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GRIEF AND THE WORKPLACE What's the ONE THING you can do for your bereaved workmate?



Does this look like a picture of someone grieving?

What do you think is going on for her?




I ask this because when I was looking for an image to go with my blogpost, I searched for 'bereaved at work', 'sad at work', 'lonely at work'. Bafflingly, all that were offered back to me were a seemingly endless supply of pictures of people looking happy, often engaged in what looked like productive and creative groupwork.

Amongst the offerings, this picture was an exception. To me, she looks quite sad; perhaps she could be a bereaved colleague?


If you think so too, then I have to tell you that apparently we're both wrong. In fact, the picture is captioned woman 'thinking' at work.


Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised by this. Grief, sadness, loneliness are human experiences, but not things that are allowed for in the workplace. They're not visible.

How free do we feel to be human at work? Would we recognise it if we saw it?




Recently leafing through the bereavement literature that I've gathered over the years, I came across an article written some time ago that stopped me in my tracks.


It was written by Linda Aitchison whose husband had died very suddenly. It was titled: Coping with grief at work: why moving on is the hardest job ever.


"An understatement", I thought. But then, underneath the title, the article posed a question:


"Why do we spend time debating a woman's role when another life begins, but not what to do when a loved one's life ends?"

Now, that's an interesting question.


Having a baby is a universally acknowledged huge event in our life. The world openly reflects that back to us when we go through that experience.   We feel our changed life acknowledged - it's like the world expands around us and in the space before and ahead of us - it opens up to and for us.


But when we lose someone really close to us, someone who feels vital to us, our sense of ourselves and to our future life and hope, how does it go for us in our day-to-day life? How do we fit the immensity of this in with our need to carry on in the normal workaday world?



According to Cruse Bereavement Support, over half of bereaved employees feel unsupported at work. How can this be? Are most people unkind? No, not in my working experience. It's not that people aren't kind; ; it's just that they don't know what to say, or they don't want to 'upset' the person any more (as if that were possible). Not only that, it can feel almost 'inappropriate', as if we'd be overstepping a mark somehow. Overstepping a mark into what? Ah..


It's true that this isn't unique to the work environment: it's the wider and usual experience of bereaved people. But when the world of the bereaved comes up against the world of work with its inherent expectations of performance and productivity, we might feel we've little choice but to keep it tucked safely away out of sight.


It's true that most of us send our 'work' selves off to work whilst our private (real perhaps?) selves are in there somewhere but kept separate. The thing with bereavement, with losing someone who is critical to our life, is that it has a way of plunging us straight into our real, human self.


Here's an extract from the article Aitchison wrote describing returning to work after the death:

Linda Aitchison, 'Coping with grief at work: why moving on is the hardest

job ever', The Guardian.



What immediately struck me in this writer's description was the starkness and rawness in how it expressed what it was like for her - her unfiltered reaction to her colleagues' apparent obliviousness. Initially I admired her refusal to toe the socially expected line: I found myself wondering how her colleagues had reacted to her? Nonplussed? A bit indignant? A bit less sympathetic feeling than they otherwise might have been?


But I thought about it a bit more and two things occurred to me. Firstly, I don't think she was really bothered about defying social expectations at all, I think she was simply beyond that point, she was beyond 'filters'. One way of putting it is that she was reacting completely authentically. She reacted purely as a human being.



The other thing that I realised was how hard, impossible even, it can be for us to allow ourselves to have such a deeply human reaction in a workplace context. In our daily role as 'work colleagues' there are, (often unspoken), rules about appropriate ways to be. The writer doesn't describe how her colleagues reacted, maybe she was beyond caring. I think, though, that for many of us in the workplace, this may not have been a remotely possible response. I'm tempted to say that it may not be a possible way to 'behave'.


What most of us would do, perhaps, is just carry on as we always have. The huge, world-shattering thing that has happened to us is, well, just not there. How do we do this? As the griever, we take up the strain, we absorb it in order to keep it hidden away from everyone so we can all get on with our day.



Really? Surely we're getting better at this...


With the rise of attention to wellbeing in the workplace, bereavement has been identified as an issue of concern. Cruse leads the way as usual by providing training for organisations. The acknowledgement is out there that this is an experience that is currently poorly handled and for which change is needed. Change how? Well, usually a 'cultural change' in the corporate / organisational world, etc etc


But what does that really mean?


I'm not sure I know the answer to that: what I mean is, I find it hard to picture what it would look like for this change to be translated into the lived experience of many, many people in their workplace today.


But there is one thing I do know. Bereavement, the death of someone very close to us, is a human event that needs a human response. That is, a response from another human being rather than from an HR policy or pathway.




So, what's the one thing we can do?


Imagine this, (or maybe it's real for you now): you're bereaved. The impact of this on you is so intense that it burns through all those personas, including the work one. You're struggling to fit this in with work.. What do you do? Well most probably you talk to your line manager. Your line manager may be a deeply sympathetic human being but they have to 'escalate' this with the HR Dept to find out what to do. They have to do this because there will be procedures and guidelines for dealing with this which could impact your pay and performance record if you don't follow them.


So maybe your workplace makes some allowances for you (if you're lucky). Maybe you get some time off, or can adjust your hours if only for a limited amount of time. It's helpful to feel that allowances are being made for you - there is, at least, an acknowledgement there. But you know that in the end, whatever is offered, the underlying purpose of this is to get you back to 'normal', functioning, back to work. Fair enough, you probably want this too, you yearn for things to go back to how they were before. But there is no world in which this is now possible. For you, things have fundamentally and deeply changed and it's you that has to try and join all this up.



So how do we do this? Now imagine this: What if you had just one person there who 'gets it'; someone who really sees the magnitude of your loss.


I just want to pause there, on that expression 'Someone who gets it'. It's a short, perhaps quite casual expression that we often use on quite a light, surface level but at the same time we know that it means so much more.. It's a shorthand for something that suggests someone who somehow makes contact or connects with us 'underneath': with how we're seeing and understanding the world.


An empathetic ally in what might otherwise feel an unsafe environment. Really what it comes down to is another human being. And that's it, that's the 'one thing'....



This one thing is actually everything.

Being a human being rather than just a work colleague is a very real thing to do and a very different way of being to the workplace norm. Nobody can tell you how to do this because you already know. It's not just about what you say or the way you say it although these things will be part of it. It's about your presence: being there as a fellow human being to share that part of the human world with another human being.






Maybe you've already been this human who connected with your bereaved colleague in this way. You will know it, as will they. You will have made such a difference for them.



I know this because this human to human experience is at the heart of counselling. Deep loss tears through our world leaving us exposed in a particularly human way at the same time as we try to fit ourselves back into a life which no longer feels the same at all, but smaller, colder, stranger.


It's more than a 'remedy': it's a transformative experience into which you can bring your whole, authentic self to every part of your life. You don't have to wait for things to change around you: come and discover how counselling helps you find and re-connect with yourself in the gap between your loss and your daily life.




If this speaks to your experience, please contact me using the buttons at the bottom of the page.


If you want to read more on the theme of bereavement in day-to-day life, please see the following blogposts or visit my blog page https://melaniehillcounselling/blog




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