Working and Living With Grief

Just a heads up that this blog deals with experiencing the personal loss of having a loved one pass and finding your way as you reconcile choosing to / needing to work.

The next time you find yourself in a bookstore, if you take the time to look for it, you’ll find a section dedicated to the subject of dealing with grief and personal loss. The same is true if you search for the subject online; lot’s of resource material. In your community, you’ll also likely discover there are support groups made up largely, if not exclusively, by people who have lost a loved one. While all these resources are in place and meant to be of great support, they are typically only accessed by people after a loss.

How this article ties in with my regular subject matter of finding and keeping employment is the connection between having lost someone important in your life and finding a way to return to work and contributing in the way you formerly did.

When someone close to you dies, it is often a shocking event. Whether somewhat expected in the case of a terminal illness, or entirely unexpected in the case of an accident, you’re entitled to feel exactly what you feel and nothing less. So you may feel in a state of denial, unsure that what you’ve learned is in fact true. You might feel anger, guilt, intense sorrow, an inability to function, paralyzed and frozen. We aren’t typically prepared for the moment it happens, and neither have we had the training to deal with this event. It can be devastating.

When this happens, showing up for work as usual is the last thing on our minds. Our employer’s have a right to be notified however, as business continues on. It may be that your employer has experience having had other employee’s experience loss. They’ll be prepared as a result to inform you of the length of the bereavement leave and perhaps they’ll have counselling resources to offer you or assist in some way with the funds to see someone on your own. I hope they express their condolences, tell you take the time you need and also share the news with you colleagues so that when you do return, you benefit from their empathy.

It’s an awkward thing of course for many; not knowing what to say to you when they see you except their sorry for your loss. And you yourself may or may not actually want to hear much from your co-workers when you do return. You might want an acknowledgement from them but then some privacy. On the other hand, talking through things with the people you work closest to 7 or 8 hours a day for years might be very comforting to you. There’s no single way to cope and carry on.

How much time you take before returning to work is an individual thing. If you check with your employer, you may find it’s anything from a few days to a week; possibly two. If you need more time, you might be eligible for a leave of absence. While you might not care at this time too much about your employer’s needs vs. your own, your employer does have a need for you or someone to replace you temporarily until you feel prepared to return.

And here’s the thing about returning to work; it’s normal and only natural to return and perform at a lower rate of performance than you formerly worked at. You’re likely to be distracted and unable to focus 100% on your job all day long because of the intensity and close personal nature of this event. Your relationship with the person who passed and the circumstances surrounding their passing are key factors in determining exactly how intense your feelings range and how you’re affected back on the job.

Give yourself the benefit of time. Forgive yourself (though you really don’t need forgiving) if you don’t perform up to your own standards and high expectations. You’ve been through a personal tragedy and you may have no previous experience to deal with this particular loss. You’re just trying to get through the days, one day at a time. You can have a string of a few days where things aren’t too bad and then when you least expect it, you find yourself consumed with grief, intense regret and anger. This isn’t something you sequential work through in a very orderly way. These stages of grief you’ll hear about can have loops in the journey that take you back to what you thought you’ve already dealt with. There’s no one way we all get through it.

Recognize you may want normality and to return to work asap. You may also be more sensitive, less able to make good decisions, less than at your best and mentally fragile. That’s okay.

And a word to you who work with someone returning to work after a loss. Whether young or old, from this part of the world or from somewhere around the world, we all experience losses in our lives at some point. One benefit of this is that we can empathize when others lose someone. Still, we don’t know exactly how someone else feels, nor do we need to. What is helpful is just to be there in a supportive way when a co-worker returns to work.

Thanks for the read.


Death And Moving On

You may be wondering why an Employment Counsellor who blogs about how to get and keep work would be writing about how to move on when someone close to you passes away. Simply put the two are interconnected and the one affects the other. Like any other post, if you find something useful or helpful, I’m happy to have shared my thoughts with you.

Let’s first acknowledge a few things: 1) We will all experience death 2) Unless we lose our life as young child it is inevitable that people we know will die before us 3) We do not all experience events in our lives exactly the same as other people; there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to act. Can we agree on these three things?

When we’re young we might first experience death in the loss of a family pet; a goldfish or hamster that one day isn’t moving. How we first react to this is often shaped by how our parents respond to us. Do they tell us the creature is sleeping and won’t wake up, do they bark at us and tell us it died so deal with it or perhaps they suggest going out to get a replacement so we don’t have to grieve (and they don’t have to deal with us being overly sad)?

Eventually we find ourselves learning that a person has died. Again, as a child or teenager we look around for clues as to how to act and we instinctively learn that some people cry, some sob uncontrollably, others seem outwardly unaffected, maybe some even look stone cold. Among the various reactions we may find others who have balanced their loss better than others – whatever ‘better’ means to us personally. For  purposes here, better means being able to move forward, and deal with death in a way that doesn’t paralyze the living.

