Working while mourning: How to grieve when you're on the job

Grief is an unpredictable and unavoidable part of life. Mental health experts share coping strategies for mourning when curling up in bed isn't an option.
Up the self-care during this time — you may find you were at a deficit there, and it can start to bring healthier habits into your life.kaipong / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

In early January, just days after we’d said our post-holiday goodbyes, my husband’s Aunt Alice passed away. We’d become very close and her sudden death brought me to me knees, and then right into a fetal position. Three weeks later, my Uncle Randy died out of nowhere of a heart attack. This loss too, doubled me over and rendered me completely unable to do much of anything.

As a freelancer I was able to take as much time off as I needed, but because I felt it could be potentially harmful to my career and finances to just go off the grid, I took just a couple days and then flung myself right back into the hustle.

I managed, but honestly I think I did OK because, although I was close to my loved ones who passed, our lives were not inextricably woven together. I hadn’t lost a child, a parent or a spouse.

What would I have done in the wake of a more severe loss? More pointedly: How would I have even been able to grieve and be productive at the same time?

There’s no strict answer to this, and it may be such that you just can’t work after a traumatic loss; but in talking with mental health experts and folks who have lost loved ones while working, I’ve learned that there are ways to manage grieving on the job.

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‘Grieving is like breathing’: You have to do it

An insight that gives me goosebumps, it’s so chillingly true, comes from Dr. Shatavia Alexander Thomas, a therapist in Arizona.

“Grieving is like breathing, but we act like we have to hold our breath,” she says. “It's a natural process and if you pretend like you don't have to do it or that it doesn't exist, you'll end up choking or passing out.”

For our own health, we shouldn't stop or delay grieving. We have to go through it, and while we can’t control it all, we can take measures to make it manageable while we’re maintaining other obligations.

Grieving is like breathing, but we act like we have to hold our breath.

Be honest with your boss and co-workers

Telling my work was the most important thing I did [after the death of my father in 2017], so as to not have my job expect the same me to show up everyday,” says Susan Youngsteadt, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in North Carolina. “I did work in a highly understanding and supportive environment, and acknowledge this is not always the case. But I do find that when my clients are honest about what is going on in their lives, the healing process can truly begin.”

Set up windows of time to grieve amid your routine

Grief is impossible to plan for, and like a wild wind, it can take us in so many emotional directions. With this knowledge, setting up a sort of “schedule of grieving” sounds preposterous.

But we truly can benefit from carving out little windows of time to grieve amid our busy days. This doesn’t mean turning on and off sadness; it’s more like allowing ourselves to be totally immersed in those deep feelings for a short while, perhaps before, after or even during our work day. This was a tip a cognitive behavioral therapist gave me, personally, and one that Dr. Cali Estes, an addiction therapist and life/corporate coach, also recommends.

“One of the big things I teach my clients is to grieve in stages,” says Dr. Estes. “So, instead of shutting down for weeks or months, allow yourself a specific amount of time each day to grieve and be immobilized. And then when that time is up, push through and get to the other side. This could be as simple as 30 minutes a day or allowing yourself to grieve for two or three days. As long as after that time is up, you are getting back into motion. Because, the quickest way to get back to routine is to keep your routine.”

This method can also help keep sorrow, anger or any other consuming emotion from boiling over when you need to keep your cool.

“I found that setting aside dedicated, intentional time to feel the pain of the loss I was experiencing was so helpful,” says Youngsteadt. “This varied everyday but I knew if I didn't schedule the time, the grief would force it's way out one way or another.”

If you get overwhelmed, re-center through breath

What about those times when you’re going about your day and the grief hits you like a bolt of lightning? When you’re mourning, anything can be a trigger, including nothing at all. How do you get back on track?

This is where that breathing metaphor from Dr. Thomas comes in handy.

“When triggered, just like when you hyperventilate, you pause, sit down if you need to, figure out the best way to refresh yourself and keep it moving.”

Assign meaning to even the mundane tasks

“As you go through your day to day normal tasks intentionally assign honor and meaning to the life or value that you have lost,” says Kevon Owen, a clinical psychotherapist in Oklahoma. “Your thriving is what they would want, and your finding ways to make their impact mean something in your moving forward helps to ease the fact that rest and time off is not present.”

Reframe grief as self-care, and understand crying as healing

“If your workload prevents you from having the time to grieve, I recommend reframing the grief under the heading self-care,” says Laura Rhodes-Levin, a licensed therapist and founder of The Missing Peace Center for Anxiety in California. “There is always a moment here or there to take a walk around the block or breathe some fresh air.”

While taking that walk, try to smell the roses, literally or figuratively, “by browsing in shops and gazing at whatever pleases you,” says Arlene B. Englander, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Florida.

