When my 26-year-old husband passed away unexpectedly, work was the last thing on my mind. Those early days after my loss are a complete blur, but I think my sister contacted my human resources office to inform them I wouldn't be back in the office for a while.
I was working as a psychotherapist. So on the upside, my co-workers were familiar with helping people cope with grief and loss. On the flipside, I had patients waiting to see me because they were struggling with problems of their own.
The receptionists canceled all the appointments in my calendar for the next month. They explained to my patients I'd had a family emergency and they weren't sure when I'd be able to return to the office.
My supervisor called me a couple of days later. She said my co-workers wanted to do whatever was most comfortable for me. She asked if I felt OK with them attending the funeral or if I preferred to keep my work life and my personal life separate.
I told her any of my colleagues were welcome to attend and their support would be appreciated. Many of my co-workers attended the funeral. Others sent food, cards, flowers, and kind words.
The Return to Work
My short-term disability benefits covered my pay so I could take a couple of months off from work. I remain grateful that I was able to take that time to get my affairs in order.
I couldn't be an effective therapist when my own life was turned upside down. And while a couple of months didn't heal my pain, I was able to surround myself with friends and family as I began to face my new reality.
About one week before my scheduled return to the office, my supervisor called. She asked how she could help make the transition back to work as smooth as possible.
She asked me straight up, "Would you prefer people check in with you about your loss or not bring it up in the office?"
Allowing me to offer input was the most helpful thing she could have done.
I welcomed my co-workers checking in with me. After all, they were therapists who understood grief. But I preferred they not ask in the middle of the day.
I had a busy schedule filled with therapy appointments--and so did my co-workers. A two-minute conversation in between patients wasn't likely to be helpful.
Instead, it might bring on another wave of grief and sadness, which wouldn't be productive in a job that involves helping people overcome depression.
We also decided to change the date of my return to work. Instead of going in on a Monday, I'd go into the office on a Friday.
We didn't schedule any appointments with patients that day. Instead, I could catch up on email and say hello to my co-workers. That eased the transition back to the office.
After that conversation, my supervisor sent an email to my co-workers. She let them know when I'd be returning to the office. She also let them know how they could best support me.
While nothing was easy about being widowed at age 26, my supervisor and my co-workers made the return to work as easy as it could be. And I'm grateful for their support.
Everyone's Journey Through Grief Is Unique
While one employee may find work provides a temporary escape from grief, another employee may find work is a painful reminder of the loss. What helps one person might not help another.
In a widely shared Facebook post, Sheryl Sandberg said she felt like her grief was the elephant in the room after her husband passed away. She wanted her co-workers to bring up her loss.
And while that may have worked well for her, for other people--including me--talking about grief throughout the work day is too disruptive.
One of the best ways leaders can support someone who is grieving is to ask, "What can we do to support you?"
But don't be surprised if a grief-stricken individual doesn't have a clear answer. It can be difficult to predict what will help and what might hurt.
But asking the question gives a grieving person a little bit of control--which is something people need when it feels like their entire life is out of their control.
Schedule follow-up meetings to see if a person's needs have changed. What helped last month may not be so helpful this month.
Your organization will likely help many people deal with grief over the course of their careers. And there's no need to have a one-size-fits-all policy. Instead, offer support that is customized to meet each individual's unique needs.