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Facing grief How And Why To Help People Heal

September 16, 2001
Death. It's living with us every day. A fellow employee's spouse dies from a heart attack. Another one's father succumbs to cancer. Your supervisor dies from AIDS. Or your secretary's daughter is killed in a car accident. Will the emotional upheaval that accompanies the event—for the employee and co-workers—disappear after the typical three-day bereavement leave, along with the wilting flowers of condolence? Absolutely not.

Grief and bereavement are traumatic experiences that diminish our energy, derail productivity and even change our ability to think clearly and rationally. The process is a long one, during which we also can lose our motivation and creativity. Plainly, every one of us is affected at some time in our working lives. Yet the painful passage—death and grief—is one we fear facing the most. It's one HR managers woefully are unprepared to handle—often because you may be the ones in denial as well.

Listen to those who've walked the path.
Neely Sims, personnel benefits manager at Precision Converters Inc. in Spartanburg, South Carolina, shares her experience:

It was December 16, 1989. I was working at a textile company as a quality control auditor. My father [Jerred Nichols] got sick on the road while he was at work. They told him to see his doctor when he came home. On Saturday morning, he and my mother went to see his doctor. [Later] he collapsed on the floor and died of an aortic aneurysm. He was 45. [After] my mother walked into the house and told me he'd died, I walked around in a daze. I called work on Monday morning to tell them my father had died, and I went in to work on Tuesday and Wednesday. We buried him on Thursday.

The following Monday I went back to work. My boss came up and said, "I'm sorry about your father." But nothing else. I tried not to cry on the floor [of the factory], but I did cry at times. Even when people saw me, nothing was ever said. It was kind of weird and very impersonal. They didn't come to me and say I should take off work or even ask if I needed to talk with someone or offer that I take an extra 15 minutes for lunch to help my mother get her Social Security started or bank accounts transferred. They expected I should leave all my personal feelings at the door before I walked into work.

It was very traumatic. My mother withdrew and became depressed. She was unemployed, and I had the financial obligation to keep my family intact until the insurance money came through. That burden alone was terrible. I wasn't making nearly the money my father was.

Day after day I always felt I needed to keep everything inside. I couldn't concentrate. [Co-workers gave] me the feeling, "Don't let other people see you upset because it makes other people upset." They were insensitive to what I was going through. I was even reprimanded once for crying on the job, and I was talking to someone else and she got reprimanded too because she wasn't working.

Even HR wasn't helpful. In February, I wanted to take a Friday off to put the tombstone on the grave, but the woman I spoke with was cold and impersonal. She said, "I hope you get all this mess straightened out." That really bothered me. No one even said, "Go get a cup of coffee in the cafeteria."

I decided to quit. My boss asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing. He told me I had a very good future with the company. I told him I was having too much trouble dealing with what I had to deal with and I wasn't getting any support. I had missed a total of four days in two months and I already was in the doghouse. I told him I couldn't take it anymore. [He] was surprised and couldn't understand why I felt that way. I told him, "I feel like this job isn't helping me. If anything, it's adding to my stress and something's gotta give. If you saw my momma and knew her, you'd want to be there for her too. I can't do both."

Make no mistake. Neely Sims represents no isolated incident. Most companies aren't facing this issue effectively. That's why countless companies lose valuable employees like Sims. The way in which we cope with death and grief in contemporary culture is different from the past. Before, extended families lived in closer proximity and experienced grief collectively. In today's society, family members not only are more separated, but individuals include the workplace as a type of extended family.

And yet we're less prepared to help the injured individual manage the disruptive experience of death, according to Edgar N. Jackson, a New Rochelle, New York-based minister. Also, our culture is death-denying and death-defying. "It tends to isolate and leave the grief-stricken emotionally unsupported," he says in an article published in "For the Bereaved—The Road to Recovery." Rather than viewing grief as a negative disruption to work, HR needs to begin viewing grief work as a natural process by which the emotions reorganize themselves to cope with the loss and re-establish healthy relationships. Unfortunately, that hasn't always been the case.

Indeed, 88% of human resources managers Personnel Journal surveyed said they or a colleague recently faced, or anticipate facing, the loss of a loved one. Moreover, 74% acknowledged they were at a loss for words or self-conscious about what to do for the bereaved. And although 93% said they weren't aware of any form of job discrimination (firings or layoffs), how many have even considered benign neglect as a subtler form of discrimination?

Human resources, however, isn't always to blame. Grief is often camouflaged because the individual's state of mind may change in ways you can't detect. For example, an individual may have an increased dependence on sedatives or tranquilizers. Or an employee may appear to be functioning, when in fact he or she is merely trying to save face.

