Supporting employees suffering from grief
With mental health being traditionally looked at in the workplace setting, what about the return to work of those grieving, who have suffered loss? In this article, Alexis Powell-Howard, Managing Director and Psychotherapist at Fortis Therapy and Training and Paul Verrico, Partner at Eversheds Sutherland, two people who understand the grieving process, share some insights for employers.
We approach this article from two perspectives. Alexis is a psychotherapist who regularly works with and supports recently bereaved clients; her practice is helping a number of people who have experienced sudden loss due to the pandemic.
Paul is a lawyer who helps people and organisations after workplace fatal incidents. He is a trustee of the cancer charity Team Verrico, which he co-founded in 2013 when his wife passed after a brave battle with breast cancer.
Life’s just one big fairytale…
Law firms and psychologists have written extensively about mental wellbeing through lockdown; with much of the focus on anxiety and poor sleep quality. But what about the unspoken subject of sudden loss, particularly from COVID-19, where the life of a loved one has been cut short cruelly prematurely from the disease?
Every children’s story creates an expectation of how life should be as a grown up. The dashing prince rescues the beautiful maiden; good conquers evil; a last-minute reprieve occurs against overwhelming adversity. All of the characters get to finish the story by living ‘happily ever after’. From Tolkien to Lewis; Rowling to Blyton the myth is perpetuated, and the child is cocooned with a warm blanket of security which says, ‘however dark the night, there will be a bright, contented dawn.’
Only, of course, life is rarely as linear as that. As we grow older, our experience widens, and we start to experience loss.
Grief can feel very messy and confusing. When you have lost someone you care about, who you have history with, and who has meant a lot to you, whether that is a family member, parent, partner, child, baby or a friend, how you feel, can be at times, overwhelming. One of the most difficult parts of heartbreak is need. A feeling of helplessness, desperation, incompleteness and abandonment. The immense void which only one person can fill – and that person is gone.
Any feelings you have are natural in the circumstances even if they are conflicting and different to how others may feel. You may feel like there is a right and a wrong way to grieve and also feel that there is an acceptable time frame for grief; For instance, the NHS Choices website notes in relation to widowhood: “you might feel affected every day for about a year to eighteen months after a major loss. But after this time the grief is less likely to be at the forefront of your mind.” That seems a very arbitrary time line; many of those in therapy get to the one year ‘sadiversary’ of the loss of a child, parent or partner and expect the clouds to roll back and the sun to shine through as all of the firsts were done; they may be extremely surprised and saddened to find that depression instead sets in as the realisation that their loved one simply is not coming back, becomes an accepted truth.
There are many theories on grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic ‘five stages of grief’—denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance— are rarely as straightforward as they appear on the pages of a book. Your grief process is very individual to you and it is important that you do what feels right for you. You may have experienced prior loss, but a new loss may feel completely different – COVID-19 has displaced the familiar rituals which we associate with the death process – and that can create additional feelings of helplessness along with feeling ‘cheated,’ as the deceased and family and friends, have not been given the time, respect and ceremony which they deserve and we ordinarily have as part of our process of saying ‘goodbye’.
Grief can feel emotionally and physically painful at times and feelings can come in what could be described as ‘waves’ – feeling sorry, disbelief, hurt, longing, desperately sad, angry, exhaustion, relief, shame, resentment – a whole spectrum of emotions including laughing, enjoying memories and sharing stories and tales with others. The feelings you have can not be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ but they can become more manageable with time and as you adjust to the person no longer being here – although there may be hours and days when this feels like an impossibility.
Feeling numb or shock on initially hearing the news or realising someone has died, is a natural response as your brain and feelings ‘catch up’ with what is happening and as you realise some of the reality of what this means.
Grief can feel like a chain reaction of emotions that can change quickly and unexpectedly, and you may feel triggered by different things – music, smells, places, phrases, people, routines you had together, comments that others make – sometimes you may feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster – with twists and turns that can catch you off guard. Although these feelings and experiences are difficult, they are natural, and it is important to allow yourself to feel how you feel and to give yourself permission to do so.
