Why grief needs a place at work

As I walked around work today, I looked for evidence. I was seeking out anyone that couldn’t shake the sadness several of us feels about the untimely passing of nine victims in the helicopter crash, among them Kobe and Gianna Bryant. I looked for jerseys, gym shoes, any visual representation of a considerable loss shared by all of us.

I finally saw a person who dyed their hair purple; perhaps, this was an outward sign of someone who also felt this deep sense of loss. But then, I couldn’t and didn’t say anything. Perhaps they just happened to have purple hair; maybe their hair color was chosen in support of Kobe Bryant. It was unclear.

And yet, I wanted to connect with others at work, ask how they’re feeling? I shared my sense of sadness with one person, and they listened. But it didn’t feel like it was enough – I wanted to talk
more, but what is the right way to do that at work?

Anytime someone we admire dies, it reminds us of others we’ve lost (that we still miss), and it’s a cue that we each have a specific time to spend on this earth.

And those reminders, of life itself and the sadness we experience when people we love and admire go to a better place – need an outlet. And since many of us spend several hours at work, it
seems appropriate to seek out that outlet in the office.

You never forget where you were when you learn of someone’s passing. This time most of us were at home when we heard about the untimely passing of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, but it was a weekend. And what’s the first question you ask on Monday mornings: “How was your weekend?” And that is why grief needs a place at work.

I’d never thought about using grief to bring people together. But it can, because grief transcends visible differences we observe daily. When grief comes to work, it gives people a chance to self-express, tell stories, and experience a shared feeling which ultimately unites us. Grief doesn’t see the natural divisions we experience at work – age, race, political views, gender, culture; rather, it unites people.

And I am not the first to say grief needs a place at work. I googled “grief at work,” and that search term generated over 170 million results.

Grief at work comes in a lot of different forms, including the sadness we feel when a friend, family member, significant other, or even a coworker dies. And we will forever remember the first time we experienced grief at work.

The first time I experienced grief at work was after my maternal grandmother passed in May 2014. I took time off from work because she too passed over a weekend; Memorial Day weekend
of 2014. However, the time off was not enough; I still needed time to process and experience grief.

And in doing so, I learned about a coworker who’d also experienced a significant loss. And she let me come to her office whenever I needed to cry. It helped me be more productive at work, because the last thing you want to do is ignore grief. Well, at least for me. I needed to embrace it, talk and cry about it, and then go back to work.

Also, the grieving process doesn’t just happen in a day. Instead, it takes weeks and months to experience grief.

What can be done at work when employees are grieving?

Let employees grieve in their way. For example, I never asked the person with the purple hair if the color was selected to honor Kobe’s memory. But had they wanted to
self-express, I would have openly and gladly listened (and shared my sadness).

Ask for help. A Harvard Business review article stated when you are grieving; you’re not on you’re a game. And that’s okay. But ask for a “second pair of eyes,” especially if you have to submit a deliverable on a day that you are managing grief

Tell others what you need. A Fast Company article discussed the fact that you have to tell your coworkers about the kind of support you need. For example, I never wanted anyone to ask about how I was doing – because that question often took me to a dark place. Instead, I wanted to be able to talk and sometimes cry when I was a having a grieving moment at work related to my grandmother’s passing. Asking me “how I was doing” wasn’t helpful, because, for the first year after her passing, I was never okay.

Stages of grief. Managers should recognize the seven stages of grief described in a previous Ladders article: Denial, Disbelief, Outward Anger, Inner Self-Criticism, Withdrawal, Reflection, and Acceptance. It speaks to the point I made earlier, the grieving process is not a one-day event, and it’s over. Instead, it is a time at work when brevity and efficiency should NOT be measured.

Faith. Often when we are grieving, we rely on our faith. And our faith may include praying, meditating, or speaking with a counselor. Moreover, the way employees experience faith will vary, and employees should not feel pressure to discuss their faith at work (unless they want to).

In closing, the passing of icons like Kobe Bryant reminds of the fragility of life. Work offers a space for employees to be vulnerable, process their feelings and grieve IF they feel like it’s okay. Employees look for signals from leaders and the organization to remind us that grieving at work is welcomed, embraced, and encouraged.

This article is written in remembrance of the nine victims and their families that died as a result of the horrific, untimely helicopter crash on January 26, 2020: Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

Our shared grief is a reminder that you will never be forgotten.