Another school shooting in the States reminded me of the difficulty in dealing with an unexpected death. It can provoke plenty of emotions, on both sides: the grief stricken person and those around them who may worry about saying the wrong thing.
Many cultures and communities know how to grieve intelligently and supportively. However, in Corporate North America, there is a certain amount of grief illiteracy. Productivity can get sidelined while people wonder what to do that might help.
The elephant in the room.
Waiting in a reception area once, I saw a photo of the receptionist with a handsome young man and I casually asked if he was her sweetheart. (I’m friendly that way.) She said no, it was her brother. I said, “how nice that you have him on your desk. You two must be very close”.
She told me he died a month earlier. I gave her my sympathies and since there was no one else around, I asked how he died. She seemed to want to talk. I asked how was she doing, how were her parents handling it… She began to cry and apologized. I smiled and said, “no worries, you have a nice kleenex box and it just demonstrates how much you love him”.
After wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, she took a deep breath and she thanked me. She had been back at work for 3 weeks and everyone just avoided her. She felt like a social pariah.
I had experienced losses myself and told her it was not good to hold our breath all the time. I shared with her that when I hold back expressing feelings for too long, I get migraines and have sleep disruptions and memory issues. She was relieved to know that she wasn’t going crazy as she was also having physical manifestations of her grief.
We had a brief chat about how people don’t know what to say and might be worried about upsetting her more. We talked about ways to help them know what would be helpful.
The next time I saw her, she greeted me with a lovely smile. I looked at the photo and smiled. Nothing more needed to be said.
If someone you know has just suffered a loss:
- Say you are sorry for their loss. Ask them how they are doing today. Then listen.
- Tell them you don’t want to pry but that you are willing to listen if they want to talk about it. Respect where they are that moment. It changes.
- If someone is crying and don’t seem to know where the kleenex is, let them know where it is, but don’t hand it to them like they “should” blow their nose. Just make it visible and available. Stay with them in silence or say “this must be so hard” or “I can’t imagine how you must feel”.
- No matter what they are feeling, it is normal. The basic rule is that everything is OK and normal. However, if they talk about homicidal or suicidal thoughts, ask them if they have a plan and alert someone in human resources immediately. Let the professionals help them.
- If appropriate, give them a hug, touch their arm or shoulder. As you leave, somehow connect physically with them if you can.
If you are the person grieving:
- Find a supportive person in your private life who hasn’t got a lot of their own stuff going on who will just listen. Give them permission to tell you when they need a break.
- If you are in a lot of pain, make sure there is more than one person. Journal and consider speaking to a counsellor or joining a support group. The healing comes from the telling. So find people to tell.
- While at work, find at least one non-judgemental person who is willing to ask you how you are doing – every day. You will notice that saying “I feel totally crappy today” is sometimes all you need to not feel so “crappy”.
- Whoever listens or checks in with you, thank them for their kindness. They need reassurance that they are being helpful.
It is so easy for both parties involved in these conversations to feel better. The person who grieves feels supported and can move forward. The person who supported another person gets an endorphin boost from helping.
Incidentally, this conversation with the grieving receptionist happened years before I got my training in grief counselling. Compassion and caring doesn’t take a special degree. Just hold the emotional space and let them know it’s OK to grieve.
Several years ago, while getting employees to sign a condolence card for a colleague whose father died, one of our managers wrote: “Life goes on. Get over it!” I still remember having a mini meeting with others about this inappropriate comment. Should we white-out the comment? Get a new card for everyone to sign? What should we do?
Now we all knew this manager to be socially awkward. We decided that this colleague would not take it personally because he would have expected something rather dumb anyway.
So my final pieces of advice are these:
- If someone says something dumb or insensitive, it is not about you or meant to be hurtful. They simply do not have the emotional skills required for this circumstance. Find someone else to talk to and just let it go.
- If you are the one who said something dumb, apologize. It’s a learning curve. Tell them honestly that you don’t have a lot of experience in dealing with this type of stuff and your nerves got the better of you.
- If you work for a boss who treats you poorly during this time, consider finding another job. I have seen this happen with bosses who worry more about profit than with valuing their human assets. There is no excuse for kicking someone when they are down.
Recovering from personal tragedies and having resiliency has a lot to do with the environment and emotional intelligence around us.
How is grief or personal tragedies dealt with where you work? Forward thinking companies and organizations try to equip their leaders and managers with training.
Monique Caissie draws from her background in crisis intervention and as a mental health worker, to help managers, leaders and other smart professionals have better conversations. Even if they drive you crazy!