Grief in the Workplace
Losses in the workplace happen. People die in the workplace both by accidents and natural causes. Traditionally, grief counselors were not invited into the workplace with their service. Grief often is not acknowledged in the workplace despite the fact grief can have significant and monumental effects in every organization.
The following scenario presents a good example of grief entering the workplace. The death was a sudden death. As investigated, the employee died from natural causes—nothing to do with his work or workplace caused this employee’s death.
The scene was “the plant”. This type of plant has a solidified process, 24/7 production. The employees are in teams which are perfected in what they are taught to perform, then implement daily. The safety meetings are constant reminders to seniority – with a check-in and notifications of what’s in store for the day. The plant runs in shifts. Each position has a status of measurable performance. Each person is acclimated not only to their shift, but to everyone else and their shift. Each position learns to manage their time and navigate life. Celebrations are planned with consideration of this calendar. Conversations surface byway of this calendar. Calculations of pay, hours worked, schedule shifts as well.
There is a process of each person learns to manage their time and navigate life. Celebrations are planned with consideration of this calendar. Conversations surface by way of this calendar. Calculations of pay, hours worked, scheduled shifts, days-off and vacation are constructed on this calendar. Future plans, arrangements of work needing done, and substitution are a part of this calendar also.
“The plant” is how everyone refers to this organization. “The plant” is referred to like a family. It is small in numbers of people, yet closely knitted together by the task at hand and this organization container.
Paths of advancement have been steeply designed and prioritized in this organization. These paths invite employees to make a career here. “The plant” over time has become an interwoven tapestry of work, socialization, fun and relationships. This tapestry consists of how the organization manages or implements within the ranges of each personality. Some people present as larger than life while others follow along in the shadows working towards completion of work and to receive the employment benefits. These people are more than just “worker bees”. They form a close and closed community.
One morning, a lead employee was found dead. He was found during routine safety rounds by a newer employee. The shift team, connected by an individualized radio network, was set into a collective togetherness motion. Simultaneously, there was a hole ripped in the tapestry—although stretched— it held together that which never had been imagined could be torn.
All the safety training, equipment, supplies and people sprang into action. First responders, who were not traditionally first responders, felt the trauma that resonated in minutes. The plant’s preparedness worked like clockwork. The end resulted in death and was not what anyone ever believed would happen at “the plant”.
We are born. We live. We die. I have said this thousands of times. The response is the same. Whomever I am speaking to nods their head as if they agree. Then I ask… about the person’s experience with someone dying. The reactions change. The stories become vague, but personal. Trust is significant for anyone to release their vulnerability into this type of dialogue. I am centered on kindly building rapport promptly within every meeting. I do not ask details of the circumstances instead I ask about the deceased—who is this person who died in relationship to the person in front of me. I attempt to guide the conversation to a more humanistic perspective rather than just facts of the loss. Facts help to begin a dialogue, but grief extends past the facts.
Understanding is only a small part of grief. Grief is a whole body experience which includes emotions and beliefs that are attached to every loss.
When meeting with people for the first time or when I expect I will only meet with them one time, I listen to the person’s narrative and, when appropriate, introduce supportive grief information which relates to their narrative. Sometimes nothing more than allowing a person to tell their story to someone who knows nothing about them or the circumstances is the best opportunity for them to make sense of what may appear in a glance to be senseless.
In “the plant”, many had grown accustom to their shift as “just another day”. There are times when things change as if to announce “this day is different”. I was invited into one of those days. A day very different from the routine of a safety meeting, safety checks, safety routines in order to double check the primary safety focus. I sat in a room of safety equipment with a schematic of “the plant” in intricate detail posted on the wall. This day is different. My cordial: hello and good morning triggered only a smug look from a person who did not want to meet me. She turned away and followed me with no expression of any kind. I was there to be a listening ear while sharing my expertise of processing grief. I was there because I answered a request for onsite grief counseling following a non-work related death. In the workplace settings, I am to serve the workplace. The workplace is my client. I am there to smooth out any wrinkles created by grief that is naturally connected to every death loss. I am there to set the attention which has turned away from “the plant” and what “the plant” does back toward the purpose of “the plant”. I am there in empathy, curiosity, attentive care and compassion.
There is also a trickling effect of other things into each employee’s life. The plant continues 24/7. Any loss is more than the loss. It resonates through the entire plant and into each person’s personal life. The homeostasis will find itself. Change is instant. The facts matter and they don’t concurrently. Understanding the facts does not provide the whole story of what happened and how an event will affect everyone associated to this event. A review of all the safety procedures and the conclusion of all the reports do very little to mend the tapestry hole — in the relationships, duties and the community. It is how the homeostasis arrives… not to be any more painful than the original loss. The return is not about the plant. It is about the way one copes and ultimately the way one grieves which will determine a legacy in the future.
When I think of “a plant”, I think of vegetation. I think of growth in seasons. Grief is naturally attached to loss. Grieving, as a journey, allows for the immediate to pass through to the next season and ultimately what has been learned to be the harvest of hope in the future. Grief in the workplace often seems like it doesn’t exist or is unwelcome. Grief has its own unique way of waiting and seeping into one’s life. It often triggers unexplained reactions or complicating circumstances.
Mourning is the expression of grief. Let your grief be managed and navigated. No one needs to do this alone. Some, however, may choose to.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4