We are not prepared to lose a friend and colleague in the span of a day or weekend. We are not prepared to have death come to us so suddenly, unexpectedly, almost assaultively. Work is the known world — the place for demonstrating our strength, our competence, our viability to exact predictable results. We are broadsided by the news of sudden, violent, and senseless death. And it is as if, for a moment, time stands still, as we take in the information that a person of youth and promise, our friend or colleague, has died. This truly is a time of grief out of season.
Grief in the Workplace is Grief Out of Season
In the workplace, this may leave a desk marked by personal touches, work in progress, voicemail and email still active. It leaves conversations unfinished and relationships suspended. It requires us to take care of our colleague’s workload, even before we have fully processed our own reactions.
And what is this thing we call “grief?” Grief is the natural, healthy, spontaneous, unlearned, normal, emotional healing process that occurs after a significant loss. It includes aspects that are both so very unique to each of us, and aspects that are universal to our species as biological and emotional beings. An elephant mother in the wild allows the herd to go its way as she stays for days caring for and mourning a dying offspring.
Cutting edge research shows that the human brain registers emotional wounds in the exact location as physical injury, a fact known subjectively by all of us who have experienced heartbreak, the aftermath of divorcing families, the disorganization of relocation, the unrealized hopes of lost dreams, and the myriad of the challenges of life’s endings and beginnings.
Grief from Sudden Loss
In the case of sudden loss, though, people describe a reaction that includes feeling helpless, vulnerable, or even fearful. This loss out of season rocks our reality. The world no longer seems as controllable, predictable, or as fair as we thought it to be. This can be unbalancing in ways that affect our feeling, thinking, and behaving.
We may feel waves of sadness. And we may experience irritability or anger at the circumstance of this particular loss, at the upset to our belief in the fairness of life and our belief in the expected order of life events. We may feel guilty that we don’t feel what others are feeling. Or we may find that this loss triggers the memory of past losses, perhaps even ones that we thought were long past and resolved. And we may feel remembrances of our national and world crises — September 11th, for example.
And having these feelings, coming and going, as is expectable in grief, we can feel fatigued, preoccupied, or distracted. Sometimes people may notice sleep disturbances, restlessness, and anxiety, or feel more susceptible to physical illness. And so for a time, work productivity may be off, and relationships may feel the strain of this more intense internal process.
Initial Reactions Change to Grief Out of Season
All of these reactions may be normal in the days and weeks ahead, in this time of grief out of season. Initial reactions of shock and numbness may shift to the more active signs of grieving we have been describing. At the very least, the disruption in the normal flow of the workplace brings with it significant stress. And so, it is a time to stop the action. Talk. Think. Contemplate. Some may be challenged with questions regarding their religious faith, or the meaning of life. Talk some more. To your friends and colleagues. To family and other supports. If you notice reactions that stay with you in a troubling way — there is no right or wrong way to grieve and rebalance after loss — then take another step. Consider talking with a professional, a therapist or clergy member.
For many, this is a first loss. So you have no prototype for your own reactions or feelings. This is a loss out of season, and many of your same age friends will not be able to relate to your experience. Keep an eye on yourself in the days and weeks ahead. Plan your strategies to de-stress and reorient. You will rebalance. And the world will stabilize. And it will also be normal if it feels like there is a shift occurring inside. Because today is deepened and colored, with remembrance, in this season of grief.
By David Fireman, LCSW