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Grief in the Workplace

Posted on June 2, 2022


Grief Knot

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kayla Barber-Perrotta, Budget & Performance Manager for the City of Brighton, CO. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

  • What I’m Listening to: Random music on my phone
  • What I’m Reading: The Sensitive Striver
  • What I’m Watching: Servant of the People
  • What I’m Doing: Reflecting

Grief is inevitable. At some point in each of our lives, we will experience the loss of someone important to us whether it be a parent, child, spouse, or friend. It is taxing both mentally and physically. Emotions are high and depending on your relationship with the individual so is the work involved to manage someone’s passing. My husband and I recently lost two close family members within days of each other and the toll it took on us has been tremendous. Not only are we trying to navigate grief which in itself is painful and exhausting, but managing final affairs is essentially a full-time commitment. At the same time, we still have our full-time jobs complete with deadlines, projects, and their own set of stressors.

I thought returning to the office would be a return to normal, that the last two weeks in North Carolina were the “upside down” and my desk would be the safe space to put things right. I expected I would be able to push aside the tears and the lost trains of thought, and that the concerns of managing an estate and family would take a backseat to my spreadsheets and emails.

What I got was a thorny knot of grief, anxiety, and disengagement. I should have known something was off when I woke up at four in the morning in sheer panic about returning to the office, when I felt intensely angry that someone had finished off the Earl Grey teabags while I was out, or when I spontaneously cried in the empty elevator.  There was no specific reason for any of this. My work has been incredibly accommodating during my time of need. My team stepped in brilliantly to take the helm, my boss told me point blank that what my family was dealing with was “real life” and work could wait, and there were other tea bags available in the breakroom. But it all felt just so wrong. Work had become something odd and unreal, like playing dress-up or performing some great theater, and all I wanted to do was crawl back under the covers and cry.

Grief Tangle

Grief doesn’t fit some standard mold. It isn’t something you turn on when someone passes and off in a week when life comes knocking. It isn’t just crying over memories of someone lost. It’s anger, it’s disorientation, it’s a sadness so painful its makes you want to vomit, it’s a blinding fog that envelopes everything waiting for the sunlight to shift.

But it is also something we can manage, even if at the moment it seems an impossible lift. In my case, we experienced both anticipatory and loss grief. My father-in-law and husband’s godfather had been battling cancer for a long time and we were already on borrowed time. This gave me the chance to prepare my colleagues at some level that a sudden departure could be coming at any moment. We regularly wrote up standard operating procedures and made sure files were accessible to everyone on the team. We’d also worked on eliminating pinch points where I was the only one who could perform an action or provide direction. When the time came, while it felt overwhelming and stressful, I also felt relief because I knew my team had the tools they needed to not just keep the ship afloat, but to keep it on course.

My team also provided me with great strength during this time. They texted me to see how I was doing and sent me pictures and fun anecdotes from our Performance and Leadership Academy which I was devastated to miss. These helped me to smile whilst I was in the thick of cleaning out an apartment and helping my husband settle affairs. When I returned they made sure to reiterate I could take the time I needed and checked on me regularly to see how I was doing. I swear the same manager asked me half-a-dozen times on my first day back if I was fine and if I needed anything. My team knows me and they know I am probably the last person who will recognize when I am struggling and need to rebalance. I see their questions as reminders I should stop and consider myself, and as a means of helping them to understand where I am in my grief narrative.

I think the most important takeaway I am getting in dealing with grief in the workplace is the importance of caring. Grief is complex and chaotic. It is one of the most primal of human emotions and doesn’t follow some pre-established narrative. For me, it has been such a relief to know that my coworkers recognize this and have given me the support I need to navigate this loss successfully.

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