Grief at Work: What Does a Grief-Competent Workplace Look Like?
Lately I’ve been thinking about how multiple losses can complicate grief. And if they happen in a short period of time it can overwhelm our ability to cope.
If we work with animals in shelters and vet clinics, the sheer number of losses we experience can be a major challenge (see: cumulative grief). In some workplaces we’re experiencing daily losses and in large numbers.
This puts us in a constant cycle of fresh grief with coping skills that might be really overloaded. And I’m not even including the losses we experience in our personal lives. Which I should, since most of us are grieving on any given day.
Have you read the “ball in the box” description of grief?
It’s wonderful. And it made me think about some of you and how, if the losses are constant, the ball never has a chance to get smaller naturally. The losses stack up and the pain can be overwhelming.
Yet we hardly talk about grief at work.
So I have questions.
What do we do with all this cumulative grief? How do we tend to it and allow ourselves to experience the pain (so that it’s not trapped inside and causing damage), but still remain functional at work?
We do a pretty terrible job of allowing for grief in our modern society. It’s all the more challenging when our workplaces are filled with unacknowledged loss and pain. Or when we avoid acknowledging that some of the losses we experience have been traumatizing.
Sometimes we’re afraid to feel or do anything because we worry that acknowledging the loss might “break the dam” and we’ll fall apart.
We’re holding so much in.
But what if we acknowledged the grief more regularly, so that there was no dam to break? What if our workplaces were psychologically safe enough for us to be vulnerable with one another?
What would it look like to acknowledge grief and to create shared rituals that allow us to grieve together in workplaces that are constantly impacted by loss?
What would a “grief-positive” or at least a “grief competent” workplace look like?
Like I said, I have a lot of questions.
But I’d never leave you hanging without some ideas for what we can do to address this.
A friend who works in harm reduction (for people impacted by drug use) mentioned how many losses her community was dealing with and shared this resource for grieving on the job, born out of AIDS bereavement work, called When Grief Comes to Work.
I highly recommend it if you’re in a leadership role. The guide includes a number of prevention and intervention strategies such as: trauma-informed organizational culture, varying workload, education so staff understands what they’re experiencing, social/group support, workplace rituals, mental health coverage, supervision to process events, and resources for self-care.
No matter where you work please don’t miss this amazing interview with psychotherapist Francis Weller.
In particular, I’m turning over his thoughts on the powerful relationship between grief and gratitude, sorrow and joy:
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible…
A heart that does not somehow deal with grief turns hard and becomes unresponsive to the joys and sorrows of the world. Then our communities become cold; our children go unprotected; our environment can be pillaged for the good of the few. Only if we learn to grieve can we keep our hearts responsive and do the difficult work of restoring and repairing the world.”
Don’t skip the interview. It’s rich.
If you have anything to share about how organizations can address grief and loss, I’d love to hear from you.
Are any of you offering groups facilitated by a veterinary social worker or grief counselor for your staff? Do you have any rituals to acknowledge your losses? I’m curious to know what’s already being done. Leave a comment or send me a message anytime. I always want to hear from you!
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