Dear Employers of the Grief Stricken:

I know your employee handbook probably has a sentence or two about bereavement leave, and that’s where this subject ends. Hey, don’t feel bad. We live in a grief phobic society, so why would the workplace be any different? As I get ready to celebrate 11 years with THE BEST FREAKING COMPANY ON THE PLANET, I thought I’d share some tips for other employers on how to help their employees who are grieving a loss. Here are a few things you may want to consider:

After being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, our company did a special fundraiser where everyone got to wear jeans and Dan’s favorite team colors. Go Boise! Photo credit to Lanee Johnson.
  1. Grief affects you both mentally and physically. Brain fog and a short attention span are pretty normal. So are increased irritation and anger to things that previously wouldn’t have phased them. Your employee is back at work because they want or have to be, and are doing their best. If you have concerns about their performance please talk to them. Be gentle, but don’t beat around the bush.
  2. Your three-five days of bereavement/funeral leave is woefully inadequate, but appreciated. Grief isn’t something you check off on a calendar. Please be aware that it can take months or years for some of us to be back to full capacity. If you offer a longer unpaid leave option and feel your employee might benefit from it, please offer it to them if you can handle them being out. Weigh the options…potentially losing them for good vs. a short leave of absence. If you can be creative with work schedule or roles that may be another way to protect the investment you’ve made in a great team member. The most appreciated words my boss ever said to me were the day before I was scheduled to come back to work. She told me that if I came in and it was too much, to just turn around and leave and not worry about saying anything to anyone. She may not remember it, but the memory of that care and consideration is carefully stored in my heart the way I used to keep my Snoopy watch and other treasures in my jewelry box when I was nine.
  3. If you offer an Employee Assistance Program that covers counseling, remind them of that resource too. (Depending on your state, you may want to run that by HR first. Some companies don’t like to cross that line into human decency due to fear of litigation).
  4. Please understand that social anxiety (grief’s annoying evil step-sister) can make being around people hard, especially upon first returning to work when you’re more likely to get The Look**. Your employee may walk out of a room in the middle of something. You may find them crying in a bathroom stall or in their cars or at their desk. Crying is healthy. They aren’t doing it to get attention. It will pass. I promise.
  5. Some people bury their grief and want to act like everything’s normal. That’s okay too. You can’t force people to talk about it if they don’t want to. For some, work is an escape from the reality that sets in as soon as they get home to an empty/emptier house. Please give them that reprieve if that is what they want.
  6. Grief isn’t restricted to the death of a loved one. Divorce and other losses can be equally profound, and aren’t covered by bereavement policies.

If you truly value your employee, please do what you can to reasonably accommodate their grief. I’ll tell you, that makes for one hell of a loyal employee.


The Wandering Widow

**The Look: the look of pity or sadness one often receives after a tragic loss or terminal diagnosis, usually dispensed freely by those who don’t know they are wearing it; sometimes accompanied by sound effects and uncomfortable personal bubble violations by huggers; to be avoided at all costs.