I received the text at 5:41 p.m. on a Tuesday. I was at work, in the midst of training a new hire, and instinctively checked my phone to see the time. I saw the time, but then I saw the text, too: “I have some bad news. S passed away.”
Shocked, I blurted “WHAT?,” scaring my deskmates. I couldn’t believe, or comprehend, the information I’d just received. There was no way. I’d spoken to my friend just days before. She was 28 and healthy, so full of life. This was a misunderstanding. It had to be.
Disoriented, I turned to my new co-worker — who I had just met — and told her bluntly: “My friend died.” T.M.I., I know, but I was in such a state of shock that I was operating on some level of grief autopilot; I had no control over my words, my thoughts, my actions.
Aggressively disassociating, I began to sweat, and silently slunk away to the bathroom where I cried and moaned “no” inside a stall until I managed to get ahold of myself — sort of.
I Slacked my supervisor the circumstances and told her I had to leave. I told two other co-workers too, explaining why I might not be at work the next day. And then I went home, where I had to make those dreaded phone calls, informing mutual friends of our dear friend’s untimely passing.
I worked from home the next day: I didn’t have it in me to go into the office, but didn’t want the day off, either. I needed the distraction, but needed space just the same. And that’s sort of where I’ve been since S passed.
In my case, I had no choice but to be open with my co-workers: I had to take time off, flying home to California for the funeral, and needed help covering certain responsibilities. But I’m also in the uniquely privileged position to work in an environment that fosters honesty and compassionate directness, and encourages emotional vulnerability among co-workers.
Even with all the co-worker support in the world however, coming into the office, and actually focusing, was (and still is) harder than ever. Sometimes simply waking up is difficult; knowing she’s gone. But I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to leave my job, and I know I don’t want to, either: Loss is a part of life, and so is work.
Little did I know, friends’ unexpected passings, and more grief, would strike again. And once more, I had to navigate mourning and keeping my life on track at the same time. So, I turned to the experts: How can people coping with loss and grief return to work without damaging their mental well-being? How can we better take care of ourselves and produce work we’re proud of when we’re feeling our most defenseless and blue? Read on for their advice.
Seek out support in and out of the workplace
Telling my co-workers and supervisor what happened was one of the best things I could have done for myself. But that’s just the kind of person I am, and not everyone is comfortable sharing personal details. However, Annie M. Varvaryan, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist, suggests that even if it seems scary, identifying “one person or a small group of coworkers” to share the information with is wise. “Find the people you could trust to be emotionally safe to discuss your emotions with so that there is at least some support in the setting where you spend a majority of your time outside of home.”
“For many people, work is where we spend the majority of our lives, and our co-workers often become a second family. So it makes sense that we would share with our extended ‘work family’ some information about the loss of a loved one as part of our grieving process,” adds David Strah, A.M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “Their support can be transformative in your healing.”
“If you can’t find emotional safety at work, it’s still important to find connections with other people who could be supportive during this time,” Varvaryan continues. “Consider supportive family, friends, community members, or individual or group therapy.”
“Sometimes, you may share information with a boss, and that gets distributed throughout the entire team or department and it could be outside of your control,” Varvaryan explains. It’s true: Just because we told a few closer co-workers doesn’t mean we want everyone to know — and it’s up to you to make that call, and ensure your expectation for privacy is communicated to those you have told. “You should be the one to decide what you want to share and with whom,” Strah points out. “Speak to your boss and/or H.R. manager and let them know what you feel comfortable sharing. This will make it less likely that you’ll to have to manage other people’s feelings and anxieties.”
Consider taking a few days off from work
Working through the pain as a distraction can feel like the best option, but take it from me: That’s only putting it off for longer. “Take some time for yourself to grieve with family and friends who are not at work,” says Strah. “Consider asking your boss or HR manager to temporarily redistribute some of your work so you can take time off and not worry about it.” Also make sure you take enough time off. “Take more time off than you think you’ll need,” advises Kara Lissy, L.C.S.W. and psychotherapist. “People tend to overestimate their readiness to return to their day-to-day lives after the memorials and/or services have ended. I recommend taking at least one to two extra days after services have concluded.”
Go easy on yourself once you’re back
Make sure to be kind to yourself your first few days back. “The fact that you’ve made it to your desk is monumental, so don’t expect perfection from your work,” Lissy reminds us. “Even if you’ve coasted for most of the day and only sent a few emails, grieving takes a lot of energy out of us so even the most minimal of effort can feel huge. Set a couple of small tasks to be your baseline for completion and don’t push yourself.”
Don’t avoid your feelings, but try not to dwell or let yourself get bored, either. “Make sure you are keeping your calendar stocked with easy, low-effort self-care activities to look forward to,” Lissy suggests. Some ideas are massages, stretching, or curling up on the couch with some tea after each day of work.
Accept that you’re in mourning
It’s human nature to try and fight whatever adversity we’re facing, and try to overcome it. But when it comes to grief, it’s something we simply have to accept and try and work with — and it will likely be unpleasant for a while.“You might not be able to do your job for a while, you might feel distracted at work, you might have strong emotions that come and go,” says Strah. “Consider taking breaks, meditating in your office or car, going for a walk outside.” And make sure to take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well.
Know there is no “right way” to grieve
There is no one-size-fits-all grieving process: So remember that however you feel, and however you’re coping, is right for you, and that’s all that matters. Just because one person was able to return to work after a few days doesn’t mean that’s realistic for someone else. Be kind to yourself, and accept that grieving is a process that can take a long time. But with a solid support system, you don’t have to go through it alone.
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