) Acknowledge (It really hurts to lose one we love), 2) Validate (It’s okay to cry if you need to), 3) Offer Support (What can I do to help you today?). Silence is not always golden, many grieving people want to talk about their ‘lost love’ and delight in the opportunity to talk to anyone that genuinely cares for them. Don’t pry, just give the opportunity. “Can you tell me about _______?” 

When the employee returns to work, you can do a great deal to help them deal with their grief. Realizing that there are no magic words, don’t stifle your reactions or emotions. Avoid clichés that trivialize their grief (it’s God’s will, he’s in a better place, at least you have other children, at least you can have other children, you should ________, or you shouldn’t __________). Any judgments of any kind are not appropriate or helpful. 

Keep in mind that while they are grieving, they might be suffering from emotional stress that affects them in several ways including: 

  • Harder than usual to concentrate
  • Frustration and irritability, even anger might be lingering just under the surface
  • Depression is many times present as we grieve, sometimes becoming severe depression
  • Decisions might come hard (Though not always feasible, it’s generally considered good advice to make no ‘life changing’ decisions while grieving)

Permission to grieve is important. Permission to “cry as much as you need to,” helps. A caring and interested attitude is the most valuable investment that you can make in your people. Nothing makes a bigger difference in the work setting than knowing that you and your colleagues truly do care and want to help. Keeping in mind their privacy and Simmons HIPAA policy, you may want to consider giving a heads-up to supervisors and key coworkers before the newly bereaved employee returns to the job. You might want to take a bit of time to discuss how best to help the employee through the initial period of adjustment and how to handle the outward symptoms of grief, such as frustration and irritability. Work with people who are grieving with work assignments, being careful not to over-task, but give as much flexibility as your work situation allows. 

Some may want to come back to work too soon, sometimes for financial reasons, sometimes to keep occupied and not deal with their grief. While keeping busy can give some temporary relief, an open, understanding, and supportive work environment where it’s okay to grieve will generally be a much more positive work experience for the employee, supervisor, co-workers, and everyone involved. Be aware, depending on job responsibilities, of hazardous situations, etc. while your people are grieving. 

The Chaplains of Simmons Foods have access to several different grief support resources, from brochures, to books, video to audio CDs in English and some in Spanish as well. There are grief support groups in your area that we can refer to, or we can facilitate a group in your area. Our primary message is, “We won’t take your grief away from you, but you don’t have to do it alone.” 

It’s worth the effort. As difficult as it may be for you to help the grieving parent, child, sibling, spouse, grandchild, or grandparent…it will be worth your effort. Company morale will be improved as the grieving person is supported, and as their friends see that we care for them. You may find that walking alongside an employee as they grieve may result in more loyal and more dedicated employees.