Working While Grieving

It is a rare employer who gives employees more than a day or a few days off, paid or unpaid, to grieve. But strong grief feelings, the preoccupations and distractions of grief, the exhaustion and sleep-deprivation of grief, and even the practical chores involved in dealing with the loss of someone close to one can take quite a long time to deal with. In my research interviews with grieving people, some have lost their job in the weeks or months following a major death because they could not do their work well enough to please their boss. If you have had a major loss, how can you do the grieving you need to do and also keep your job? Here are four suggestions:

1. Schedule Times and Places to Grieve — Sometimes grief just bubbles up and you can’t stop it. But often after the first days or weeks people find that they can keep the lid on their grief at work and plan for times away from work when they can grieve. For example, I interviewed a kindergarten teacher who held her grief in at work and then grieved, often quite intensely, as soon as she reached home. Also, a surprising number of bereaved people I have interviewed grieve while driving. That may not be good in terms of road safety, but while driving some people feel freer to let their grief feelings and thoughts pour out.

2. Trust Yourself to Get to Your Grief — The way our minds function, many of us can often stay away from certain feelings while focusing on other things. I remember sitting with one widow I visited shortly after her husband’s death. She was busily washing dishes and said to me, “I just can’t cry all the time. I need to do other things.” In fact, recent grief research has shown that many grieving people alternate between grieving and getting things done that need to get done. So if when you are at your workplace and find yourself not grieving at all and wonder whether there is something wrong with you because you are not grieving, I would say two things. First of all, trust that you will get to your grief. You will. And secondly, having periods of staying away from strong grief feelings and thoughts is perfectly normal.

3. Learn How to Cut Corners or Coast on the Job — You may already know how to at times cut corners or coast on your job. You may have had to do it when you were sick or distracted by some issue in your life other than a major loss. But if you don’t know how to cut corners or coast on your job, and you have a job where you can do that, it’s time to learn. What is possible varies from job to job, but, for example, a salesman I talked to had regular customers who could be counted on to make repeat orders, and for a while following a major loss he relied on those repeat orders and didn’t bring in any new customers. My own experience as a university teacher is that following a heavy loss I can get by with less intense class preparation and can give students exams that take less time and mental power for me to grade.

4. Work as Meaning-Giving — Some grieving people have jobs that can give meaning to their loss in the sense that they can honor the person who died by doing their work very well. I first came across that idea when I was researching grief in 19th century diaries and read a diary of a lawyer who was living in Chicago. He wrote in his diary about throwing himself with renewed and extreme intensity into his work to honor his daughter who had died. He intended to honor her by being the best lawyer he could possibly be. So if you have a job that, if done well, can honor a person for whom you are grieving, one way to stay focused on the job is to dedicate your work to the person you are grieving.

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