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Tip Sheets

Grieving in the Workplace: Coping With Loss


Grief, the process of dealing with loss, is a normal part of life.

Many kinds of loss can affect your work: divorce, retirement, job loss, failure of a project and so on. This ALIS tip focuses on grief following the loss of a loved one. The suggestions will help you cope with your own loss or support a bereaved co-worker.

Understanding grief and its effects

Many of us experience powerful emotions when we’re grieving. The stages of grief are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance, which may eventually help us heal or grow. Because we all grieve in our own way, we may not go through all the stages or we may go through them in a different order.

Grief has no timeline—many signs of grief may not appear until weeks or months after the loss. How the person died and how deeply we were connected to them can affect our emotional response and the time we need to grieve. For example, a grieving co-worker who seems to be coping well may burst into tears during a meeting many months after a loved one’s death.

The symptoms of grief can affect us on the job. We may

  • have trouble concentrating
  • lack motivation
  • have a hard time making decisions
  • feel confused or forgetful
  • worry about other family members or finances
  • have low energy
  • have a change in appetite or sleep habits
  • withdraw from social situations
  • be at increased risk for illness or injury

We can help ourselves or our co-workers face the grief by recognizing and accepting the loss, and offering support.

Working through grief

Many people find it difficult to work during the early stages of grief. If possible, take the time you need before you return to work. The following suggestions may be helpful while you’re still on leave:

  • Keep your supervisor or a co-worker up to date about your situation. If appropriate, ask them to share the information with your other co-workers and to relay messages, news or questions.

  • Find out how much leave is available through your workplace bereavement policy, if there is one, or through your supervisor. Many people need more than the standard three-day bereavement leave before they’re able to cope with returning to work. This is normal. Ask your supervisor about taking additional leave.

  • Meet co-workers for lunch. This lets you accept their condolences and express your feelings away from the office.

  • If you feel comfortable, accept your co-workers’ offers of help with child care, meals, yard work and so on.

These suggestions may be helpful when you return to work:

  • Ease into your routine. Talk to your supervisor about lightening your workload or getting some help with your duties for a while following your return to work.

  • Ask for an extra 15-minute break once or twice a day and a place to be alone if it will help you.

  • Say no to extra work, if possible.

  • Expect that you may have trouble concentrating and remembering information. Ask co-workers to write down, email or text important information to you.

  • Meet regularly with your supervisor to let him or her know how you’re doing.

  • Avoid making any major personal or work-related decisions for several months or, according to some grief counsellors, up to a year.

  • Be patient with your co-workers. People mean well and are trying, as best they can, to acknowledge your loss. If some co-workers seem distant or unconcerned, they may be uncomfortable with loss or expressing grief. Understand that you aren’t responsible for their discomfort.

  • Be patient with yourself and your emotions, even if stages of your grief seem to be taking a long time or keep coming up after you thought you had dealt with them.

Acknowledging your grief

Your experience is unique. How you grieve, and for how long, cannot be compared to anyone else’s experience. There is no set time by which you should be “over it” and no set way you should handle your grief.

Accept that you may experience overwhelming emotions at times and in places that you can’t control. Even though others may be uncomfortable with your grief, try not to ignore or deny your feelings. Instead, excuse yourself and go where you can express your feelings, e.g. your own office, an empty meeting room or a nearby park.

Acknowledging your grief could also mean bringing a photo or memento of the person who died to work, or deliberately using the person’s name in conversation.

Accept support from your co-workers and employer:

  • Talk to your supervisor or human resources staff about
    • additional leave, if you need it
    • financial advice and aid
    • employee assistance programs or grief counselling

  • Think of co-workers who would
    • listen without judgment as you talk about your feelings and your loved one
    • quietly sit or walk with you
    • monitor your conversations about your loss to make sure you don’t overwhelm your co-workers
    • let other co-workers know how you’re doing so you don’t have to deal with constant questions and worried looks
    • co-ordinate offers of help from other co-workers

  • Accept and ask for help with tasks at work, such as completing a big project or meeting a deadline.

