Dealing with Workplace Grief & Personal Tragedy

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Last month, Jessica wrote eloquently about the disaster that befell Oklahoma, tearing a swath through the community of Moore where she lives. In this post, she outlined the ways employers can help during disasters. I’d like to expand on that excellent advice to cover personal tragedy.

Last year, our family went through a personal tragedy that’s still too painful for me to write about. One shining star in that hellish year was my company, the management, and my co-workers.  My employer couldn’t have been better. I’d like to share how they helped me in hopes that you will think about how you can help your employees or coworkers when tragedy strikes them.

How to help a grieving co-worker

1. Think about what you’re going to do in advance

If you’re a manager, read up on bereavement policies and every kind of leave available in cases of personal tragedy. Are there funds available for flowers or other assistance? Does your company have an relief fund or foundation? What about Employee Assistance Programs? Gather all of this information in one place and have it ready when you need it.

2. Be careful what you share

This is not your story. If your employee shares details of the tragedy, be sure to ask for permission to share. Say something like, “I know your team is very concerned about you. May I tell them what happened?” If you don’t have permission to share, be very vague about the reasons for absence to anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to know.

3. Take care of the work details

When my family tragedy struck, I was scheduled to go on a business trip. I couldn’t get my head around cancelling the arrangements and making sure I was credited. One of my co-workers stepped in and took care of all that for me. Meetings were pushed and anything that required my presence simply slipped. I never heard a word about it. They had my back.

4. Don’t ask, “What happened?”

On that note, when an employee has lost a loved one suddenly, one of the worst things you can ask is “What happened?” You don’t need the details until your employee or co-worker feels like sharing. Recognize that your curiosity has no place in their grieving.

5. Write the day of the tragedy on your calendar the following year

Anniversaries are particularly difficult, especially the one year anniversary. Make a note of this day and offer leave if you can. If you have any kind of friendship with your co-worker, write a note offering sympathy on this difficult day. Your employee or co-worker may want to work to get through the day. Be flexible.

6. Don’t avoid the subject

Your co-worker is thinking about the tragedy all of the time. Don’t bring it up unnecessarily, but don’t avoid the topic either. Grieving people are often afraid that everyone will forget the person they lost, and friends of grieving people feel awkward around them. Don’t be awkward. Just be open to conversation and don’t avoid the subject that is on their mind 24/7 anyway.

7. Read up on grieving and PTSD

There is no “normal” way to grieve, but reading up on the grieving process will help you understand what’s going on with your co-worker. I was a zombie for a couple of months. I cried at my desk. I was a mess, but my co-workers were very supportive. Don’t hassle grieving or traumatized employees about “doctor’s appointments” every week or every other week at the same time. Those are likely counseling or psychiatrist appointments.

If your co-worker just can’t cope after several months, he or she may be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, which is common when loved ones die suddenly in their presence, from witnessed trauma, or when they discover their loved one’s body. Once again, urge them to get help through your Employee Assistance Program or through counseling. Emphasize that you want to help.

Workplace Grief Resources

I realize that this is a morbid topic — one that you’d rather not face. But we all face tragedy and death. You can help your employees and coworkers by educating yourself with the following resources:

A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help by Gina Callaway
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (pdf) – a free pamphlet from the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH)

Do you have any experience handling these matters in the workplace?

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