Losing a loved one is painful and personal. Figuring out how to grieve at work or support a colleague can be confusing. For me the heavy feelings come in waves, sometimes slow, heavy, and droning. Sometimes bright and sharp like a tiger in the face. It can change from minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour, and phase-by-phase. This makes it hard to know what kind of support to ask for, what to take, and how to describe my experience.
I’m reading Sheryl Sandburg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy about how she moved through the sudden death of her husband Dave. She’s right that “how are you” feels like a ridiculous, unanswerable question. But “how are you today?” or “how are you feeling right now?” is a much easier question to answer.
I lost several close friends in the last few years. That’s not supposed to happen this young. Going to work is so hard. In one case I was a manager spinning many plates and in the second at a new job still getting my footing. On top of the complexities of dealing with the actual grief, my internal dialogue in the office was louder than ever. I wondered:
Am I acting weird? Can people tell something happened to me? Should I try to act normal? Will it be awkward if I bring it up? How many details are TMI? How much time off is too much? Should I feel guilty for trying to do daily normal things? If look happy at work, will people know I’m still in pain? Do they need to know? Is it ok to feel depressed at work? Do I have to explain my feelings to colleagues?
When will it get easier?
At my last job, I didn’t tell anyone what happened until I snapped at someone in a meeting. It was pretty harsh and abnormal behavior for me. My manager was out of town but thankfully a mentor figure was in that meeting. She approached my outburst with compassion instead of blame. Once she learned I was grieving, I was immediately sent home with the pre-approved time off to get to rural Indiana for my friend’s funeral.
That grieving process was easier. If there can even be an easier. There was a distinct period when I was off the clock. All my time and energy for the next week was focused on getting to my lost friend’s hometown and being with her people. After her funeral, I returned back to my daily life routine. The feelings of loss still showed up in unexpected waves but the world of her people lived in my phone, not in my daily experiences.
More recently, while several weeks into a new job, I lost a long friend I recently rekindled with. We had a lot of history and future of friendship planned for each other. I messaged my manager over the weekend and attempted to come to work. Thankfully he and his manager insisted I go home and take care of myself. My main function otherwise was a warm body in a meeting. The regular reminders from several people that it was ok to take time I need was really helpful, especially in a new environment.
Letting my manager handle communicating to the right teammates what happened was huge. It’s just a hard thing to talk about to people you just met, especially when the information is new. Talking about it makes it real. The personal outreaches were nice. It made me feel seen and felt and cared for. In this case, the friend I lost was part of the city’s fabric. People in unexpected corners of my network knew her and felt her passing. That made it very hard to move on.
Confronting our mortality
The nature of death itself requires us to face our own aliveness. Our own fragility as a simple human being becomes real. Sheryl asks us to think of how the situation could have been worse. I think her sentiment is to help you be grateful for what you have. She talks about the relief she felt, and I agree, when other people acknowledged her pain and shared their own experiences with loss.
Both friends I suddenly lost were artists. They were deeply connected to themselves but also relied on their art forms as a channel for their voice and personal challenges. The last memorial I went to had a guided meditation. He asked us to keep our eyes open, in a soft gaze. We made eye contact with others in the room and spent time seeing each other. During a time of grief, so much talking happens. Asking for support. Giving support. Recounting memories.
In this meditation, we all practiced being together, seeing each other, connecting with our pain, and also accepting something hard and unchangeable. She was a photographer. She said she wanted to make love visible, to help people see themselves as beautiful as she saw them, just the way they were.
Some meditation practices say we cannot create (or destroy) space. But we can invite it and welcome it, which at least makes it possible to feel whatever the feeling is.