Expect good days and bad days when you return to work. Make taking good care of yourself a priority. Eat well and try to get enough sleep and exercise. Seek grief counselling or join a bereavement group—ask your employer or see Additional Information at the bottom of the page.

Helping a grieving co-worker

Your co-worker’s return to work doesn’t mean their grieving is over—it may take months or years to come to terms with the loss. Some people stay in the shock stage of grief for months before they can begin to experience other stages.

Your co-worker may show signs of grief including

  • crying spells
  • anger
  • lack of concentration
  • withdrawal

Grieving co-workers may need:

  • for you to acknowledge their loss
  • a chance to talk
  • the freedom not to talk
  • other people to talk about their loved one
  • non-judgment
  • relief from constant questions
  • help with practical things, e.g. dog walking, housecleaning, child care and meals
  • patience and compassion, if they break down even months later
  • ongoing support, beyond the first rush of sympathy

What to do... What NOT to do...
  • Be a friend, not a therapist.
  • Ignore or downplay the loss.
  • Accept their silence or need to be alone.
  • Avoid mentioning the loved one's name.
  • Acknowledge their tears and other expressions of grief without judging.
  • Look the other way or change the subject.
  • Attend the funeral or memorial service if you can.
  • Be judgmental, e.g. believe that people should show their grief in specific ways, or be "over it" by a specific time.
  • Respect cultural differences in rituals and the grieving process.
  • Stay away from grieving co-workers.
  • Write a note of support or encouragement.
  • Be afraid of their suffering.
  • Remember anniversaries and holidays.
  • Remind them to be patient with themselves.
  • Be available.
  • Maintain your support through the months ahead.
  • Accept that you can't make them feel better.

    What to say... What NOT to say...
  • I'm sorry.
  • It's God's will.
  • How can I help?
  • God doesn't give us anything we can't handle.
  • Is there something practical I can do for you?
  • At least ______ (loved one's name) isn't suffering anymore.
  • I'm thinking of you.
  • It's probably for the best.
  • I want you to know that I care very much.
  • I know how you feel.
  • I'm here for you.
  • Get a hold of yourself. _____ (loved one's name) wouldn't want you to be like this.
  • I'm praying for you.
  • At least you still have your ______ (other loved ones).
  • You can always have/find another (child/spouse).
  • At least it was a good way to go.
  • You just need to keep busy.

    Seven practical ways to help:

    1. Donate a vacation day to your grieving co-worker and encourage others to do the same.

    2. Organize and share your co-worker’s work while he or she is on leave (with your supervisor’s consent). Let your co-worker know that the work is being covered.

    3. Lend a hand when your co-worker returns to work and encourage others to do the same: offer to help meet a deadline, clean up at the end of a shift, make calls, write a report, and so on.

    4. Organize support at home for your co-worker, if appropriate: delivering meals, providing child care, collecting funds to help with costs or children’s education, and so on.

    5. Hold an in-service on grief.

    6. Organize an appropriate memorial for the workplace—plant a tree, put up a bench or start a memorial fund or scholarship.

    7. Watch for warning signs of self-destructive behaviour. If your co-worker seems to be depending on drugs or alcohol to get through this difficult time or appears severely depressed or suicidal, it might be appropriate to talk with your supervisor or human resources staff about the situation. They may be able to arrange help for your grieving co-worker.

    Grief is a normal part of life that touches all of us. Since we spend a good deal of our time at work, we can expect that grief will touch our workplace. By acknowledging and growing through grief, we can help ourselves and our co-workers learn to live with loss and find peace and purpose once more.

    Relevant Tips (alis.alberta.ca/tips)

    Additional Reading (alis.alberta.ca/publications)


    Additional Information

    • My.Health.Alberta.ca—health support for grief and grieving under Health Tools & Resources: Health A-Z at myhealth.alberta.ca
    • Alberta Hospice Palliative Care Association—information about grief counselling and other resources at ahpca.ca

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