2021, much like its predecessor, was a difficult year. When the world should have been returning to a sense of normalcy, the Delta and then Omicron variants reared their head. Opportunities hoped for were lost, long-anticipated plans and events changed, and life-changing events continued to happen. 2021 was the year I lost my dad. Many others have lost parents, siblings, grandparents, or children. And those with that feeling of loss and grief are coming into the workplace. I’d like to focus on what we can do to help others with their feelings of grief and loss, regardless of the cause. I’ll be referencing two articles that I highly recommend: Coping with Grief and Loss, and Workplace Grief and Loss: Coping with the Death of a Coworker. Please read through both of these excellent articles for a more comprehensive understanding. Also please note: I am not a mental health professional and this information is given as a general reference. If you are dealing with serious trauma, grief, or depression, please seek out appropriate medical help.

Causes of Grief: And trying not to judge

Any type of loss can cause grief. In Coping with Grief and Loss, the list is pretty comprehensive, and yet just a small list of examples:

  • Divorce or relationship breakup
  • Loss of health
  • Losing a job
  • Loss of financial stability
  • A miscarriage
  • Retirement
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a cherished dream
  • A loved one’s serious illness
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Selling the family home

Any type of loss, real or perceived, can cause grief. It’s a tendency of humans to pass judgment on the level of grief expected to be felt, generally based on one’s own experiences. The best thing anyone can do for someone else is to accept their feelings of loss and grief as real and justified, regardless of the cause. Emotionally, the feelings and impact are the same and should be treated equally. Everyone needs understanding during their times of grief, not a judgment on whether or not their level of pain is justifiable based on someone else’s scale.

Understand the Grieving Process

In order to best help others, it is necessary to understand the grieving process and help others work through their pain by being present for them. Dr. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross introduced the 5 stages of grief, which gives a good guideline on how it’s processed.

  1. Denial: I don’t believe this is happening, because it can’t happen – Often someone in denial will just continue on with the job, unwilling to accept that their loss and grief impact their ability to do the job.
  2. Anger: Why is this happening, and who is to blame?! – Anger can boil over at the littlest things, and at any moment. It may not be controllable, or understandable. Taking a break and talking it through can get to the real cause of the anger.
  3. Bargaining: Please, stop this from happening and I’ll do _____
  4. Depression: I’m too sad to do anything – A sudden loss in productivity or engagement, failing to be present, or just simply not showing up at all are clear signs of depression. It’s not always easy to be self-aware about your own depression, so it helps to have co-workers and family members who can see those behavior patterns.
  5. Acceptance: I’m okay with what’s happened – The last stage is one where individuals will often try to rush to, and with variable degrees of success. Know that someone can be okay with things one minute, and have the weight of grief hit them the next. Be patient, understanding, and willing to take what you can.

It should be noted that these stages do not necessarily happen in order, and there is no time frame for how long each stage can last. People all process their grief in their own way and in their own time. To help your co-workers through their pain, it’s important to observe, communicate, and be available. But much more than that, know that while someone is grieving, little things can overwhelm them very quickly. Often the person grieving isn’t aware of what could overwhelm, them until they are overwhelmed. Be sensitive specifically to otherwise unexplained drops in productivity.

Help Others Cope

You can help others through their grief by being sympathetic and available, and doing what you can to help ease the challenges that can compound grief. Often co-workers in the workplace will try to rationalize, avoid, or push their pain away in order to appear “normal” and avoid the stigma of grief. These behaviors might temporarily help avoid the pain of loss but can create more feelings of shame, fear, and isolation around that loss. Be conscious of loss and grief around you, and be clear and open with your expectations. As a leader, do what you can to mitigate expectations and allow people to grieve. The more someone pushes, or is forced to push, their pain away, the longer it will take for someone to move through the grieving process.

It’s also very important to be sure that any mental health services provided by the company are available and that your co-workers are aware. While you can be understanding, you are not expected to be a mental health expert (unless of course, that is your actual job). Encourage those who are grieving to take time to work with someone in order to process their grief and pain in a healthy way.

Taking Action

When my father died, my mother was devastated, and yet still working. Having already been on extended Family leave, she had already burned through her PTO prior to my father’s passing, and now she felt obligated to return to work before even the funeral was held. Her supervisor, in a complete and total expression of compassion, told her to take all the time she needed, and it would be worked out with HR. Her team then contacted her to let her know that the work she would have done was being handled by them, and they would step in to make sure she didn’t feel overwhelmed when she came back to the office. What an excellent expression of compassion and sympathy by the team, leading them to an action that supported my mother at her most vulnerable.

Empathy is understanding someone’s circumstances, but sympathy is acting on that understanding. While empathy has been a buzzword in the business world for a long time, just understanding, or trying to understand, someone’s plight isn’t enough. There are times when action is far more important, showing your support by doing what you can in order to help someone else. It doesn’t have to be huge, just enough to lift someone’s burden.

2021 was a rough year, and every year is rough for someone. Understand, be sympathetic, and be there and support your teammates when they struggle. That is the best part of being human.

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