When my dad died unexpectedly a few years ago, one of the things that struck me was the sheer amount of time and energy bereavement required.
There were two days in the hospital, keeping vigil and then watching him slip away. The next three days were devoted entirely to logistical tasks: notifying loved ones, making arrangements with the funeral home, procuring death certificates and more.
I easily could have made a full-time job of it for the next month, but I had to go back to work, so I checked to-do items off my list whenever I could. During all of this, I was dealing simultaneously with my grief and shock.
Like me, there’s a good chance you’ll need to deal with the death of a loved one at some point during your working life. Here are some tips to make that terrible time go as smoothly as possible.
Know your company’s bereavement policy — if it has one
When Dad died, I was largely ignorant of my company’s bereavement policy. Fortunately, that policy was very good, and I was able to disappear for a week, still get paid, and not worry about my job at all. Many workers aren’t so lucky.
Most workplaces have some kind of bereavement policy — nearly 90%, according to a 2016 study by the Society for Human Resource Management — but yours may not. Even within a given company, the amount of paid time off for the death of a loved one may depend on the departed’s relationship to you. The SHRM study found that companies awarded an average of four days of paid time off after the death of a spouse or child; three days for relatives including parents, grandparents and siblings; and one or two days for cousins, in-laws and similar relatives.
No matter how much paid time off you get (or not), it probably won’t feel like enough. You may be able to supplement bereavement days with sick leave, vacation, personal days or unpaid time off. If you need to travel in order to settle your loved one’s affairs, see if you can extend your time out of town by doing some work remotely. If all else fails, talk to your manager to see if you can work something out together.
Communicate your needs
Your manager doesn’t necessarily need all the details of your loss, but he or she should know the basics of what you’re going through and, in particular, what your needs are. Make sure to tell your manager if you need to be out of the office, especially if there are specific days and times when you need to be elsewhere.
However, your manager isn’t the only one who would benefit from knowing your needs — your colleagues may, as well. For one thing, they might not know you are experiencing a painful loss, one that can have an effect on your office presence and performance. Even if they are aware, there’s a good chance they won’t know what to say or how best to care for you.
If you feel comfortable doing so, letting your co-workers (or at least some of them) know about what you’re going through, and what will help you, is likely to provide mutual benefit. This can be accomplished in many ways, such as talking to colleagues individually, designating someone to spread the word or sending an email. People often seem to be especially uncertain whether to talk with the bereaved about their loss, so it can be helpful to give them a heads up about your preferences.
Prepare to be triggered
At the time Dad died, there was a commercial frequently on television that played a beautiful, poignant song. I came to associate it so strongly with him that hearing the song would leave me practically incapacitated. (I still don’t know what the song is, because I’ve never been able to make myself look it up.) Either the song was quite popular or the television was on at work a lot, because I kept hearing that song in the office, which was not fun.
Maybe someone will mention your loved one’s favorite movie, or you’ll catch a familiar scent or you’ll see someone who bears a striking resemblance. Maybe you’ll tear up for no reason at all. There’s no way to know exactly what will set off your emotions, but it’s highly likely that something will. Keep some tissues or handkerchiefs with you, as well as any items that help you cope (crying gives me headaches, so I carried Tylenol everywhere).
Know where the nearest bathrooms or stairwells are in case you need to duck into them to compose yourself.
When you need to be left alone, donning a pair of headphones communicates “Don’t talk to me if you don’t have to.”
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
Loss can be crippling, and it can take a toll on your mental and physical health. There’s no timetable for mourning, and it may take weeks, months or even years before you start to feel better, so be patient and gentle with yourself. Allowing yourself to mourn in your own way is crucial to getting — and working — through this tough time.
Consider seeing a counselor. Your emotions in the wake of loss may surprise you, and they can easily affect your productivity and workplace interactions. Professional counselors are trained to help you work through the recovery process, and they can help you manage the balance between healing yourself and plugging away at work. Many companies’ benefits packages offer mental health services; don’t be afraid to make use of them if they’re available.
Above all else, be kind to yourself. It’s hard to avoid a dip at work when you’re moving on from loss. If your productivity slips or you make a mistake, forgive yourself. We’re all only human.
Update: I’m grateful for the supportive messages sent by readers. By the end of the day this post published, I finally decided to look up that song I associated with Dad. The song is “Bring me Close” by Mindy Gledhill, and it was part of a Fruit of the Loom ad that aired frequently during the 2012 Olympics. Maybe one of these days I’ll listen to it!