For a Co-worker

The Many Faces of Grief

Grief is a response to loss. Grief is a normal, natural process that takes place after the death of a loved one. The experience of grief is unique for every person and every loss. Grief manifests and impacts in different ways: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially.

Mourning is the outward expression of grief and is influenced by social, family, faith and cultural customs and rituals.

Bereavement is the experience or state of having suffered a loss or the death of someone significant to you.

Those experiencing grief may show it in many ways -- including not at all. Numbness, tears, sadness, anger, withdrawal from others, mental confusion, lack of ability to concentrate, blocked creativity, exhaustion and other physical ailments all are normal and may be vital, necessary parts of the process of healing. It is important for the bereaved person to understand that her/his painful feelings are normal and it is "okay" to express them. You can support this process.

What to Expect
If someone you work with has experienced the death of a child... you probably feel helpless.
So does your coworker. She or he is experiencing a variety of intense and likely unfamiliar thoughts, experiences and emotions that are hard to control. Keeping in mind that everyone grieves uniquely and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, some behaviours that you might observe include:

"Bob came back to work right after the death of his child. He's carrying right on as if nothing had happened."
After the death of a loved one, nature may protect us from the pain at first, by providing a cocoon of numbness. The full realization of the loss may come much later. And it can be tempting for the bereaved to rely on former routines -- like work responsibilities -- to escape from the reality of their loved one's death.

"Mary-Jane comes into work talking about her dead child as though the child was still alive."
Because a parent knows that a child has died, doesn't mean that the parent feels that the child is dead. The parent may comprehend intellectually what has happened but not accept it emotionally. Later when the bereaved parent begins to feel the reality of the death he/she will want to remember and talk about the memories of the dead child.

Withdrawl From Others
"Sheila doesn't eat lunch with us since her child died. She used to be so concerned about everyone in the office but now she doesn't seem to care about us or to be a part of us any more."
When a child dies, the wound is deep. The parent and siblings need time to heal, and for some time solitude may be a healthy part of the healing process.

"I just asked him if he had finished writing the report and he started shouting at me. What's the matter with him?"
Anger is a normal reaction of a grieving parent. It is often directed at the doctor or the one who caused the accident, or if the anger isn't expressed it may come bursting out in inappropriate ways ... at anyone at all who happens to be around the parent.

"It's been six months since my employee's son died. She keeps bursting into tears and can't seem to concentrate on her work."
Tears are an important emotional release. People may cry quite openly, but many may not be able to cry at all, or may have to seek a private place where they are not expected to be everyone else's support. Socialization, gender and culture can influence whether or not a bereaved person feels permission to express sorrow outwardly through tears. Even many months after a child has died, a parent's tears can still come easily. There is no time limit on grief. Just at the time when friends and co-workers think that the grieving process is over, it may be just beginning.

The Person Has Changed
"It's been eight months now since Sally's child died. When will she be back to normal?"
Sally will not be herself again. To be herself again implies that the child would still be alive and be part of her life. Sally will go through the natural process of grieving, and will eventually emerge with a different outlook toward her relationships -- in both her personal life and the workplace. Sally is learning to live with the new normal of her life.

What do you Say and What do you Do?
Acknowledge that the family once had a precious living child. But please don't use clichés -- they hurt, and can hurt deeply.
Don't say:

  • "It's a blessing that he or she is no longer suffering"
  • "Time heals all things, keep yourself busy"'
  • "You have other children to live for"
  • "You are young -- you can have more children"
  • "It's God's will"

Those phrases are generally not helpful. Also avoid saying "I know how you feel" -- because unless you've lost a child you don't know how the parent feels. Even if you have lost a child or sibling, you cannot walk in another's shoes. If you don't know what to say, just say so. A simple, honest response will be more helpful than direct advice.

How Can I Help?
Be There

You may not know what to say, but if you can show your natural concern in your own way and in your own words, the bereaved person will sense your sincerity.You may want to attend the funeral or memorial service; sit Shiva with the family; perhaps send a card at the time of death, or later on, welcoming the bereaved parent back to work with an expression of your sorrow. It is better to say something than nothing.You may feel awkward and unable to cope but if you avoid the bereaved person, you may add pain to an already painful experience.

Work Together
There are some things you can do to help if you work with a bereaved person. The individual may not be able to concentrate at work the way he/she used to and a temporary sharing of the workload will lessen the burden.
If the bereaved person works for you, you can temper the workload, and give work that ensures success and will not cause frustration or failure.It is important for the bereaved person to accomplish a new task everyday, but the tasks can be set to optimize success.If the bereaved person is your employer, you can express your sorrow and your sympathy. Be aware that she or he may be unusually short-tempered, which can be a reflection of his or her grief. This will subside with time. You may notice a change in his or her efficiency and workload capability.
Patience ad understanding on your part can assist the bereaved person through this grieving period -- whether employee, coworker, or employer.

There Are No Shortcuts
There is no fixed or established time for grieving. It is different for everyone. Some research suggests that it can take as long as 18-24 months just to stabilize after the death of a child. Some people say the first year is the hardest, experiencing all the milestones: first birthdays, mothers/fathers days, religious holidays etc. leading up to the first anniversary of the death. But grief does not end at the one-year mark – and the task of learning to live with grief is a lifelong journey. There will be recurring bouts of sadness, emotional challenges or physical symptoms of distress, throughout his or her lifetime. Be patient with your co-worker. She or he may not proceed as fast as you expect or you would like.

Are You Avoiding The Person?
What Are You Afraid Of?

The loss of a child triggers our own fears of death or the fears of losing our own children. We may avoid the bereaved person because we have not come to terms with our feelings of grief and fear of loss.

"I've Done Everything I Can"
When you've done everything you can, it's all right to recognize that you may not be able to help enough. But you can tell the bereaved person about the help offered by groups like Bereaved Families of Ontario.
Sometimes when parents or siblings have experienced the death of a child and they feel that no one can possibly understand what they are feeling, other bereaved parents or siblings can help. That is the essence of the peer/mutual support model. Please call the office or visit the websites for more information.

This article was originally written by BFO consultants with bereaved parents in mind, but the information can be applied to any bereaved co-worker.