Working While Grieving: Navigating Loss and Your Career

Working while grieving can evoke difficult and tender emotions. Some people find that the structure and predictability of their jobs offer a welcome distraction during a tumultuous time. Others feel completely distracted, apathetic, and unable to complete the tasks at hand.

No matter how much time you take off, returning to work can still be daunting, and grief doesn’t ever follow a set timeline. Here are some compassionate, gentle reminders as you move back into your job.

What to Expect When You Return to Work After a Death

You have probably spent many years honing down your professional routine, dealing with various work stressors, and managing your to-do list. Grief affects everyone differently, but it can be helpful to be aware of what might happen once you’re back in the office.

Grief brain: Grief brain refers to the phenomenon of feeling overwhelmed with various thoughts about grief. It also includes feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair. This can affect your ability to focus, and you may find it difficult to concentrate or complete tasks effectively.

Existential despair: Work may feel meaningless as the reality of our loss sets in. If you’ve already experienced some unhappiness or unease about your job, death may amplify those feelings.

Productivity changes: Grief often triggers physical changes in appetite, energy levels, and sleep quality. All of this can affect your workplace productivity.

Shifting dynamics with coworkers: Coworkers may not know how to best respond to your needs, and they may worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. Others might ask overly personal questions or invade your private space at work. You also may not want to talk about your grief while working.

Heightened focus: It’s normal to want to compartmentalize difficult feelings, and work can provide immense relief after grief. You may even find that you’re more creative, compassionate, and empathic as you move through your daily routine. This can be equally relieving as it is confusing.

How Long Should You Take Off From Work When Grieving?

Unfortunately, most people don’t have the option to take extended time off from work. The average employee just doesn’t have the financial luxury to take so much unpaid leave.

Some workplaces offer more fluid paid leave policies, ranging from compassionate leave to extended bereavement leave to letting other colleagues donate their PTO or sick days. These options are all worth pursuing, especially if you’re managing funeral arrangements or taking care of another family member (or family members) during this time.

If you have the choice of delaying your return date, you might want to consider extending your leave if you:

  • can’t engage in any form of self-care
  • continuously forget things throughout the day
  • feel immensely depressed and feel you can’t deal with it properly yet
  • are experiencing any form of suicidal ideation

With that, some people find that work does help during the mourning period. There’s something to be said about adhering to a semblance of your normal routine, especially if you find your work meaningful.

Talk to Your Employer About Your Situation

Grief is an inevitable part of life, and most employers (though certainly not all) strive to be supportive and compassionate when grief hits. While you’re always entitled to your personal privacy, it may be beneficial to talk to your boss or HR department about your situation.

Some employers may be willing to extend their bereavement leave policy. Others will embrace a more flexible return-to-work schedule or be willing to delegate certain tasks to other colleagues over the next few weeks or months.

Have Realistic Expectations

You probably won’t feel like your normal self for a while after a loss. This is normal, and you should expect fluctuating emotions for several weeks and months after a death occurs. Unfortunately, the grief can sometimes feel the strongest just as people return to work.

With that, it’s important to adjust your expectations for yourself. You may not be as productive as you’d like to be at the present time, and that’s okay.

Stay Connected to Support

Coping with a loss is never easy, and you may find it frustrating to stay involved in the workplace when you’re managing such vulnerable emotions. Some coworkers may be supportive and helpful, but others might not know how to respond appropriately.

As much as possible, aim to stay tethered to ongoing support, whether that’s with family members, friends, members of a grief support group, or via grief counseling. If you can connect with a trusted colleague, they can be an important anchor during this process.

Let Go of the Concept of Leaving Emotions at Home

Although it sounds good in theory, work-life balance is an elusive myth. Grief affects every part of functioning; those emotions don’t leave you once the work day commences. With that, it’s also normal to think about work at home.

You should expect that you might get triggered at work. For example, a certain scent might remind you of your loved one, causing you to break into sudden tears. Or a work friend might make an off-handed joke, and it reminds you of the loss, causing you to feel angry, sad, or ashamed at just a moment’s notice.

Grief can hit at different times during the day or week, and it’s important to honor each emotion for what it is.

Prioritize Your Absolute Must-Dos

Many employees struggle with their work performance after a death. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It simply means you’re grieving and need time to process what happened and honor your feelings.

However, the workplace may be less forgiving, and you may still need to take your productivity into account. This is especially true if your work is important to you and/or if you have financial constraints that depend on your paycheck.

Some people find that it’s helpful to create a detailed checklist of all the tasks that must be done when they start work. This strategy allows you to prioritize the essentials rather than waste time or energy trying to haphazardly complete various assignments. If you’re having a hard time focusing or caring about work, following this kind of method can keep you on track.

Practice Moment-to-Moment Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness may be the absolute last thing you want to do when you’re grieving. Why would you want to acknowledge painful emotions or sit with your current distress?

But the truth is that your feelings are there no matter what. We all move through our lives experiencing varying needs, feelings, and thoughts. Trying to suppress, ignore, or intellectualize them can temporarily reduce their effect, but these methods tend to backfire when they’re chronically used.

Mindfulness offers a path for gentle self-compassion and emotional regulation. Simply note what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it. Try not to judge yourself.

If possible, consider even taking a neutral stance where you label what you’re experiencing without becoming emotionally attached to that experience. Remember that you don’t need to act in any automatic way to any emotion.

Mindfulness also means listening to your body. Although it may be hard, try to eat when you need to eat and rest when you need to rest.

Grief Therapy for Going Back to Work

There’s never a right or wrong way to grieve with a death. You may find it extremely difficult to cope with your pain right now, and you might feel worried that you’ll never be able to adjust to work again. These feelings are normal when working while grieving, and they will continue to evolve over time.

As a therapist who specializes in all forms of grief, I am here to support you as you navigate the circumstances surrounding your loss. Together, we can acknowledge your emotions and make sense of what you need. At the same time, we can create a strategy that enables you to gently take care of yourself during this time.

Grief can feel lonely, but you are never alone with your emotions. Grief therapy offers empathy, compassion, and honest conversation that’s focused entirely on your needs. If you’d like to learn more about me or my work, I welcome you to contact me to schedule a consultation.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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