in the workplace, not
silence, either through
group settings or one-on-one sessions with the
manager or a trained
employee-assistance-program-provided or other wise.
feel supported, the safer
they feel,” says Fell.
“And a safe environment
helps them to be more
productive. HR and
all supervisors should
be trained on all this;
it should be a detailed
guideline provided to
everyone. And it’s not,
It baffles Fell and
others that death is not
dealt with more directly
in the workplace.
Florian thinks that has
something to do with
the fact that “we live in
a society that denies
death and grief; we’ve
outsourced death,” she
“Think about 100
years ago,” Florian says,
“when generations of
families all lived in the
same house and the
same town; death was
an everyday normal
part of life, people died
young, people grieved
together … the wake
was often in the living
room. Death was
was part of.
“Then so much
happened in the 20th
century,” she says,
So has the sense that, in business,
we “tough it out,” says Andy Grant,
clinical manager at Chicago-based EAP
provider ComPsych. It’s not employers’
“modus operandi to evaluate what
they do for their people who are going
through a grieving process; that’s not
our business identity,” he says. “Mind
you, we’ll be called out for counseling
after a large crisis, like a mass
shooting, but on an individual basis, it’s
He agrees having some educational
material for the management team
about grief and loss—including pointers
about expected decreases in creativity,
… basically, a different person who
doesn’t care about some of the things
that used to be so important to me,
a transformation even my kids have
noticed and are reacting to. I’m not
sure when this will change or if it ever
will. What I do know now is there’s
no going back. As more than one
expert told me through my ordeal and
research for this piece, life will never
be the same.
There are so many things so many
of us do not know about grief; a life
forever changed is just one. The
second year being harder than the
first is another, says Amy Florian,
thanatologist (loss counselor) and
grief coach from Hoffman Estates, Ill.,
who calls her consultancy Corgenius:
Adding Heart to the Brains of the
“There are two parts of grief,”
she says. “The first year is all about
letting go. The second year is all about
moving on [right at the time that]
you’ve lost the support from friends
who think you should be over it.”
It’s this general lack of knowledge
about grief that makes it more
challenging for employees and
employers than it needs to be, Florian
and others say. Establishing a more
robust support system for a grieving
returning employee, they say, helps
the business in the long run, but few
organizations are doing everything
they can to establish more effective
policies and procedures, beyond the
allotted leave time.
“Bereavement in the workplace
is still a new frontier,” says Lynda
Cheldelin Fell, founder of Grief Diaries
and CEO of AlyBlue Media, based in
Ferndale, Wash. Aly was her 15-year-
old daughter who died in a car accident
in 2009. Blue was Aly’s favorite color.
Fell knows grief well. Now she’s
putting all her efforts into helping
employers and employees cope with
“the elephant in the room” through the
company she created in her daughter’s
Most employers, she says, are
“scared about lost productivity and also
scared they’ll do something wrong;
there’s just not enough information
about what’s actually happening beyond
the leave in their bereavement section of
the employee manual.” In fact, Fell says,
“the ideal bereavement policy would
look similar to maternity- and paternity-
leave policies [that are ever-broadening]
today. Why do we allow so much time
when we bring a life into this world, yet
only three days [to adjust] when a loved
(Some employers are beginning
to understand this. In early February,
Facebook announced it will now
be giving up to 20 days of paid
bereavement leave to employees
in the event of an immediate family
member’s death and up to 10 days for
an extended family member.)
In addition to championing better
paid-leave policies for bereaved
employees, Fell has constructed an
entire itemized list of steps supervisors
and co-workers should learn in training
and take prior to someone going
through significant loss (see sidebar).
For instance, supervisors should be
echoing a tone set from the top that
work comes second and that a grieving
person should take the time needed.