As HR managers, whose job is to keep employees productive and functioning, you have the ability to create a workplace environment that recognizes the cycles of grief and provides ways to effectively address the grieving employee's morale and work capacity. Beyond assessing the humanity and efficacy of typical leave policies, HR can provide a comprehensive program of support: awareness workshops, flexible work schedules, EAP referrals and financial counseling. All of these efforts will facilitate the employee's journey through the grieving process and guide the individual to possibly even greater productivity than before.

"In our society, we're very uncomfortable talking about death and dying. We're also very concerned about people's privacy. So, for a manager who has to respect the privacy of a person who has suffered a loss and still show compassion, it's a very delicate situation," says Karen Lubieniecki, public education director of the Washington, D.C.-based Hospice Council of Metropolitan Washington. "As a manager, you have the responsibility to be compassionate, but you also have the responsibility to keep the workplace functioning. And sometimes that can be a real challenge."

Recognize the basic cycles of grief.
Michele Thompson, HR administrator at Mutual Assurance Administrators Inc. in Oklahoma City, reflects on one of her employees' loss:

We had an employee whose husband was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing [April 19, 1995]. He [didn't die] immediately. He stayed in intensive care for about 20 days. When he died we knew she was going to need extra time off. She decided on a leave of absence until July 1. She took care of a lot of personal business and stayed at her mom's house for a while. We have approximately 49 employees, but we do have an employee assistance program and an employee assistance counselor who works with us on an as-needed basis. We called her in the week before this employee was going to come back to work. We had a big meeting and talked about how the bombing had affected us personally, even though we may not have lost a family member. Then we talked specifically about how it did affect Sally personally and how to cope with her coming back to work.

Our EAP counselor told us if she feels like talking, she will, and if she doesn't, you'll see by her body language. There were times when you could tell she was upset. You might walk by and say, "How's your day?" and you'd end up standing there 30 minutes talking to her—but we had permission to stand there and talk to her. There were days when the person sitting next to her would hear her crying at her desk. If our EAP counselor hadn't talked to us, we wouldn't have known even how to act, what to do.

The whole time her husband was in the hospital, we were grieving too. One of the owners thought about it and didn't want her sitting at the ICU [intensive care unit] alone. We signed up for one- or two-hour shifts during the day to sit with her. Then we'd come back and let everybody know how he was doing. We closed the office the day of the funeral. Everybody went.

The counselor spent a little time talking with us about our feelings and about the different stages you go through and how you cycle back [and forth because] there's no order to the steps. She wrote them on the board and talked about the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness people have when they're grieving.

[In the beginning] we were all in total shock. I felt incredible sadness. Just the reality of how mortal we are made me think about how I need to enjoy every day. It was hard for me to concentrate on my work for about two weeks. It affected my sleep and my dreams.

I think the EAP was the key, and I'm very proud the owners were so caring and gave her a leave of absence. They gave [Sally] time off even though it was without pay, and they allowed her to continue to pay for her benefits. You hear people talk about how employers don't care. It made me feel if something happened to me they would care. Life goes on regardless of work. Somehow you've got to be able to deal with those life issues and keep your job, too.

The grieving process has several distinct phases, according to bereavement specialists. Although each individual is unique, he or she evolves through a generally predictable pattern. The basic stages of grief are: shock and denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance and growth. The process can take weeks, months and sometimes years until the individual is ready to accept the situation and move ahead.

Recovery also depends on the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased. For example, one of the hardest situations is the death of a child because we don't expect to outlive the next generation. "With a child, you lose your future; with a spouse, you lose your present; and with a parent, you lose your past," says Susan Salisbury, former executive director of Oak Brook, Illinois-based The Compassionate Friends (TCF), a national nonprofit support group for bereaved parents and siblings.

Salisbury knows what it's like to be a bereaved parent. She gave birth to two stillborn children—a son in 1974 and a daughter in 1977. Every time she looks at her surviving daughter and subsequent son, she's reminded of the reason for the age gap. At the time her babies died, the general public didn't consider individuals in her situation as bereaved parents, she recalls. Nevertheless, she encouraged existing groups then to acknowledge these forgotten mourners. Some, she says, often are self-conscious about their child's cause of death. "Many families also have concern their children have died from AIDS, drunk driving or suicide. Sometimes, those circumstances can make the grief far worse because of the layers of guilt. These parents will say, "Why didn't I see it coming? How could I have prevented my child's death?" HR and fellow employees need to reach out to these individuals, she says.

Adds Diana Cunningham, TCF interim operations director: "People are so afraid of emotions or a personal connection, they sometimes avoid [your grief]. But quite frankly, parents, especially, are so appreciative and grateful if someone mentions their child's name." It's true. Many bereaved individuals say one of their greatest fears is that others will forget the deceased. So even if you feel uncomfortable, an awkward gesture is better than none. You can't possibly make the bereaved feel any worse than they already do.

