Workplace Wellbeing

How to Support Grieving Employees Beyond Bereavement Leave

While bereavement leave can be helpful in the initial wake of a loss, grief often lingers after returning to work. Discover how to create a supportive work environment for grieving employees.

Written by
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Bianca Elliott
Clinically reviewed by
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    Today is National Grief Awareness Day, a topic I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last year as I’ve healed from my dad’s unexpected passing last July.

    Before losing my dad, I felt uncertain about how to approach someone who had experienced the death of a loved one. Despite my best intentions, my words and gestures often felt inadequate. However, having touched grief myself, I’ve come to recognize the value of offering genuine support to those immersed in one of life’s most delicate experiences. 

    When it comes to supporting employees during times of loss, it’s essential to consider both their legal entitlement to bereavement leave and their fundamental human needs, which is so much more than just a few days off to plan a funeral. While this doesn’t necessarily imply a need for additional paid leave, it emphasizes the significance of emotional support and care leaders can provide during these challenging, life-altering times.

    Understanding the widespread impact of grief

    Princeton University Press points out that “in a span of less than two years, Covid-19 infections have killed 4.5 million people worldwide. Experts estimate that each person who dies is significantly grieved by nine others. Do the math, and that means 40 million more grief episodes than normal over that span.”

    Of course, grief often extends beyond the initial 12 months, making this number even more significant. After three years, 38% of people who have lost a child or a partner continue to struggle intensely with their grief. For many, grief never truly goes away. 

    These statistics don’t include the grief stemming from devastating events like miscarriages, which affect an estimated 26% of all pregnancies. Beyond death, grief can have many catalysts, all of which entail a sense of loss. This can include the dissolution of a partnership through divorce, the loss of a job, the passing of a pet, and the decline of good health.

    Grief can be devastating to mental well-being, often triggering feelings of deep sadness (experienced by 83%), depression (42%), insomnia (31%), anxiety/PTSD (19%), and suicidal thoughts (5%). It can bring on physical ailments like fatigue (39%), changes in appetite (32%), headache (25%), stomachaches (15%), heart palpitations (12%), or the diagnosis of a new or worsening disease (5%). 

    Grief’s unpredictable timeline

    One of the most important insights I’ve gained about grief is that it follows its own timeline. The expectation that your mourning period will neatly align with your granted bereavement leave’s limited days or weeks is often unrealistic. 

    In the weeks following my dad’s passing, I spent much of my energy trying to be strong for my family—particularly my stepmom and younger sisters. I inadvertently left little room to process my own grief except for the day of his funeral. It wasn’t until five weeks later, when I was back home, that the weight of grief and depression settled in.

    Beyond its mental and physical effects, grief can also influence our thought patterns. This can include feelings of intense sorrow (41%), difficulty accepting the loss (27%), feelings of guilt or self-blame (18%), moments of bitterness, anger, numbness, or detachment (22%), disruptions to daily routines (20%), avoidance of reminders of the loss (17%), a sense of purposelessness (12%), and more. 

    Because my dad’s death was sudden, I kept having flashbacks to the hospital. My brain was trying to understand how the sweet and vibrant man I had just spent a week sharing deep conversations and moments with could suddenly be in an irreversible coma.  

    In the weeks following his passing, I struggled to remember his strength and our wonderful memories together. Instead, I was fixated on that scene in the hospital. I knew it wasn’t the way he’d want to be remembered, yet I struggled to override these persistent thoughts. 

    While I’m fortunate to possess many personal growth tools and a resilient mindset, they proved ineffective. My thoughts stubbornly wandered into places I wished to avoid—anger directed at my dad, resentment toward myself, and an unhealthy fixation on what might have been prevented.  

    These negative cycles are a common facet of grief and tend to persist beyond the allotted bereavement period, occupying mental space that can directly impact our productivity at work. 

    Reintegrating with grief in the workplace

    One of the most challenging aspects of returning to work after a loss is realizing that your colleagues’ lives remain unchanged. Office routines persist, filled with familiar to-do lists, presentations, and friendly banter. Meanwhile, your entire world is transformed, and so are you. And that can be a lonely and confusing state to be in. 