They should know their organization’s
policy on bereavement, personal time
and flexibility, and be ready to explain
the policy to the bereaved and to co-
workers, so there is no confusion. When
that employee returns, they should
be prepared for his or her distracting
thoughts, possible mistakes and
lower productivity. They should make
workload adjustments where necessary
and be ready to address disgruntled
co-workers who might be upset about
productivity and concentration—would
go a long way toward helping the
bereaved and those around them.
Training can even include what to say
and what not to say to the employee
when he or she returns, something
“not everyone is good at or comfortable
with,” says Grant.
Remember, he adds, a
bereavement leave or slow-to-recover
returning employee “can develop
into a case of disability if that person
starts suffering real depression.” So
it behooves HR to provide a packet
for managers educating them on
the law as it applies to depression
and disability, and all the benefits
the company has to offer. In some
cases, there can be “a whole slew of
services,” Grant says, such as estate
planning, will consultations, and
funeral and financial planning. Some
of his clients, he adds, have all these.
The more managers can
communicate support and supportive
services, he says, then “the more they
can work against it developing into
depression, the better that employee
will feel about his or her company,”
and, eventually, the more productive he
or she will become.
After all, work does have to get
done. That’s why—as harrowing as
human tragedies can be—employers,
and their HR and supervisory teams,
should also work against “becoming
enmeshed,” says Grant.
“There still needs to be clear
boundaries between employer and
employee,” he says, “because there
may be a time when the person’s
productivity is just not meeting
standards and you need to make sure
you’ve been documenting everything
and have offered specific support,
and have gone through all the proper
steps to bring that person back … .
It’s hard. The manager might have
gone to the funeral or the wake; he or
she may now know members of the
grieving person’s family. It can get a
little complicated and difficult.” And,
as all three counselors told me, in the
case of grief at work, at the end of the
day, there’s really no set science or
policy. Every tragedy must be handled
individually. And empathy, comfort and
freedom to share—both ways—are
really the greatest forces that will help
the bereaved get back to work.
In my case, I’ve had the support
of an employer that hasn’t forced my
hand or demanded anything of me
I’m not ready to give. There’s been
no quashing of empathy and comfort
from the incredible people around
me who are bringing me around. As
both my dad and husband told me
many times, death is part of life, part
of being human. And, at least for now,
humans are still the ones coming
to work—in the best and worst of
Send questions or comments about
this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the Supervisors/Managers
In the beginning:
• Make it clear that work comes second and the bereaved must
take the time needed.
• Know your organization’s policy on bereavement and personal
time, and be ready to explain it to everyone.
• Arrange for backups and replacements to cover the employee’s
• Avoid putting bereaved employees in a position to make
• Offer a formal debriefing for co-workers led by trained people
such as social workers or members of the clergy.
When the employee returns to work:
• Consider adjusting the employee’s workload.
• Be prepared for his or her mistakes or distracting thoughts.
• Watch for disgruntled co-workers who are upset about picking
up the slack. They can easily become bullies.
• Encourage the bereaved to express their needs.
• Implement a buddy system by pairing a tactful, comforting
person with the employee to check in and act as a liaison.
• Be sensitive to the cycle of upcoming holidays or trigger points
• Watch for warning signs of prolonged grief and ongoing
performance issues, such as poor grooming, severe withdrawal
and substance abuse.
• Have resources ready for professional help: employee-assistance program, community resources, etc.
• Know the corporate rules for personal contact outside the office.
• Know that reactions and emotions can unexpectedly catch you
• Don’t take responsibility for fixing your co-worker’s pain.
• Treat the loss as an invisible injury that requires the same care
and compassion as a visible one.
• Don’t offer words of advice.
• Don’t judge in terms of what you think your co-worker should
or shouldn’t do.
• Don’t avoid the grieving worker.
• Avoid using a clock or calendar to gauge how long the worker
can be less productive than under normal circumstances.
• Don’t try to match their grief.
• Check in with the bereaved worker frequently.
Source: Lynda Cheldelin Fell, founder of Grief Diaries and CEO of AlyBlue
Media, based in Ferndale, Wash.