When close to someone, especially someone you’ve shared much of your life with such as a parent, a child or a partner, the bonds between you and that person or those people can be very strong. You have so many memories of doing things together, you may have tremendous gratitude for the relationship and how you feel put into words comes out as love. Who you are as an adult is in part great or small shaped by those around you, and so it is often the case that these people mean a great deal to us; we want them there always.

Whether its unexpected or we can see it coming, sooner or later we find ourselves learning of the death someone special to us. For most people the news of the death comes as a shock itself. It’s hard to believe, we beg the source of the information to tell us this isn’t true, we say we need to go see them immediately and our minds rush back to when we saw or talked with them last. If we happened to be at their bedside, we know intellectually they are gone from this life but even though we were there as they eased away, we’re still faced with that moment when they were here a second ago and now they aren’t.

Now how to move forward? Some people appear to move forward pretty quickly; they know that life means death follows at some point, they’re realistic and know that for themselves life goes on. They mourn losses internally and for them it may be healthy and natural to have no tears to hold back. They are not cold and hard, they are not impervious to feelings nor unmoved.

At the other extreme are those who are themselves debilitated with another’s loss. It’s as if they have shutdown; as if a large part of them died along with the other person. They may for example quit work and 6 years later still claim they can’t take jobs because they aren’t ready. The idea of having an employer offer a single week off to grieve a loss and then go back to work is literally impossible to do and bewildering to imagine.

Conflict, (and I don’t mean fighting but rather tension and being at odds with another’s behaviour) comes when people who are closely tied to the death of a person deal with death in the different extremes. They wonder, “why don’t they deal with this like I am? Don’t they love them the way I loved them?”

Moving on however is healthy and we weren’t meant as humans to die ourselves when others around us do so. So we must eat, sleep, breathe, drink – the basics of living and then do more and more of whatever is our normal routines like cleaning the house, grocery shopping, cooking meals etc. Ever notice how neighbours often come by with meals to support the living?

It’s impossible to move forward with direction if your head is turned looking back. Therefore moving ahead means creating new memories with the living around us while appreciating the time we had (brief or long) with those departed. When you care and love others you also know the day will come when death parts you both with finality; this is no reason to isolate yourself from connecting, caring and loving with the living.

We are all different and how we choose to deal with loss is personal. Be it a goldfish or a person, may you move on as best you are able.


The Grief Cycles of Job Loss and Death

When you’re getting the news that someone has passed away or you’re being fired from an organization, the process you’re going through is often very similar in nature; it’s the process of moving through a cycle of grief and loss.

Many people in these two circumstances we can observe to have similar behaviours. First of all there is hearing the shock of the news itself; especially if it comes totally unexpectedly. However, for many folks, even when they see the writing on the wall and the firing to come or the death of a loved one is reasonably expected, the breaking of the news itself comes as a shock.

You’re hit with the immediacy of the moment; you’ll never have a conversation with so-and-so again; you’ll never work another moment. In both situations, your sense of the norm is broken and you’re instantly aware that the future you’ll experience will be different from everything up to this moment.

Now sure for some the moment comes as a release. You hated that job anyway or it was so miserable but you might not have quit on your own so you actually appreciate the freedom to move on. Similarly, you might welcome the peace that death brings for the person who was in pain, and at the same time appreciate how those providing the ongoing hours of care and support are released from those tasks so they can turn their energies to other things. Nonetheless, in both situations, there is a period of shock that the end has come.

For many there is actually a period of bartering too. Praying to God for example saying things like, “If you’ll only get my job back I’ll be a better worker”, or “If you’ll just bring so-and-so back, I’ll go to Church regularly and be a better person.” In the end though, we don’t get our jobs back and there is no resurrection of the deceased.” So we are forced to move ahead not backward.

Anger too is a normal reaction to be expected; that moment when we yell at God or scream at the Boss who delivered the fateful news of our firing. We’re angry that things ended up this way, and we may even plot in our minds some kind of revenge. “Just you wait, oh I’ll get even” – but hopefully we don’t actually take the action and move on our feelings of bitterness, resentment, anger or hate when we aren’t thinking clearly. This would surely only damage our reputations, compound our problems and get us nowhere closer to where we need to be in order to move forward.

Again, whether it’s a death or a job loss, eventually we get to the point where we have to move on. We’ve had our period of grieving and we recognize that the only way to bring something positive into our lives is to pick ourselves up and look for new work or come to look for joy in the lives of those around us who have up until now been missing us; the person we used to be before grief overcame us.

Now this doesn’t mean we forget about the person who passed, love them or think about them any less. Similarly it doesn’t mean that we will wipe our memories clean of how the job we lost ended. If anything, we hopefully can take some things away from that experience so that it isn’t repeated. In other words, any responsibility we had for getting fired isn’t carried forth into our future jobs so the experience isn’t repeated.

