How to Help Grief in the Workplace

Stop the Action

The first step in dealing with a death in an institution or workplace is to stop the normal activities and reschedule so that employees can come together to share their thoughts and feelings. Depending on the organization, this moratorium will take differing forms. In a school it is relatively easy to call all of the staff and students together in the auditorium, causing a complete halt in all business. However, in a business where salespersons are out of the office and everyone has a varied schedule, this will be much more difficult. On the other hand, many businesses have adopted the practice of actually closing for a day to honor the deceased. While this is a valuable mechanism to help grief in the workplace, it precludes everyone getting together to share.

Focus to Feel/Talk/Share

One of the most healing endeavors is to make time to express, process and share the feelings that are evoked by grief. By stopping the usual activities, we provide an opening to allow for sharing. It is often useful to invite an outside facilitator to help lead the group(s). Getting together will have to be an individualized process, especially in larger institutions. Logically selected groups may meet separately after everyone is brought together in the total group. Or if it’s not possible for all staff to be together, then a series of smaller meetings may be the start, leading up to a larger ceremony or remembrance.

Use Differing Formats

Because people function differently to start with and then they grieve in their own style, it is important to offer as many different formats as possible. For example, some people find a group very intimidating and would not be able to express their thoughts and feelings. Thus they would need a one-to-one situation. Some people find ceremonies healing, while others find them unappealing. In one school where several students had been killed in a car accident, a large assembly was held immediately to make the announcement and get initial reactions. Then students went to their homerooms where they could talk with a familiar teacher. All teachers were asked to either cancel their usual lesson or relate it to the event. Desks were set up in the hallway where parents, social workers, pastors and others were stationed. Several private offices were available for one-to-one intensive sessions, and several small group rooms were staffed for drop-in discussions. Thus, a large variety of formats was offered and students could use whatever was best for them. The wide range, from casual hallway chats to serious private sessions, proved very useful. This service array was kept in place for several days.

Create Ceremony/Rituals

Ceremony and ritual can be very healing for most people. The ceremony can be as simple as having everyone take time to sign a card that goes to the bereaved family or it can be actually planning and conducting the funeral or memorial. In addition, periodic remembrances offer opportunities to process thoughts and feelings that arise. Anniversaries are useful marker points and can be utilized for ceremonies.

Provide Many Opportunities

We need to remind ourselves that one chance to grieve isn’t enough. Some employees may be in shock and not be able to take advantage of an event. So the more opportunities and repetitions that we can offer, the more effective will be our healing. By offering as many formats as possible, and as many varieties of activities as possible, we can support a diverse group of workers.

Utilize Diverse Helpers

Wherever possible it is effective to use a wide spectrum of helping persons. Once again we need to take into account the uniqueness of people and their emotional/behavioral responses. Some people may feel perfectly at home with a cleric while others either lack any religious background or even blame God for their trauma. Some people may be comfortable spilling out their deepest emotions with a volunteer while they recoil at the very mention of talking with a psychotherapist. And we are all very complicated, so that we might feel comfortable unburdening ourselves with a volunteer, yet reserve certain issues for a clergy person and other issuers for a social worker.

Conclusion of How to Help Grief in the Workplace

The above process is designed to allow the workplace to take responsibility for those issues that deeply affect its constituency. The process provides the maximum individualization, while still encouraging people to share what they can with each other. Taking into account our individual uniqueness does not require us to carry our burdens alone. Sharing emotions and memories can be very healing.

By Jerry Rothman, MSW, PhD