“When in private, allow yourself to cry. Research shows that the tears we shed when sad have a different chemical composition than tears when cutting onions, containing toxins that our bodies need to emit," says Englander. "Allow yourself the many intense and conflicting emotions you may feel. Reassure yourself that that’s normal, and that your mood may change from hour to hour and even in minutes.”

Let this be an opportunity to fire up healthy habits

Linsey McNew of Austin, Texas lost her unborn baby (an experience she discusses in depth here), and wound up leaving her demanding job heading an agency in part because of her traumatic loss — but the experience, devastating as it was, did help her realize she’d been prioritizing everything but herself.

“As soon as I woke up first thing I would do was check my email, then I would immediately respond to my team and to clients,” McNew tells NBC News BETTER of her typical routine. “I was working constantly, focused on the goal I was told I needed to achieve and what it would take for me to get there. That still happens [now that I’m freelance], but I don't feel that same anxiety. Because of what I experienced with losing my son, I learned that if I didn't take the time to learn to eat and sleep right, when would I?”

Up the self-care during this time — you may find yourself learning you were at a deficit there, and can start bringing healthier habits into your life.

Put your loved one's picture on your desk

We may try to shut out reminders of our departed loved ones while we’re working so we don’t lose focus, but having their essence around can actually help us to feel connected to them, and to the important process of grief.

“People try to forget about the loss, but that’s just not possible,” says Jacob Brown, registered associate marriage and family therapist certified in grief counseling. “If you’ve lost a loved one, I suggest putting a picture of them on your desk, setting up a little area in your home with a few mementos, or carrying something with you that connects you to them. That way you’re staying connected to your grief throughout the day and letting it process in your subconscious.”

Find time for grief support, even if your schedule looks too crazy

Youngsteadt at first struggled to find a balance between mourning and working, feeling that she really had no time to grieve.

“I constantly felt obligated to help my team and be there for my clients,” she says. “I was in denial initially and wanted to dive into work to occupy my mind. I quickly realized that I was not doing myself, or my work, any favors, by not addressing my grief. But I had no time.”

Or so she felt at first, but Youngsteadt learned that she actually did have time — early in the morning, before work began.

“Even with my crazy schedule, I was able to access grief counseling before work every week,” she says. “For those who are interested, but may not know where to begin, I would recommend contacting your local hospice organization and asking about grief and loss groups and recommendations for individual grief counseling. Many offer these services and if they do not, they partner with individuals and agencies that do. 'Psychology Today' is also a great resource to find local counseling services in your area that meet one’s criteria for insurance, location and therapy style.”

Social media can be a positive place to connect throughout the day

Youngsteadt also champions online support groups, which you may find on Facebook among other social media platforms. This can be especially helpful if you really can’t leave your desk but need to reach out to someone who understands.

After losing both of parents to cancer in the last two years, Rachel Reichblum started an Instagram account chronicling quotes that resonated with her, reflections of her day-to-day life with grief and sharing professional resources she’s found to be helpful.

So much of dealing with loss and grief is to be had in the small moments, too — not the ones you’d necessarily prioritize talking to your therapist about.

“My initial goal for the account was for it to serve as my own form of daily therapy [in addition to meeting with a therapist],” says Reichblum. “But so much of dealing with loss and grief is to be had in the small moments, too — not the ones you’d necessarily prioritize talking to your therapist about, but ones that would otherwise get pushed under the rug. Not every post has to be super consequential, it can be just a fleeting thought, but a thought nonetheless, that it turns out many others have had, too. There’s a lot of healing power in that, and it forces me to take a moment a day to focus on what I’m feeling (whether good or bad) and to find a way to put it into words. It’s almost like a form of meditation.”

Reichblum’s Instagram has also enabled her to meet people who are going through similar experiences.

“Realizing there’s community to be had in loss, particularly at a relatively young age, was the greatest lesson I learned on my grief journey thus far, so being that connection for others is endlessly rewarding,” she says.

Connecting with supportive people, particularly others who are grieving is something that therapists highly recommend.

“Normalizing the shared experience of grief is extremely beneficial,” says Youngsteadt. “Reaching out to others and connecting makes us stronger.”

Above all else, know that this is okay

As Tami Sasson, licensed master social worker in New York City points out, “life does not offer us grief leave."

No matter the circumstances, grieving is a challenge simply because our modern culture doesn’t make much room for it.

“We live in a society that expects us to be happy all the time [and] productive to our own detriment,” says Sasson. “Remind yourself that despite that, it's okay to be human. It's okay to feel and it's okay to grieve. Keep talking about it and keep feeling it. This is your time to take the best possible care of yourself. It will get easier. Cry as much as you need and never apologize for saying no.”

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