When my ex-boyfriend died suddenly in a tragic accident in October, I stayed in bed for at least a week.
He was my first love; we’d been together for four years, from the moment we’d arrived at our idyllic college campus up until after graduation. Though we’d been apart for a few years, I always believed that our lives would be somehow intertwined forever. And now, at only 27, he’s gone.
Everyone’s work situations are different, but it’s safe to say that most of us have to get back to an office or to a job at some point. And no matter how long you are able to take, getting back in the swing of things when you’re in a serious state of mourning is hard. I’m a freelance writer, so, while I don’t have a set number of days off, I do need to work consistently in order to pay my bills. Which means it was a huge financial stress when I didn’t do much work for almost two weeks.
I don’t have a direct boss, but rather talk to countless people on a daily basis—and I’m closer to some of them than others. So, the first question that came to mind when I sat back down to reengage with my work was:Who should I tell?Everyone? No one?Even more confusing was the fact that I both wanted and didn’t want to talk about it.
I didn’t know how to keep the fact inside, but at the same time I thought that I wasn’t supposed to talk about my personal life in my professional world. The lines, however, are quite blurred in my industry; I write a lot about beauty, health, and wellness, and many people I work with are my friends on Facebook or follow me on Instagram. Still, when I told people, I felt like I had to apologize, and would find myself prefacing with something like “Sorry, this is sad…” (which is pretty unnecessary when you consider the universality of death).
When I spoke to experts about mourning and work, I realized I wasn’t the only one in this situation feeling uncertain about how to proceed. “As a society, we don’t really talk openly about death or grieving. People often don’t know what to say or do—either those experiencing the loss or those who are responding. There is much awkwardness and silence,” says Dr.Susan Klebanoff, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Hence, why I found myself apologizing for my grief.
Everyone experiences loss at some point in their lives, and yet I felt like I had to apologize for taking the conversation for a “negative” turn. Of course, noneof us gets through life unscathed by grief, which means the immediate aftermath, when simply leaving the house can feel unbearable, is also a universal experience. But since the silence persists, or even just because it’s painful andhard, I spoke to a number of experts about how to best face the world (and your office) when you’re grieving.
Ahead, a few strategies for those first painful weeks after loss:
Grief affects all of us differently. Some of us throw ourselves into work and welcome the distraction, while others find immediately returning to an office setting unbearable. It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to mourn, nor is there a specific timetable that dictates how long one should grieve. “Grieving is not a linear process; it comes in what can be called ‘waves,’ and will sometimes feel as if it’s hitting you out of the blue,” Klebanoff says. “This is normal but means it’s not always easy to predict.” When you feel like you can focus on work, you are ready to do it—but, “you will likely have times at work when you will still need to take a short break,” she says. As renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The reality is that mourning is forever. You do not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one, you will learn to live with it.”
Your company might have an existing policy regarding time for bereavement. Make sure to check whether that’s the case. If they do, “give yourself the time allotted, even if you feel you don’t need it,” Klebanoff says. It may also be worth checking in with your company’s HR department to see if you have the option of working from home occasionally. Doing so“can help you ease back into work, and minimize concerns about performing as well as you were before,” says Dr. Cara Brendler, LCSW. If there is none in place, she recommends asking regardless, explaining that you are grieving and would appreciate a few days off. “You may be told to use your ‘personal days’ or ‘sick days,’ but at least you will have asked!” Plus, Brendler notes, “Your request may even prompt the company to consider coming up with a bereavement policy.”
When you return to work, make sure your bosses and colleagues know about your loss. Depending on your relationship with your managers, this may seem challenging, or awkward, but it’s very important.
“Tell your immediate boss right away,” Klebanoff says, explaining that, while you don’t need to alert every single person you work for or with, “there’s someone you report into and that person should know. You can be straightforward.” You will want the people you work closely with to know that you might need some extra support on the job. “These are difficult things to talk about but also important to talk about. They are also normal life events. Everyone will experience loss in their lives. And everyone will experience vulnerability while grieving,” she says. Finally, Klebanoff notes, “if you want your loss to remain secret from other employees, you need to say so, otherwise news spreads quickly. In my opinion, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If word spreads, then there may be fewer times you have to tell the story.”
