When Grief Hits Home at Work

HRE managing editor tells her story in hopes it might shed light on what HR and managers can do when one of their own suffers significant loss and struggles to work through it.

Friday, March 10, 2017
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My life changed forever in 2015. My world changed. I changed.

On Oct. 20 that year, while blogging from the press room of our own HR Technology Conference and Exposition® in Las Vegas, I got a phone call from my next-door neighbor. She asked in tears if I was sitting down. She had just found the lifeless body of my husband, Jim, in our bed -- the victim of a heart attack, according to the responders and police who were already there when she called.

Earlier that day, she had phoned to say she was concerned she hadn't seen him emerge from our Pennsylvania home. She was worried our ever-thinning cat, Rodger, had been roaming outside for hours, unusual for both the cat and his adoring "dad." Feeling suddenly way too far away, and worried, I asked her to look in on him. I summoned the strength to assure her I had talked with him earlier that day, had asked how he was feeling, concerned before leaving that his ankles were swelling and there was increasing pain in his lower limbs due to diabetic neuropathy.

"My feet hurt," I remember him telling me in that call, my cell phone pressed to my ear as I ran from a vendor meeting to a session. "My feet hurt." Those were the last words I would ever hear from him.

Mind you, this same husband had just joined me three months earlier to be at my side during my father's hospice and final life journey due to metastatic prostate cancer. I can still feel his hands squeezing my shoulders the moment my wonderful dad, his buddy in so many ways, took his final breath. I hadn't even begun to properly grieve my father with my executrix work at hand, and decisions as my mother's now-power of attorney. To top it off, a week after my husband died, I had to put dear Rodger down due to kidney failure.

But I digress. Back at the conference, what followed was surreal and horrifying, despite the amazing support I got from friends -- including my boss, who immediately shed his conference-co-chair hat and insisted we go eat (a prospect furthest from my mind). Later that night, after calling family and arranging for a funeral home, I had to return to my hotel room, pack my bags, try and sleep, then grab a taxi to the airport the following morning, go through security and sit through almost six hours of flight time before touching down and driving to meet my sons, who were waiting to escort me to the body of the man I would love forever.

What's followed since has been mind-numbing, energy-depleting, sleep-depriving, appetite-suppressing, chest-quaking and nauseating, not to mention sometimes scary. Because I had used up all the time I was entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act caring for my father during his hospice, I was left with my allotted three days of bereavement leave -- still the national standard, experts say -- before returning to the diversion and demands of my job. In all honesty, many moments were spent staring at a computer screen, remembering what needed doing but asking many more questions about processes and decisions than I had before. Other moments were spent on pure adrenaline, fulfilling all my editorial responsibilities with a determination and directness that probably said to staff and co-workers, "This woman is so strong!" when that was the last thing I was feeling.

I am paying for that now in this second year, which is far harder than the first, which called for antidepressants to get through the 2016 holiday season and beyond. Grief counselors, mine and a few I contacted for this story, say grievers need to grieve. Suppressing and ignoring will only lead to complications later on. Lesson learned.

More than one also described an employee returning to work after a significant loss as "the elephant in the room" -- the person no one knows quite what to say to, the person most people tiptoe around. But they also all say employers, in general, can be doing more to help the grieving worker get through the loss -- or, in my case, compound loss -- and get back to creating and producing sooner than later, which of course helps the bottom line.

Managing Grief is Hard

Indeed, creativity and productivity do take a hit in the face of devastating loss. For me, I've been feeding posts and stories to our blog and website, processing everything I've always processed, ensuring deadlines and standards are met, but often welcoming the comfort of processes and systems over the prospect of taking chest-quaking creative chances and leaps of faith. This is my first feature since my husband died. I've been more deliberate, quieter, less of a jokester . . . basically, a different person who doesn't care about some of the things that used to be so important to me, a transformation even my kids have noticed and are reacting to. I'm not sure when this will change or if it ever will. What I do know now is there's no going back. As more than one expert told me through my ordeal and research for this piece, life will never be the same.

There are so many things so many of us do not know about grief; a life forever changed is just one. The second year being harder than the first is another, says Amy Florian, thanatologist (loss counselor) and grief coach from Hoffman Estates, Ill., who calls her consultancy Corgenius: Adding Heart to the Brains of the Business.

"There are two parts of grief," she says. "The first year is all about letting go. The second year is all about moving on [right at the time that] you've lost the support from friends who think you should be over it."

It's this general lack of knowledge about grief that makes it more challenging for employees and employers than it needs to be, Florian and others say. Establishing a more robust support system for a grieving returning employee, they say, helps the business in the long run, but few organizations are doing everything they can to establish more effective policies and procedures, beyond the allotted leave time.

