By Patrick T. Malone —
In the last installment, I told you about the deaths of my two sons, Scott and Lance, and my work experiences related to the grief associated with those deaths. We ended with my reaching out for help from others fully expecting the world was coming to an end.
Well, as many of you probably know, the world does not end when you reach out for help. As a matter of fact, the relationships and interactions in my work environment improved immensely after my explaining exactly what would help. As I moved further along, I have had an opportunity to reflect on these and other situations and believe there are a number of learning points for human resources professionals, coworkers and management that will greatly enhance their ability to facilitate the grief process when it visits their workplace.
First and foremost, I believe everyone has a shared responsibility here. That would include managers, co-workers, HR personnel, employee assistance programs, as well as the bereaved person themselves. Let’s start with some simple understandings about grief.
- 1. Grieving may appear to be aberrant behavior to an outsider, but it is both natural and normal. I was very concerned early on that I was losing my mind but after sharing my thoughts with other bereaved parents, I soon discovered that most had experienced similar thoughts along the way. That was comforting because I still might be going crazy but others were going with me.
- 2. Grief is complex. I have struggled with the difference between grief and depression. Recently I attended a seminar to learn how to distinguish them only to discover the characteristics of each are the same.
- 3. Grief impacts all aspects of a person – physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological. Grief permeates and sometimes overwhelms us.
- 4. Grief does not have a timetable. While there may be some general guidelines on the various phases of grief, the reality is that each person makes that journey at his or her own speed. Attempts to speed the process along generally result in slowing the progress down. It must be gone through.
- 5. Grief can cause loss of focus, concentration, productivity. This will be one of the hardest aspects to accept in terms of the workplace environment. This is the main reason there needs to be some flexibility in terms of assignments and expectations for bereaved people upon returning to the workplace.
- 6. Grief is not a sign of weakness. This tends to be a gender-related issue. Our society seems more willing to accept an open emotional display from women as opposed to men. If we are ever to become gender blind, these stereotypes must go.
- 7. There are no perfect words. No one can fix the situation unless you can raise the dead, so please don’t try to make the grieving person better.. Many, in the absence of knowing what to say, simply avoid the bereaved person all together, which only adds to the grief. They feel like a leper.
While not intended to be all-inclusive, these seven points will give everyone a start at understanding grief in the workplace.
Now let’s take a look at what each of us can do that is considered to be helpful.
- 1. Listen. I cannot tell you how many times bereaved parents have told me they wish people would just listen. Bereaved people need to talk and while those conversations may be sad and result in tears, there is sufficient anecdotal research that talking is healing. Try being there for your grieving co-worker. Also, be interested in them instead of trying to be interesting to them.
- 2. Be there. It’s not good enough to tell a person, “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” Be proactive, seek the person out, find out how they are doing and when the opportunity arises offer specific assistance. Cook a meal, walk their dog, cut their grass.
- 3. Avoid judgments. It’s real easy to decide what other people should do when we are not in their place. Avoid telling people what they should do. Simply acknowledge what you hear. Remember, you cannot fix the situation.
- 4. Mention the deceased person’s name. We often avoid mentioning the name for fear we will make people sad. Again, extensive experience with bereaved individuals proves the opposite to be true. They have already experienced the worst sadness they have known, so don’t worry so much that you will make it worst.
- 5. Don’t stuff your own emotions. If you experience an emotional reaction to their situation, displaying your own emotions will not make the situation worse. In fact, it will probably be seen as a sign of respect.
- 6. Encourage others to do the same. The more people that take a positive approach in dealing with grief in the workplace, the quicker the organization will recover and return to it’s primary mission.
Compassionate organizations have a sustainable competitive advantage in today’s marketplace when it comes to attracting and retaining quality personnel. HR professionals, co-workers and management all have the opportunity to take the lead in moving their organizations towards that objective and contributing directly to the overall business performance.
Patrick Malone is a senior partner with the PAR Group www.thepargroup.com , an international consulting and training firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. He has served as a board member and the board president of The Compassionate Friends, a national self-help support organization with nearly 600 chapters for families that have experienced the death of a child. Patrick is a frequent grief workshop presenter and a speaker at industry and management conferences across the country. He is the co-author of the new book Cracking the Code to Leadership, a guest columnist for the Gwinnett Daily Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution and a variety of industry publications. Patrick may be reached at [email protected]