Approaching grief as anything other than the raw, emotional state it is when you’re experiencing it might seem weird and unnatural. But the experts I spoke to actually recommended preparing for some of the workplace situations that might arise with even the most well-intentioned coworkers.“If you’re worried, for example, that as soon as you step into the office, you’ll start crying and won’t be able to stop, or that someone will ask intrusive questions you don’t want to answer,decide in advance how you want to respond,” says Brendler. If you know you don’t want to get into it at work, preparing a brief response can help you feel empowered when someone asks a question that you don’t feel up to answering. It can be simple, too, like: “Thanks, I appreciate that and I’m happy to have the distraction of being back at work.”
You’re at work, you’re in the groove, and you’re focused—but then guilt strikes. How, after all, can you be working as if nothing’s happened, given the circumstances? Feeling this type of guilt is completely normal, but it’s also entirely normal to feel like work is a welcome distraction that represents an important return to routine. Sometimes, people assume that they have to change their routines to properly honor the person who was lost, but one of the most painful realizations that comes with grieving is that our lives go on—and that has to be okay.
“It’s also helpful to remember that grief isnotyour new identity,” Brendler says. You are still the person you were before this person passed away. “Loss can shape who we become, but grief is not who we are. Returning to work can be an opportunity to observe yourself and the way you react to pain and understand yourself on a deeper level.”
Identify a workday lifeline. “Find one person, ideally at work—though it could be an outside friend—with whom you feel known, accepted, and understood, and let that person know you might need to call on them throughout the day,” Brendler says.
It’s also important to connect with someone outside of work who has also experienced loss, or even someone feeling the impact of the same loss you’re grieving. Lean on that person, make plans to get together, share memories and feelings. “If you have these channels set up outside of work, it will be easier to compartmentalize and focus at work,” Brendler notes.
When it comes to grieving, self-care is so much more than a buzzword. If you’ve been considering learning how to meditate, or getting into yoga, try it now. “This is a good time to learn to meditate, even for just ten minutes a day, to allow your mind to wander,” Klebanoff says.
Remember: You shouldn’t feel like you have to keep it together for eight consecutive hours in an office every day. “Try to take at least a short break during the day,” Klebanoff says—even if it’s just to and from getting your lunch. If you know you’re the type of person who might be prone to crying during the day, make sure to identify an empty room, a spot outside, or even a bathroom stall you can retreat to if you feel tears coming on. That said, crying is natural when grieving and most people should understand and give you some respectful space if you become tearful or cry quietly at your desk, even when your desk is in a public space.
Beyond giving yourself the space to feel, it’s important to also take time to recognize your own feelings, according to yoga and meditation expert andBrooklyn Yoga School co-founder Lily Cushman. “Give the feeling space tobewithout putting pressure on yourself to stop feeling that way,” she says. Next, try taking a simple three to five deep breaths, which will allow you to check in. “If it’s helpful, you can gently name the primary emotion you feel: anger, sadness, fear,” Cushman says. Finally, she advises investigating the feeling a little more deeply. Ask yourself:What is the quality of this anger? What does it feel like in my body?As we’re typically conditioned to try to push painful feelings away, naming them allows us to see them for what they are.
Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays are often difficult—but can be predicted. It will help if you anticipate that these may be difficult times, as they are times when you are likely to be reminded of the person you have lost. If you know you might feel extra sensitive on one of these occasions, don’t be afraid to use a personal day.
I’m now seven months out. For the most part, work is no longer the problem (it keeps me busy) and I’m trying to stop apologizing when I do talk about my grief, even in work settings. I still find myself tearing up at unexpected times or feeling pure disbelief, but I’m getting more comfortable with knowing that might happen. Ultimately, I suppose Kübler-Rossis right—the best we can do is to learn to live with grief.