Others may struggle with concentration, feelings of wanting to avoid people or situations, or not caring about things they used to care about, for example, work, activities, friends, going out socially, hobbies and interests can mean that you and your life feels ‘stuck’ with no clear path to move forward (or any desire to either).
Who or what can help?
Be gentle with yourself and give yourself time. Accessing support can help when you feel ready to. You may feel that no one will be able to understand or empathise with how you feel and feel a need to isolate yourself from people you care about, and who care about you. Talking can really help. Choose who you talk to carefully so you feel safe to be honest about how you feel – this may be with friends, family, a charity, therapist, counsellor or to someone who has experienced a similar loss to you, who you may meet in support groups either face to face or online.
Decide your own way of remembering the person you have lost – you may want to write to them, about them or write about how you feel. You may want to talk out loud to them rather than just in your head. You may decide to plant something in their memory or raise money on their behalf for a charity close to your heart. You can create a memory box or just sit and remember them. Whatever you decide to do, it is your choice and needs to work for you and there is no right or wrong.
A friend observed when she was in a Japanese restaurant that the fish in a tank were all magnetically drawn to any bystander who approached the glass, a shoal mentality that food was likely to follow. When the anticipated fish food did not materialise, the shoal darted to the other side of the tank where another customer got close to the tank. By analogy, the same kind of behaviour is typical of the collective behaviour of a vast number of ‘friends’ on social media – when someone appears to be interesting everyone is quick to pay attention. Social media’s own algorithms work to direct ‘friends’ towards a status which is attracting attention. Effectively, the situation fuels itself. Note, however, what happens when the moment loses its currency or someone else has a new titbit or morsel – the shoal moves away, preoccupied by the new matter. Just like fish, people can forget what they were incredibly immersed in very quickly. This, too, can be difficult for the newly bereaved to compute – that their circle of virtual support may swiftly evaporate and, particularly when social distancing and lock downs make contact difficult, feelings of being overwhelmed can occur. Creating a small support network of trusted people can help mitigate this, people you can go to when you need to and whose friendship is more sustained.
Supporting employees suffering from grief
If a friend or colleague has lost someone suddenly, here are some thoughts on how you can help them:
- Talk about the person who has died. Say their name;
- If you don’t know what to say, start there. ‘I simply don’t know how you feel, and I don’t know what to say, but I wanted you to know I care’ is a wonderful opening to a conversation
- Practically can you support by taking on a chore or task? Help them organise their finances, deal with probate or write letters to banks?
- Meet up with them outside of the home or workplace – encourage them to walk with you. Moderate exercise is good.
- Don’t make comparisons. A divorce / death of a pet is not the same as the loss of a partner or parent.
- Try to avoid offering to spend time with a friend where alcohol is offered to ‘make them feel better’. Alcohol is a depressant and can become unhelpful when coping with loss. Make a hot drink or a healthy meal – your company and the talking/listening is what will help.
- Encourage journaling – the process of recording innermost thoughts, feelings, memories, fears and traumas, to acknowledge them, rather than having them surface in the small hours of the night.
- If you are worried about a friend’s mental health, encourage them to access the services below:
Contact support for those suffering from grief
Childline – for children and young people under 19 – 0800 1111;
Cruse Bereavement Care – providing bereavement support, grief counselling and other help;
Fortis Therapy and Training – 01472 241794;
Good Grief Trust – portal for support services;
Papyrus – for people under 35 – 0800 068 41 41;
Samaritans – 116 123;
Team Verrico – for those losing a partner or parent to cancer;
Winston’s Wish – for children who have lost a parent or sibling – 08088 020 021;
If you are struggling with intrusive or suicidal thoughts, contact your GP
Mind Matters, a series of videos produced by SHP and The Healthy Work Company, featured people speaking candidly about their personal experiences with mental ill health. In the episode below, Phil Bradley, discusses how his grief makes him feel, how that differs from what might be expected and what he has learned from the experience.
Click here to view the rest of the Mind Matters series.
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