Grief at Work – Supporting a Colleague Who Has Experienced a Significant Loss
“When someone is going through a storm, your silent presence is more powerful than a million empty words.”
– Thema Davis
Temporarily Out of Order – Grief as a Mental Health Issue in the Workplace
I was in Nanaimo, BC recently, delivering a presentation at the 2017 Tourism & Hospitality Occupational Health & Safety Summit, hosted by go2HR. The theme of the summit was “The healthy workplace: A state of mind,” so the presentations touched on a variety of issues pertaining to mental health in the workplace.
My presentation was entitled, Behind the Scenes; A Grief Deconstructed. I have delivered this particular presentation before – but mainly to volunteers working with victim service units of police services.
For this health & safety summit, however, I adapted my presentation for the Tourism & Hospitality Industry and focused on 2 key messages:
1. The importance of workplace safety: Using the circumstances of John’s easily preventable death to drive home the fact that the public has a role to play in ensuring their workplace is safe for everyone, including emergency responders who may have to attend.
2. Grief as a mental health issue: Sharing some of my personal experience with the psychological and emotional aspects of my grieving process to illustrate how we never know what is really going on “behind the scenes” with someone who has recently experienced a significant loss.
I discussed the vulnerability, shame, confusion and isolation I experienced as a result of what I was really thinking and feeling in the months following John’s death – but was too embarrassed to admit.
My presentation is highly personal and very candid. As such, it tends to resonate with audiences. I do my best to explain the process of how my mind struggled to accept the unacceptable. Coping with a significant trauma can wreak havoc on our usual cognitive capabilities. It certainly did with me.
From a psychological perspective, I was temporarily out of order for a few months – but didn’t put the sign up.
Although the mental health issues that can crop up as part of the grieving process – such as depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts – may be temporary versus chronic, if gone unchecked the impacts can, in the extreme case of suicide, be devastatingly permanent.
After sharing my experience of grieving John’s death, including healthy versus unhealthy coping mechanisms, I offered the audience some tangible tips that people might find of use in their workplace (or anywhere, really). Here they are:
7 Suggestions for Supporting Colleagues Who Have Recently Experienced a Significant Loss
#1) Don’t try and say the “right” thing – there usually is no right thing. Just be sincere and let the person know you care. If you are going to say the standard, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” then put your heart and soul into saying it…and look the person in the eye.
#2) Sometimes the less you say, the better – because you likely don’t know what is going on “behind the scenes” of their grieving process i.e. what they are really thinking and feeling. Due to the highly vulnerable state they may be in, staying clear of religious comments is usually a good idea.
Telling a Mom that “It’s God’s plan” that their child just died of cancer may not go over very well. Same with comments such as: “He’s in a better place now.” That is a religious belief – and not everyone believes it.
#3) Consider asking the person how they are doing – or what they need – and then shutting up and really listening to what their answer is 🙂
#4) Ask the person if it is okay if you mention the loved one who has passed away – or the event that has occurred. Sometimes we are so worried about “not wanting to upset” someone that we deliberately avoid mentioning the person who has passed away (or whatever has caused the grief).
But this can have the opposite effect: by not mentioning the deceased person’s name, it can downplay the significance of someone’s loss.
#5) Send or give the person a card expressing your condolences, compassion and concern. Even just a simple card with the handwritten note “I’m thinking of you,” can mean a lot.
#6) Supporting someone else in their grief is NOT about you. If someone you work with has just lost their spouse in a car crash, telling them that you understand what they are going through because your 90-year old Grandpa died when you were 30, is not helpful. Oddly enough, this sort of comment happens far more often than one would hope 🙁
Likewise, grief is not a competition. I was astounded by the number of people who said to me, shortly after my husband died: “It’s not as bad as losing a child.” That was a projection of their ideas about loss – and did far more harm than good.
#7) Consider asking them to go for a “Walk & Talk.” If the person is open to going for a walk (either on a break from work or outside of work), this can be an opportunity for them to open up and perhaps be more honest about what they are experiencing.
There is something about being outside, physically moving and not having to look directly at someone when speaking that may help the person speak more freely – which can be a tremendous gift.
The Downside of Being on the Right Track
What I personally experienced – both losing a loved one as the result of a workplace fatality and struggling with mental health issues as part of the grieving process – is, unfortunately, a reality for many people…and far more common that perhaps we may realize.
After I had delivered my presentation to the Nanaimo group, I was walking around the room, handing out my take-away tips to people and chatting and answering questions. When I got to the table that had some gals from a Vancouver Island resort, one of the women said to me: “You have no idea how much we needed to hear your presentation today.”
The woman went on to tell me that one of their colleagues had just lost her husband two weeks ago – he was electrocuted on the job.
“She is absolutely devastated,” the woman told me. “So thank you for sharing your story because now we have some idea on how to support her.”
And there you have it. In a room full of only 30 people, a workplace fatality – and the far-reaching impacts – had reared its ugly head yet again.
I told the resort gals how supportive my colleagues had been after John’s death. Even though I never returned to that job, I remember how much it meant when a group of my co-workers came to visit me about six weeks after John’s passing – and brought me a beautiful little indoor Zen water fountain.
Should you be interested in reading the entire 45-minute presentation I delivered in Nanaimo, here is the link.
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Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. Maryanne is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. If you would like to receive her Life After Loss blogs, please sign up here.