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Grief in the Workplace

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

A nurse shared how unfairly her workplace treated her after the death of her husband. Her husband was dying of cancer, and she and her family cared for him at home. Eight months before his death, she began working in an outpatient setting, learning her new role and co-worker relationships. Upon returning to work after his death, she had difficulty focusing on some tasks – she was not doing patient care immediately, and it took her longer to learn the role and focus. Rather than showing empathy toward her, after she cared for her spouse at home, became a single income, and was still learning the new job, the outpatient setting felt she was not learning her role fast enough, could not focus, and began the disciplinary process. Eventually, the nurse left and found a more empathetic and supportive job.

Another healthcare employee received the time he requested to return to work after the death of his spouse. He took a few weeks off after the death, and then slowly began returning to work, transitioning back a few days a week and then half days before returning to full-time employment. He worked in that same department for nearly 20 years and found his co-workers and supervisor very supportive.

Another person was interviewing for a new job and was meeting the administration group for the company. Knowing it affected her, she decided to share at the interview about her father’s dementia, that she was one of his primary caregivers, and that he was dying in hospice. As she began sharing the story, tears welled in her eyes and then began to pour out, becoming embarrassed and speechless. Another person in the interview, aware of the situation, explained the reason for the sorrow. The interviewee, looking around the room, noticed some tears in the eyes of others in the room.

A sad employee does not equal a bad employee. After a death, employees need time and space to adapt to a life without the person in it. This is a natural process for all of us. Often, a sad employee can and will come back even stronger. The environment in which they work affects that grief as well.

Employees and employers can both benefit by discussing, in advance of returning to work, needs that you may have, like having to take or pick up children from school now as a single parent, working from home more frequently, etc. Returning to work for the bereaved is necessary for many reasons. Just as children need a routine when grieving, adults need some, too. Getting up daily and focusing on something else can help us take a break from our grief, even though it’s always with us.

It can be helpful to move away from those things or people who might be judging or criticizing you when you’re trying to rebuild yourself and seek the support of those who energize you more. Tell people whether they can talk about the death and say the deceased’s name with you. As the bereaved, you need to give your employers and co-workers some information for them to know how to support you best, knowing full well that just like friends, we have different relationships with different co-workers.

When returning to work, it helps to ease into the transition, though many do not have that luxury. Coming back part-time for a few days or weeks can help with that. Know your company’s policies, talk with HR and your manager, and set up a plan.

Source: Engaging Empathy in the Workplace, A Guide for Grievers, TAPS webinar, with Rachel Kodanaz, TAPS Advisory Board, Principal, Embracing Life’s Challenges, April 18, 2023.

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