HR, therefore, can help bereaved employees move through the cycles of grief by learning to recognize its various manifestations. During shock and denial, the bereaved may exhibit a numbness and disbelief that the event has occurred, according to the Hospice Council of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. It's not that the grieving employee walks around saying it didn't happen. The denial may be expressed by plunging oneself into work, just to avoid facing the pain.

During the anger stage, an individual may lash out at the deceased for abandoning him or her. Sometimes, anger may be directed at a doctor for failing to keep the loved one alive. Very often, the bereaved also might express shortness of temper toward co-workers for thoughtless comments, ignoring their pain or expecting their behavior to remain unchanged. Regardless of the cause of death, the bereaved usually feel some level of guilt about things not done or said. How often have you heard someone say, "If I had only... "

The bereaved also face depression, during which they feel overwhelmed with a sadness that seems never-ending. Holidays, birthdays and death dates are especially difficult times. More than other days, they sharpen the pain of the loss of the loved one who is no longer present at joyful family gatherings. Some bereaved employees may choose to take the day off on the birth or death date to honor the deceased and use their time to mourn. Encourage the flexibility. And watch for signs of illness, withdrawal or even changes in appearance, such as noticeable weight gain or weight loss. As an HR manager, you can minimize the bereaved's stress as they accept the loss and begin reconstructing their lives with a new reality. Time itself doesn't heal, but with proper support, the bereaved can learn to change and grow in unexpected, meaningful ways.

Create flexible policies and a compassionate environment.
Bob Oberstein, assistant professor and director of the Labor Management Relations Program at Ottawa University in Scottsdale, Arizona, recounts his experience:

My wife, Linda, passed away in late August 1990. Literally, I felt my whole world was taken away. After she died, I couldn't do much of anything. If I got up and took the kids to school and did grocery shopping, I was exhausted for the rest of the day. Tie my shoes? Forget it, I'll go for the loafers.

HR managers, therefore, need to realize and separate the psychological questions. In grieving, you're dealing with an art, not a science. Everybody grieves differently. Life interrupts work. HR managers think they have to have all the answers, but it's OK to rely on the judgment of your EAP [counselor], a psychologist or company doctor. Don't be what you're not. But you can address certain issues. For example, I was the sole parent of a 5- and a 10-year-old. That frightened the living daylights out of me. This is where telecommuting becomes important—for the flexibility. I think what's missing in the workplace is the connection between the grieving employee and the relationship to productivity and how to get it up to maximum level and raise the employee to where you can help [him or her] get his or her life together. The attitude most companies have toward bereavement now is [death] is an inconvenience—that the company is being very benevolent hanging in there with the person—that [the employee] better straighten out real soon.

HR can do several things to help employees regain their equilibrium and effectiveness. It could become aware of outside resources for employees and their families and for people facing terminal illness. It can locate support groups for employees and co-workers who have experienced a loss. It can train managers to listen and watch for signs that a grieving person is in need of an EAP counselor or other qualified professional. It needs to educate people that grief doesn't always begin at the moment of passing.

Indeed, if you only look at policies, you'd agree most workplaces appear to deny the emotional realities of death and grief. For example, while 87% of companies surveyed by the Los Angeles-based Employers Group say they have a formal bereavement and funeral leave-with-pay policy for immediate family members, about 80% have a maximum of three days. That doesn't include part-time workers. Only 40% include part-timers. Furthermore, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, while funeral leave policies acknowledge spouse, children, parents and siblings as members of the immediate family, other family members (and significant others) aren't so uniformly treated. About 60% cover grandchildren and step-parent relationships. "An issue for the future is to make the definition of family more friendly to who's close," says Charles Bolyard, assistant vice president of HR and director of psychological services for Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "At this point, it's family members as we know it. That will change as time goes on."

However, in a study by Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Associates, titled "Work and Family Benefits Provided by Major U.S. Employers in 1994," 83% of 1,035 major U.S. corporations surveyed offer EAP provisions, typically with an outside firm. The study also found that more than a third of employers have leave policies that are more generous than required by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in 1993. Nevertheless, it is a blessing, particularly for employees who may be required to care for seriously or terminally ill parents and/or spouses. It requires employers (with 50 or more employees—an estimated one-half of the workforce) to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or for the serious illness of a child, spouse, parent or the employee. Yet, a recent study by the bipartisan Commission on Leave concluded that although nearly 46.5% of all American workers are eligible to take leave under the FMLA, only 2% to 4% actually have used the benefit. Clearly, there's room for encouraging this option.

