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Grieving on the Job: Navigating Professional Life Amid Grief

Woman lost in thought at deskOften when people are experiencing the aftermath of a devastating loss, they find solace in returning to their jobs or careers. Some even attribute a large part of their ability to cope and rejoin the world to their work. Having a routine and a distraction from the pain, combined with feeling needed and capable, can make work healing and grounding.

Being at work while experiencing grief and loss is not without its challenges, however. Here are a few common difficulties you may find yourself facing:

1. You Are More Tender

Living with loss and the tornado it can send through your life shakes everything up, including your internal world. Being exposed to misfortune and the inherent sadness in life can make you feel like you have lost your outer skin, leaving you exposed and sensitive. You may find yourself more easily moved by emotional encounters or by life’s simple joys. You may also find yourself more sensitive to interactions and the people around you, recognizing how vulnerable and fragile we all are.

While there are certainly benefits to being in this softer place, it may make it difficult to handle the initial professional challenges and daily pressures you were once accustomed to. You may also find it is not as easy to dive back in, as you may question your sense of purpose or the frazzled activity that in the past felt fine and perhaps now feels off.

2. Your Insides Do Not Match Others’ Outsides

Whatever new truth or realization is surfacing from your loss, it is not always easy to reconcile with the business-as-usual aspect of your workplace. Even in a business culture sensitive to your grief, you may find yourself having a hard time getting into the swing of things.

On one hand, connecting with your colleagues and clients/customers in your typical manner may feel comforting and relieving. On the other, you may notice a tension between looking like you are fitting in at work and everything is “normal,” while on the inside you are experiencing very difficult things which you may feel no one at your workplace truly understands. You may feel somewhat alone or isolated, especially if yours is not a workplace that gives space for your full self to show up.

3. Your Emotions and Preferences Are Fluid

To make matters more complicated, grief tends to come in waves, so there may be times you feel very connected and steady about your job, and other times you feel like a stranger in foreign territory. These can both be true, even minutes apart. The process of grief requires a lot of weaving—weaving your past life with your new life, weaving the world of bereavement with the world of tasks of daily living, and weaving the hurt and tenderness you find in the deep places within you with the part of you that enjoys detaching from your grief and living at the surface.

This means you will likely encounter many divergent and seemingly conflicting experiences—which is OK and perfectly healthy. One moment of our life and experience does not make something the next second less true. In learning to face and live with grief, you are learning to hold life and death—two opposing yet interconnected things—in balance. Your grief process and the many incompatible experiences, beliefs, and opinions which are simultaneously true will mirror this.

Living with loss is hard. Returning to work can add a container to the grief process, creating a little more room to breathe and experience other parts of life. However, in doing so, you may feel like your experience of grief is stretched and sometimes conflicted.

Living with loss is hard. Returning to work can add a container to the grief process, creating a little more room to breathe and experience other parts of life. However, in doing so, you may feel like your experience of grief is stretched and sometimes conflicted. The key to navigating both worlds is to allow them to be what they need to be and to practice heaps of self-care in between.

Try to set up boundaries so you are not overly immersed in the workplace, perhaps by working from home a day or two at the start or working reduced hours. As work relationships may change in ways that are tricky, seek out additional support from grief groups or with individuals who have experienced loss. If appropriate, reach out to someone at your organization who went through bereavement as well. Notice when you are feeling flooded and take a walk or phone someone in your support system who gets it. Give yourself permission to not be the person you used to be, and give yourself space to find the new person you are becoming, both at work and in life. As death is a great leveler, when the pain begins to subside just a bit you may find pockets of self-discovery and a richness in reevaluating your life.

Finally, give yourself time to grieve, however it feels right. Just because you have gone back to work does not mean your grieving process is over. Notice if you feel guilty for going back to work; if the feelings persist, seek out professional support. There is no set path for navigating the loss you encountered, or for returning to your job or career. The best thing you can do is follow what feels good in each changing moment, give yourself permission to keep trying, and love yourself through the bumps and hurdles. You can find your way into a life woven together by the fabric of your grief and your desire to be alive and well in the world.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Marty

    December 2nd, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    The hard thing is that there are always going to be people who tell you that you have leave stuff like this behind when you get to work. And while that is true you also have an obligation to take care of yourself and real friends will understand when you are still grieving.

  • Maureen J

    December 3rd, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    If there is something going on in your personal life and you are afraid that it could intrude on your professional life then I would think that it would be a very good idea to let a supervisor or someone in charge know what is going on.
    If they know, they can either try to get you some help or they will at least understand if there are ways that you are not fulfilling your job.

  • Susan

    December 3rd, 2015 at 2:19 PM

    This is a timely piece and I appreciate the comments above. Peace and thanks.

  • Carolle

    December 4th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    But there are people who you know take advantage of the situation and would be the people to take things a little too far. If they think that they are going to get something out of it then they are willing to play the sympathy card all day long.

  • daniel

    December 5th, 2015 at 7:27 AM

    There is nothing wrong with taking a little bit of time for yourself too when you need it.
    I don’t think that there are too many jobs that would force you to come every single day when you are going through something in life.
    As for a little bit of personal time. I think that you would be surprised that there are many jobs that would gladly allow you to have it.

  • rafe

    December 9th, 2015 at 11:18 AM

    I do not know how to explain to ot hers who have not been through this before that there are days when I feel great and almost forget how bad I have been feeling but then there will be other days that it hits me and I feel that same sadness all over again. I don;t think that it is anything that someone can understand , the coming and going of the grief, unless they have gone through this themselves. I just hope for kindness and understanding until I can feel like I have totally let go of much of the sadness.

  • Jade Wood

    December 10th, 2015 at 8:09 PM

    Thank you everyone for your comments and thoughts. It is quite true that when grieving and going through difficult times we need to reach out for support and ask for what we need as much as we can. Rafe, I am so sorry to hear of your loss and this difficult time. Oftentimes when we have experienced a loss it can be challenging to relate to others who have not gone through the same thing; you may find a grief support group healing and comforting. Grief and all of the surrounding emotions truly can come in waves, oftentimes unpredictable and not when or what we would expect. I hope you are able to surround yourself with people who do understand what you are going through and offer compassion, and that you seek out mental health support as well if need be to help you navigate this tough time.

  • Anna

    April 14th, 2018 at 5:10 AM

    Sometime it’s like i didn’t do enough to keep my loved one alife but hey no one really has the power to that. Some times its like you accepted what has happened especially when you hear about other people and you say well am not alone you feel some relief. But when you also see others hand in hand with their loved ones the pain flows alover you again. I conclude that cry when you feel sad and laugh even loud when you feel happy. Its been a year now since my husband passed I have had times of joy when my grandchildren were born i first jump for Joy but in my quiet moments i cry just wishing my husband was around so we could share the moment together. Well am a Christian and I believe in eternity with God and so I will see him again to share more joyous moments with him By God’s grace.

  • Jade Wood

    April 17th, 2018 at 3:56 PM

    Hi Anna, You are talking about one of the most powerful truths about grief – that we have to allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of it – the sorrow and the joy in between. Sounds like you are letting yourself grieve your husband and be present for your life, which is the most we can do.

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