    I was fortunate to have been surrounded by highly supportive people within my work environment. These individuals stood by me, creating a safe space that allowed me to navigate the waves of sorrow and healing. With their support, I managed to stay engaged with my work, regain strength, and cultivate a sense of loyalty toward those who showed up for me. My work even became a haven instead of a distraction. Encountering the smiles of colleagues and clients became a motivating force that carried me through the challenging months that followed.

    Being self-employed means I lack paid time off, but I immediately informed my clients about the loss of my dad. Luckily, they responded compassionately, encouraging me to take the necessary time. Still, I resumed my work online the following Monday, knowing it would take more than a week to grieve and heal. Instead, I carved out small spaces in my days, evenings, and weekends to allow myself to feel, cry, and process. 

    How leaders can support grieving employees

    Reflecting on my experiences over the past year, I feel compelled to share insights about grief in the workplace with HR leaders to show what proved effective, alongside takeaways from my sisters’ journeys. 

    • Learn about grief: If you haven’t personally encountered grief, take some time to learn more. A good starting point is learning about Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief.  
    • Show compassion: Be patient and understand that grief comes in waves. While the initial months are incredibly challenging, it’s important to realize that grief can resurface unexpectedly, even well beyond that period.
    • Extend support and follow their lead: Tell grieving colleagues you're available for conversation should they wish to open up. Remember that people react differently—some find solace in discussing their loss, while others find it too overwhelming. Remind them that you’re there to listen if they choose to share. 
    • Share personal stories: If you’ve ever been affected by grief, sharing your experiences can help colleagues feel less alone. One of my sisters had a boss send flowers and a card sharing her own loss experience, creating a compassionate bridge and acknowledgment of my sister’s emotions. 
    • Offer flexibility: Give them flexibility when they return to work. This might mean adopting a hybrid work schedule, allowing for walks during the workday if grief becomes overwhelming, or encouraging others on the team to help with their workload.
    • Remember important dates: One of my clients reached out to me on Father’s Day with a very caring note to let me know she was thinking about me. This touched me deeply and made me feel so valued as a human being. Noting important dates like this or the anniversary of their passing can go a long way in making an employee feel supported beyond the initial grieving window. 
    • Provide professional counseling. Grief can trigger a range of health challenges, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and substance misuse. Offering access to professional support during this time can make all the difference.

    The importance of finding the right type of grief care

    One thing I wish I’d had in the months following my loss was a skilled therapist. After searching extensively for a therapist with grief expertise, I worked with someone for five sessions before stopping. Unfortunately, our interactions didn’t address the core of my grief, instead focusing on more general topics like self-care or personality traits. I needed someone to guide me deeper into the intricacies of my grief and help me make sense of it. While her approach may have comforted someone else, it wasn’t aligned with my needs. 

    This experience underscores the importance of discovering the right therapeutic match. That’s why partnering with a care provider like Spring Health, which takes careful measures to facilitate this selection process, holds such immense value.

    Rediscovering normalcy after grief 

    Whether navigating your own journey through grief or considering how to support someone on this path, it’s crucial to recognize the individuality of each experience. There isn’t a standardized path toward healing from loss. What truly matters is fostering an environment where people feel comfortable acknowledging their emotions, as this is the initial step toward both healing and seeking assistance to mend.

    Grief can make us more sensitive. I cry more easily now—not solely in response to sadness, but also in the presence of beauty that resonates deeply. And that is a lovely thing. It signifies a heightened sense of our shared humanity, expanding our capacity for empathy and our ability to be present for others.

    This is part of the reason I wanted to write this article—to share insights into how we can extend care to one another during the most delicate periods. By doing so, we illuminate the impact thoughtfulness and support can have on the lives of those navigating grief.

    Discover four effective strategies for coping with grief while leading a team at work.  

    About the Author
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    Bianca Elliott

    As a Reiki Master and holistic life coach, Bianca works with individuals to connect with their inner wisdom to reach optimal performance and wellbeing. She is a seasoned brand strategist who has been helping companies connect with their core essence and authentic narrative for over 16 years.

    About the clinical reviewer
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