One of the ways in which the City of Rapid City, South Dakota assists the bereaved is by working with a Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISMT). When one of the city's employees was run over accidentally by a sanitation truck driven by a co-worker, personnel director Jack Teems contacted CISMT. The volunteers, he says, represent different fields: psychology; firefighting; law enforcement; paramedics, emergency response; and nursing. "They're community volunteers who recognized there may be situations in the workplace or community that might profit from their intervention," he says. After the incident, the driver and fellow employees were offered sessions in which to discuss their feelings. "Any progressive company should view [grief] as one more disability and assist in returning [our] investment in employees."

Follow best practices. Avoid worst practices.
Katherine Schneider, director of public and employee information at the National Reconnaissance Office of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Washington, D.C., is grateful for the flexible and supportive environment that enabled her to care for her husband:

My husband, Pat, died the end of [last] September from lung cancer. He was 33 years old. His diagnosis was a complete surprise to us. From August to October, I used annual leave to take him to the doctor. I ran out of vacation time. Thank goodness the agency maintains a pool of annual leave donated by other employees.

People who have excess leave time can donate it to a pool. It's so helpful for those involved in catastrophic situations. The Medical Leave Bank immediately granted me three months off, full time, to care for my husband. But I was able to spread that out over a longer time. Working part time allowed us to maintain as normal a schedule as possible.

I never had to take a leave without pay. I was the primary caretaker and took my husband to the doctor and made his meals. I took off completely the last two months of his life. My office gave me a week off after he died. If an employer can give the employee time, you're able to go through the grief process and journey. I was back to work [soon after]. I feel a sense of obligation and loyalty to the people who have been so good to me.

The agency also provided personal attention on insurance and the credit union. They helped me straighten out my financial affairs and advised me before his death to become a joint signer on papers. They did this early on. It was critical for me because after he died, it made the settlement of the estate easier.

It's important to provide financial planning before, during and after. Financial counseling is the most important thing anyone can do if you're experiencing a terminal crisis. Who's going to provide for you? Having details taken care of early on helps dealing with the grief afterward.

Even within the agency, support goes beyond insurance, counseling and leave. The people here are incredibly generous—running errands, picking up people from the airport. Someone even fixed my computer so I could work at home.

By contrast, Allan Zaklad, an organizational development consultant with Delphi Group in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, recalls a former employer with bitterness. After his 79-year-old mother, Frances, died of cancer in 1990, he observed a Jewish tradition called a shiva. "The family sits together for a week, entertaining relatives who come to pay their respects. We talk about the departed," he says. When he returned to work, Zaklad still felt shaky. Nevertheless, his boss insisted he turn out a proposal—supposedly for his own good. "That was a bunch of [malarkey]. I felt very used and still feel angry even though it was years ago." Zaklad eventually quit the firm, but today he's committed to educating others about the possibilities of grief—not the problems. "A tragedy is a particularly intense opportunity for suffering and learning."

HR managers, therefore, need to reframe the way they view death and grief. Ask most bereaved individuals and they will tell you: An understanding of grief as a profound emotion—and the companion side of love—can give a stronger basis for interpreting the meaning of life, one's values and purpose in work. By re-examining one's company and community resources, HR can more wisely manage the emotions of grief at work—so that life evolves through the process, rather than being destroyed by it.

Be patient. The bereaved can recover.
James Baalmann Jr., legal administrator at Selner, Graser, Comen, Berger & Galganski in Clayton, Missouri recalls how the firm helped him cope:

In 1994, my partner, Jim, died of AIDS. He was 31. It was actually very quick—almost like a car wreck. I was working 50 to 60 hours a week. The firm has a policy of giving you a week off when any member of your household dies. When I returned to work, I had a lot of anxiety and panic attacks. The phone would ring, and I'd be expecting him to call. There was a constant flood of memories and feelings that were difficult to control at times because it was such a shattering experience.

The first couple of weeks, my office door was closed a whole lot. But the overriding factor helping me was my firm's flat-out support for whatever I needed to do. The firm's president, my supervisor, picked up some of my duties for a time. Typically things go the other direction, but during that period, he definitely had a bit more than he would have normally. I relied on my support staff a little bit more too.

But my approach was to put myself into work. So if I wasn't as productive, I'd just put in more hours to get the same tasks done. You have to try to recognize the whole death experience affects every part of your life. The way my firm supported me—just by being flexible, making it known they were available for me—helped me through the healing process.

Indeed, given time and the freedom to heal in their natural way and own speed, people recover from their losses. Deaths may cause enormous grief, but compassionate managers will find employees benefit from caring, flexibility and respect for their pain. Similar to Baalmann, Thompson and Schneider, individuals who are able to complete the bereavement process and integrate their personal and work lives will emerge with greater commitment to their companies. "I wouldn't say I was feeling fine, but about seven or eight months after [Jim's] death, there was a time when I felt like I was becoming myself again. I had definitely crossed some line," says Baalmann.

Personnel Journal, April 1996, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 78-89.