"Bereavement in the workplace is still a new frontier," says Lynda Cheldelin Fell, founder of Grief Diaries and CEO of AlyBlue Media, based in Ferndale, Wash. Aly was her 15-year-old daughter who died in a car accident in 2009. Blue was Aly's favorite color. Fell knows grief well. Now she's putting all her efforts into helping employers and employees cope with "the elephant in the room" through the company she created in her daughter's honor.

Most employers, she says, are "scared about lost productivity and also scared they'll do something wrong; there's just not enough information about what's actually happening beyond the leave in their bereavement section of the employee manual." In fact, Fell says, "the ideal bereavement policy would look similar to maternity- and paternity-leave policies [that are ever-broadening] today. Why do we allow so much time when we bring a life into this world, yet only three days [to adjust] when a loved one goes out of our lives? We don't give it the same respect. We need to."

(Some employers are beginning to understand this. In early February, Facebook announced it will now be giving up to 20 days of paid bereavement leave to employees in the event of an immediate family member's death and up to 10 days for an extended family member.)

In addition to championing better paid-leave policies for bereaved employees, Fell has constructed an entire itemized list of steps supervisors and co-workers should learn in training and take prior to someone going through significant loss (see sidebar). For instance, supervisors should be echoing a tone set from the top that work comes second and that a grieving person should take the time needed. They should know their organization's policy on bereavement, personal time and flexibility, and be ready to explain the policy to the bereaved and to co-workers, so there is no confusion. When that employee returns, they should be prepared for his or her distracting thoughts, possible mistakes and lower productivity. They should make workload adjustments where necessary and be ready to address disgruntled co-workers who might be upset about picking up the slack. And they should encourage sharing and communication in the workplace, not silence, either through group settings or one-on-one sessions with the manager or a trained psychologist -- employee-assistance-program-provided or otherwise.

"The sooner bereaved employees feel supported, the safer they feel," says Fell. "And a safe environment helps them to be more productive. HR and all supervisors should be trained on all this; it should be a detailed guideline provided to everyone. And it's not, not now anyway."

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Educating Management

It baffles Fell and others that death is not dealt with more directly in the workplace. Florian thinks that has something to do with the fact that "we live in a society that denies death and grief; we've outsourced death," she says.

"Think about 100 years ago," Florian says, "when generations of families all lived in the same house and the same town; death was an everyday normal part of life, people died young, people grieved together . . . the wake was often in the living room. Death was something everyone was part of.

"Then so much happened in the 20th century," she says, "such as the advent of antibiotics, diagnostic tools, all kinds of treatments for diseases that used to be fatal. Most of the time now, death happens away from us, we don't know what really happens to the body, we think nobody should die. Now we sue instead. That whole mentality has been carried into the workplace."

So has the sense that, in business, we "tough it out," says Andy Grant, clinical manager at Chicago-based EAP provider ComPsych. It's not employers' "modus operandi to evaluate what they do for their people who are going through a grieving process; that's not our business identity," he says. "Mind you, we'll be called out for counseling after a large crisis, like a mass shooting, but on an individual basis, it's still rarely done."

He agrees having some educational material for the management team about grief and loss -- including pointers about expected decreases in creativity, productivity and concentration -- would go a long way toward helping the bereaved and those around them. Training can even include what to say and what not to say to the employee when he or she returns, something "not everyone is good at or comfortable with," says Grant.

Remember, he adds, a bereavement leave or slow-to-recover returning employee "can develop into a case of disability if that person starts suffering real depression." So it behooves HR to provide a packet for managers educating them on the law as it applies to depression and disability, and all the benefits the company has to offer. In some cases, there can be "a whole slew of services," Grant says, such as estate planning, will consultations, and funeral and financial planning. Some of his clients, he adds, have all these.

The more managers can communicate support and supportive services, he says, then "the more they can work against it developing into depression, the better that employee will feel about his or her company," and, eventually, the more productive he or she will become.

After all, work does have to get done. That's why -- as harrowing as human tragedies can be -- employers, and their HR and supervisory teams, should also work against "becoming enmeshed," says Grant.

"There still needs to be clear boundaries between employer and employee," he says, "because there may be a time when the person's productivity is just not meeting standards and you need to make sure you've been documenting everything and have offered specific support, and have gone through all the proper steps to bring that person back . . . . It's hard. The manager might have gone to the funeral or the wake; he or she may now know members of the grieving person's family. It can get a little complicated and difficult." And, as all three counselors told me, in the case of grief at work, at the end of the day, there's really no set science or policy. Every tragedy must be handled individually. And empathy, comfort and freedom to share -- both ways -- are really the greatest forces that will help the bereaved get back to work.

In my case, I've had the support of an employer that hasn't forced my hand or demanded anything of me I'm not ready to give. There's been no quashing of empathy and comfort from the incredible people around me who are bringing me around. As both my dad and husband told me many times, death is part of life, part of being human. And, at least for now, humans are still the ones coming to work -- in the best and worst of situations -- every day.

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