On January 17, 2014, my little sister died unexpectedly. She was just 46 years old.
I got the call late in the day on that Friday afternoon, just as I was wrapping up my workday and figuring out the upcoming week’s deadlines. I immediately shifted into robot mode as I booked my flight back home to Chicago, found a hotel, and began to make arrangements for a funeral I had not anticipated. Somewhere between the calls to other relatives, the choosing of just the right floral arrangements, the decision of where to even have them send the body, I texted my boss to tell her the news. Fortunately, I work for a genuinely great individual who simply texted back, telling me how sorry she was and to “take whatever time you need.”
According to our company policy, the death of an immediate family member warrants five days of bereavement. That’s generous, given that most companies only allow for three days of paid time off, and, sadly, some places of employment have no such benefits whatsoever. Worse, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan at any company for when the real grief sets in, during the days that follow when you are back at your desk, shuffling papers, participating in meetings, and answering questions from colleagues who innocently ask, “So where have you been—on vacation?”
If you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, here are a few thoughts on how to deal with the worst of what life has to offer while still making it through your 9-to-5.
1. Be Kind to Yourself
If there’s one time in life when we deserve to wrap ourselves up in complete compassion, it’s this. Take the time you need. It’s understandable to function at a slower speed. Deadlines still need to be met, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be the one to meet them. Gather the troops—your boss, your team, your closest co-workers—and ask for others to share a bit of the burden. (By the same token, if you know someone else is struggling with a loss, help by volunteering to take on some of his or her workload.)
At times like these, we often think we’re alone. But the truth is, we’re always alone, and it’s only when we choose to invite others into our lives that we’re not. A former boss of mine once told me that we never get what we deserve; we only have a chance at getting what it is we want if we ask for it. So ask.
2. Remember Action is Always a Good Thing
With the death of a loved one, we may be inclined to shut down or to give up. Grief is a powerful force that can stop us in our tracks. But, as Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne put it, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” In other words, while taking some time to rest is a good thing, don’t weigh anchor in darkness and despair. Action is key.
In the beginning, all we may have in us is, at most, just going through the motions: Get up, go to work, go home, go to bed, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t matter. Just keep moving. Keep doing. Keep focusing on things outside of you and your grief. And if that something you focus on is an upcoming project at work, infuse all of your energies into knocking it out of the park. It will help you to not dwell on the sadness, and it may give you a feather for your cap that you will appreciate and be proud of down the road.
Everyone has an expiration date. Taking action, no matter how small the steps may be right now, helps us use our time here on Earth actually living, rather than just biding our time waiting to die. And taking that action—moving your body—is proven to bring with it physiological benefits that help elevate mood and thoughts and spirits.
3. Honor Your Loved One by Choosing to Live
Death—especially when unexpected—has a way of wiping away the filters we’ve put on our lives and giving us a fresh perspective about where we are and where we may be headed. Meetings at work discussing minutiae that used to matter to you will no longer be important. Working with colleagues on a task force toward a once-common goal will no longer seem a priority. Getting trapped in the mundane day-to-day tasks of life will become magnified, making you feel as if you’ve lost sight of what your life was meant to be. Suddenly, you’re seeing yourself in your own movie, similar to that character played by Jack Nicholson asking everyone in the room, “Is this as good as it gets?”
The urge to change may hit hard. You always wanted to study gorillas in Rwanda—should you quit your job and go? You never imagined you’d be working 24/7 as cook, maid, babysitter, home improvement maven, and financial manager, without even a dime to show for it—should you divorce your spouse and abandon your kids? Is it too late to run away and join the circus?
Know that all of these thoughts are normal. Know, too, that experts strongly suggest not making any major life changes during periods of grief. And know that you have been given a great gift. With the passing of your loved one, you’ve been given perspective. Thank him or her for helping you to recognize where you’re at, what matters to you, and what you’re spending your precious time and resources on. Later, you can start re-evaluating your life’s goals and purpose and figuring out—before it’s too late—what you might need to do to get to where you were meant to be.
Three days is not enough to manage the grief of losing a loved one and at the same time to return to the workplace as a productive and fully present employee. Taking the time you need, being kind to yourself, staying active and outside of your own head, and choosing to use your loved one’s passing as a chance to refocus on your own life and living it to the fullest are ways in which this grief-stricken writer is learning to work through death to experience a better life, especially while at work.