Whether asked directly or hovering like a giant elephant in the training room, the question “why can’t they just leave their grief at home?” rears its ugly head routinely. There are several answers to this but here are three basic ones I’d like to share.
People can’t leave their grief at home because:
1. It’s not a matter of self discipline. Really. Unless you are an automaton, the thoughts and feelings of grief come unbidden. Sometimes I hear or read about people who somehow believe that others leaving their grief at home is a bit like doing the laundry. After it’s washed, dried and folded…it’s done. Nothing else to do, right? For those grieving, the death, and the funeral or memorial service is just the beginning. These important rituals allow one to receive support, acknowledge and honor their loved one and experience what is arguably the last period of time where the focus is on their loved one and on their grief. Returning to work is a good way to return to a routine, to something familiar, a sense of normalcy, and for some, a distraction from the overwhelming change at home. But all it takes is a snippet of conversation about something their loved one enjoyed, a glance at the back of the head of a stranger bearing a resemblance to the deceased, or a thought that they want to share by phone with that loved one, only to remember that they can no longer call, to ignite their grief.
2. People are spending more than half of their waking day at work. Some people are so busy in their working lives they don’t even get time for a break much less lunch. It’s not likely that for the 8+ hours devoted exclusively to work that someone won’t ask how they’re doing, or that they won’t run into someone who hasn’t heard about the death and wants to know how the family is doing. “Grief attacks” come and go but they do happen at work, not just at home where it may be considered more “convenient”.
3. Expecting grieving people to come back to work like nothing has happened is unrealistic and harmful. “Pretending” or “acting as if” on the part of a grieving employee makes one feel even more disconnected from themselves and others, than they may already feel. While not wishing to be the focus of attention at work, knowing that it is normal to experience grief attacks including at work and that it is okay to give oneself 15 minutes of privacy when that happens, is very reassuring.
Are you the manager for a grieving employee who is or will be returning to work? Please contact me at for a confidential consultation to see how training can help you more realistically and effectively manage such employees at firstname.lastname@example.org.