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How to cope with grief at work

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Photo: Getty Images

The days after the death of a loved one are the most difficult many people will face in their lives. From disbelief to deep sadness and anger, a bereavement can bring a range of extremely challenging emotions, and everyone copes differently.

Many people will be given some time off work, known as bereavement or compassionate leave. But there is no “normal” timeline when it comes to grief and the process can take weeks, months or years. So what happens when you go back to work?

Daniel*, who is self-employed, went back to work around a month after he lost a close family member earlier this year.

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“At first, you are thinking about it 24/7,” he says. “I still find it hard to concentrate on work because every time you remember what has happened, you forget what you were doing.

“In general, clients have been understanding and supportive. But you can feel guilty that you aren’t getting enough done, especially when people are paying you to do a job.”

At any time, one in ten people in the UK are likely to be affected by a bereavement. While some cope reasonably well at work, others struggle to manage their loss, which can impact on their work and their relationships with managers and colleagues.

“Returning to work after a bereavement can be very difficult and challenging,” says Andy Langford, chief operating officer at Cruse Bereavement Care.

“Grief affects everyone differently and some people may welcome the distraction of going back to work, whereas others might find it overwhelming and may struggle to carry out their work. Lots of things can trigger your grief, so be aware of this and speak to your manager and colleagues if you are finding it tough so they can help you.”

If you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, Langford offers some advice on how to deal with the worst of what life has to offer while still making it through your working day.

Take the time you need

“Try not to return to work too soon if you are not feeling up to it. Talk to your manager and tell them how you are feeling and agree a start date that works for you,” he says.

“This might not always be possible but it is important your manager understands how you are feeling so they can support you. It may also help to talk to your colleagues, especially someone that you trust and let them know if you are having a difficult day.”

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Be kind to yourself

More than ever, now is the time to be kind to yourself. It’s normal to feel tired and struggle to focus, so it’s important not to beat yourself up about it. Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss and showing emotion doesn’t mean you are weak.

“If you are finding being at work difficult, try to take regular breaks and spent a bit of time on your own or with colleagues who understand,” Langford says. “Also practically, try to ensure you are eating and drinking regularly to keep your strength and energy up.”

Get support from your employer

Employers should have a well-planned approach when it comes to grieving employees, which can help people cope during this vulnerable period. Creating a safe space to talk when people are ready - rather than avoiding the elephant in the room - is important.

“It is important that employers understand that returning to work after a bereavement can be very hard,” Langford says. “The death of a loved one can be devastating and the bereaved person may be struggling to come to terms with what has happened. It is important that employers support their employees during this difficult time and if possible, are flexible.”

Being empathetic and understanding of an employees needs at this time can make a huge difference - and employers also need to be aware that people will experience grief differently.

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“Work with the bereaved person to see what support they need,” he adds. “Don’t assume that if they appear to be coping well, they don’t need any support as this is usually not the case.”

If your grief feels like too much to bear, it can help to speak to a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.

You can also find further information and support on grief and bereavement on the Cruse website. Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) are a great source of support for people who have been bereaved by suicide.