Yet it seems like most of us have some kind of story about grief, pain, and perseverance— You might even hear it once you get to know us well enough to earn some measure of trust. In fact, Judith Johnson suggests that at any given time, one in four employees is grieving.
Think about that! If you are standing by the office coffee pot, there’s a reasonably high likelihood that the guy pouring creamer into his cup is in profound pain.
He smiles at you, a little sheepishly, but won’t discuss anything more personal than a sports score from the night before and quickly shuffles back to his desk.
Now put that same coworker in the context of one of those really difficult meetings, where the gloves come off and the business-equivalent of a street fight breaks out. Nobody ever wants to see it go that way, but many of us have seen it firsthand. Imagine your grieving colleague trying not to think about the recent loss of his wife and defend his sales numbers against a full-on assault from someone gunning for his job. ...Sometimes the timing of these things can be pretty bad.
This blog post has been bubbling up inside of me for a long time. I didn’t want to write it. It felt whiny, but as I talked to more and more people— many with similar stories, it occurred to me that there is learning here.
Maybe if we talk about these things openly we can support one another and be more graceful about it.
I was taught not to complain. Certainly as a businessperson I had to put on a brave face.
“Grieving Woman” was not a label I wanted!
Yet I have a soft spot that extends down to my very roots, and for a time it was operating in overdrive. This softness was always something I disliked about myself, a perceived weakness in my military career and out in the civilian world as well. Early on I learned to flip a switch and turn off the emotions at will, but I didn’t always turn it back on when the time was appropriate.
...Luckily, life didn’t throw me many curve balls until my 40th year.
When my outwardly perfect life was derailed by a series of family tragedies, one after another, spanning about five years, I tried to press on with work, school, parenting— normalcy. As the punches kept coming, I had no intention of wallowing. So I tried to stay focused, finished my doctorate on time, put on my lipstick, and got out there— even starting a business.
It’s not easy to earn people’s trust when you have unresolved grief hiding behind your smile. So I was consistently underestimated during those years. Luckily I realized that three major tragedies back to back, plus the death of my sweet, old dog, probably required me to lose the fake smile and do something differently.
There was yoga. There was running. There was gratitude for my sons. There were self-mastery seminars. There was meditation. I cried on the shoulders of some beautiful souls who crossed over the bridge between friendship and family (and some other people who had the misfortune to be nearby at the wrong time). I hid away in the books and my writing, took business training from many different sources, and coaching too. I traveled. I even made that scary (for me) step to see a therapist for a while.
Finally, with a little coaxing, some time, and a lot of effort, I remembered how to laugh— something that has once again become "normal."
I’m not telling this story for sympathy. If you are feeling that way, please don’t. My life is really very good and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished... and even more excited about what I am building now!
My purpose in sharing this is to improve our awareness of grief at work and offer some suggestions for the other ¾ (the non-grievers), based on my own experiences.
Here are three things I would suggest, based on a long period of walking in the world with a heavy heart.
1) Be supportive.
There were some kind, beautiful souls along the way who made time for me and gave me a safe place to talk. The super-patient ones who could listen without judgment were (and remain) true gems.
I especially appreciated the people who said, “You don’t have to explain a thing. I get it.”
In my world, that is a lovely way to reach out without re-traumatizing someone. I try to do that, myself, when a person's struggle is bubbling underneath the surface but it’s none of my business. That allows us to truly see one another and get quickly back to business from a place of mutual acknowledgement, without needing a box of Kleenex to share.
2) Pay attention to timing.
If you need to engage with someone on the topic of personal loss within the confines of the workplace, do it at the end of the day. For one thing, there should not be an audience, but more importantly, you really don’t want to send the person into an emotional tailspin when they are about to give a presentation or have a deadline looming.
Remember, for someone who has just suffered a life-changing loss, “How are you?” is a loaded question.
3) Try not to judge.
I know that there were many times during those years when people sensed that there was something not quite right about me. I didn’t really want to spill my (at that time) tragic story all over the floor in front of people I didn’t know well and compromise my professionalism.
Giving people the benefit of a doubt until you know what’s going on with them can go a long way.
Remember, the difference between those who know grief and those who don’t is simply a matter of timing and luck.
So what about you?
Can you be supportive without prying?
Can you offer a nonjudgmental smile to that guy at the coffee pot— without having to hear the details of his story?
If so, you’re on the right track for creating an accepting and productive environment for all concerned. Give yourself a high five!
The text of this blog posting may be shared, reproduced, and used in accordance with the creative commons share alike-attribution license (generic, 2.5). For details of acceptable use, please visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ . This blog post was originally published on November 12, 2015, as part of the Management on the Mat Blog. Image courtesy of Wix.com.