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by Stephan Maldonado | January 06, 2020

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Losing a loved one, whoever they are to you, can be an indescribably difficult experience. Whether their passing is sudden or expected, there really is no way to prepare yourself. The bevy of complicated emotions it leaves you with is overwhelming. So, too, are the logistical aspects of the grieving process you must now navigate. There are things to attend to; conversations to have, arrangements to be made. And yes, you’ve also got to think about work—either the last thing you want to think about right now or your only lifeline.

Everybody grieves differently. Some people bury themselves in work. Other people don't see work as a positive distraction and feel overwhelmed by balancing their professional responsibilities with their emotional needs—not to mention their family obligations. There is no “normal” way to process grief, and you are valid in whichever way you experience yours.

Nonetheless, even when it feels like your world has stopped for a moment, the world around you has not. While you must take care of yourself, you’ve also got to make room for work. The key to doing that is realizing you’re not alone. Here are five ways to seek support in the workplace as you navigate grief.

Be honest with your colleagues and communicate your needs.

When sharing the news that you’ve lost somebody, it’s important to remain professional. Don’t overshare. Do respect your own privacy and that of your family. You can disclose what you feel comfortable with to your manager or your immediate team members, but when you share news like this at work, the emphasis should be on expectation-setting. 

You’re obviously going to need to take some time off, but how much time? Will you be completely unavailable, or can your colleagues expect to hear from you (again, either is valid, depending on how you grieve—just be true to you)? What kind of coverage do you need, and should you ask for extensions on any deadlines?

Work will always be weird when a team is down one person, but establishing expectations from the outset will help things go as smoothly as possible. Communicating your needs with your manager and all the necessary people will open a door of support and compassion that makes stepping away from work just a little bit more tolerable—and returning to work a lot easier. 

Give yourself time.

You'll never know how much time you’ll need to grieve somebody. It’s okay if it takes you a while to be okay; it’s okay if you feel okay in no time at all. There is no timeline for healing. There are, however, logistical concerns as far as work goes. When communicating with your manager, it’s important to establish how much time you’ll actually need to take outside of the office. This will help with setting expectations for while you’re away and will mitigate a significant source of stress from the outset.

Most places offer three days of bereavement for immediate family—parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, or children. Other places offer a set number of days for “life events”. Every company is different. Speak with your manager, HR, or both to familiarize yourself with company policy so you can make it work for you.  

Your company’s policy probably has you covered for those essential days: the funeral, time spent picking family up from the airport, etc. But what if you need some time after to decompress? Funerals are beyond stressful, and nobody can blame you for needing to rest after. If you’ve got the PTO and taking another day or so won’t interfere with work, talk to your boss about how feasible it is to do so. You won’t be able to take as much time off as it takes you to grieve, but giving yourself a small buffer can make all the difference when transitioning back to your daily routine.

Delegate when necessary.

Leaning on your teammates when you know you’re going to miss work is essential, not just to your own sanity, but to the integrity of the team’s output. The work isn’t going to stop, and finding coverage while you’re out can help things continue relatively uninterrupted. Be honest, yet reasonable, in asking colleagues to take on some of your responsibilities. Ask for extensions where you can, and if you deal with clients, make sure they know they’ll be working with one of your colleagues until you’re back.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help; people are often willing to pitch in for the team. If you have to hit “pause” on some things, that’s okay, as long as the most important tasks are covered. Don’t horde your tasks away for when you get back and risk missing a deadline or delivering less-than-stellar work. 

Explore all the resources available to you.

If, when you return to work, you find that you’re still having a hard time, you might consider talking to somebody. Perhaps there’s a colleague that you’re close to—a work friend whom you feel comfortable having lunch with to talk about things. Some companies have counselors or other health and wellness services that can help make things a little bit easier. You can also talk to your HR representative about exploring different resources available through your employee benefits.

In times of grief, it helps to lean on your network of support. That includes your friends and family, but there’s no reason that work can’t also be a place where you’re able to seek comfort.

Don’t dive into the deep end on your first day back.

Your first day back is probably going to feel very strange, and it has the potential to be overwhelming. There will be emails to answer. Work to catch up on. Meetings to attend. And of course, there will inevitably be people reaching out to extend their condolences and see how you are. Prepare to field questions and to pivot the conversation if things get to be a little too much. Everybody means well, and their support can be a great comfort, but it’s okay to need some space.

Most importantly, take things slow. Start with some of the easier things and work your way up to bigger tasks. Take short breaks when you need to—a walk around the office or a coffee run. Use that first day back to reacclimate yourself to your routine.

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