The thing about this cycle of grief is that if you think on the word ‘cycle’, you’ll see it isn’t something linear, but it goes ‘round. Therefore, we might experience the shock of getting fired, get angry, then rationalize things and try to barter or plead for our jobs back only to again find ourselves angry. You and I can both experience the same event – say losing our jobs – but we may react very differently, moving through this cycle of grief in ways that make sense of the event to each of us. When this grief cycle pertains to the death of a person instead of a job loss, people react very differently as well.

This is a key thing to acknowledge and remember; we all experience the event of job loss and death differently and uniquely. So while someone in your family might go on for a long period in grief, anger, and not understand why you yourself don’t feel like they do, you might just be moving through the various stages of the grief cycle at a faster pace than them. It’s not a question of what is right or wrong, proper or improper; it’s a matter of how we as individuals experience the event.

I know when I lost a job many years ago I went right in and applied for Employment Insurance within the hour. I started looking for work immediately, moved forward and told myself I’d be working soon. Others I know who have lost jobs tend to keep things to themselves and turn to isolation and privacy.

Whenever you experience loss of work or loss of those close to you, or meet others in such circumstances, understand there’s stages to work through, and those could be rapid or long periods of time.


Understanding the “Why?” in Suicide

There are thankfully, fewer and fewer subjects that are still taboo. Suicide is one of those dark subjects that seems to be okay to think and talk about openly as long as it’s not you personally that’s had to deal with one in the immediate family. Is this what you believe? Or do you think that this was how people thought long ago and now things have changed to the point where people talk more openly about things?

So then let me ask you this: If you were next to someone who was talking about someone who committed suicide, how comfortable would you be joining in? Worse yet and far more personal, if someone told you directly they couldn’t take life anymore and were going to end it all, would you have the slightest idea what to say?

When I’ve been close enough to have someone open up about contemplating suicide, a number of triggers immediately get set into motion. One of the first things I think about is trying to discern how real the possibility of suicide actually is, how imminent or is it just a thought in passing quickly dismissed. What if I think it’s not imminent and this is the last attempt at reaching out for help? And I take someone talking to me about the subject as possibly a person who needs help without asking. Are they looking for reasons to live? Crying out for intervention or hope? Are they seeking attention or are things so utterly hopeless that it is the release that they seek?

And sooner or later, whether it’s at this stage of the conversation or hearing about it long after, the inevitable question of, “Why?” arises. For some people the question can eventually be answered and for others, the question will go unanswered for all time, and the pursuit of a rational answer to explain it can never be found. And accompanying the question of, “Why?” is the question, “Is there something I could have done to prevent it?”

Such detailed examination of the past is usually not all that productive. “Was it something I said?” “I should have seen the signs.” “If only I had been there he or she would have listened to me!” Don’t beat yourself up. You are entitled to your life and to live it in joy, happiness and to find fulfillment. Unfortunately, while every other person has the same entitlement, there have been and will continue to be some who will never experience the happiness and contentment and cannot deal with the demons that assail them.

I have penned thoughts on suicide before in this blog, and were you to read back issues of this blog, you might find those words. So why go through this topic again? Time and audience is the answer. Time because you the reader may know someone intimately who is contemplating bringing about their own death in the near future and may have come to this blog only recently. And audience because as my audience grows there will be some for whom these words resonate that have not the knowledge that they’ve been here before. And if a life; one life only, is saved until death comes naturally in the future, then I am happy to address this again.

And now the connection between unemployment and suicide. Understand that anyone who is out of work should be monitored closely by those closest to them, and that it is our responsibility – yours and mine – to ensure that we don’t presume someone else will keep connected to them and check in on them. I’ve been out of work in my past, and few things are worse than the immediate and poignant silence that comes about when friends retreat and go into silence. When people fail to talk to us because they are afraid they don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter you see. No, just carrying on conversations, conversations about the news of the day, the weather, sports, politics, etc. – the normal stuff – keeps people feeling normalized.

You don’t have to be a Counsellor and deal with preserving someone’s mental health. You don’t have to be a compassionate Social Worker and know all the community agencies. You don’t have to be a trained Medical Practitioner and ‘fix’ their physical health. What you can be is available. “Hey want to meet for a coffee?” “Interested in coming over and watching a movie?” “I’m heading out to watch the kids play hockey. Want to come?” Simple everyday stuff, no training required.

If you act now and keep friends and family connected and involved, you’ll never question what you could have done to prevent a suicide. And to be entirely blunt and sincere, when listening to someone who has had a close friend or family member commit suicide, I don’t put much effort caring for the person whose gone – because they are gone. I invest the time and care in compassionately being concerned about the person talking – are they are risk of depression or worse?

Do what you can now, let go of the pain and the recrimination. You have a life to live and that’s a precious thing not to be fully lived.