Death is unfixable

Nora Akins

There is a stigma associated with suffering. People don’t want to show it and onlookers don’t want to see it. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a private sadness. Caring communities come together to support those in grief. Workplaces promise a sense of community, yet have much to learn to better support an employee’s grief.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review, "When a Colleague is Grieving," shares research and insight of how workplaces and managers can support employees in grief. Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief described as a steady process from denial, anger, bargaining, and depression to acceptance. This Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle was based on John Bowlby’s three phases of mourning: defiance and anger; pain, despair and disorganization; and slow reorganization and reinvestment in life. The important difference is Bowlby believes grief ebbs and flows. It does not unfold in a progression. Research confirms Bowlby’s belief.

Managers should understand grief ebbs and flows through the phases and is different for everyone. The article prescribes a management response for each of these three phases whenever they present themselves; to be present in the moments of loss, patient with the inconsistency it generates and open to its growth potential. The manager’s response to a grieving employee is a signal of how much the organization cares about its employees. It is something employees will remember.

Managers must resist the rescue. Managers should acknowledge the loss without trying to fix things or make demands. The manager's role is to be present and manage the boundary between the employee and the workplace. The manager might initiate a phone call or make a personal visit to recognize the loss. Send flowers, a card, and request attendance at the memorial service to offer support.

Managers should be open with the policies regarding return to work and ask the bereaved what they want others at work to know. Everyone’s needs are different through this grieving process. Some may want to return to work as soon as they can after handling the necessary arrangements, others may not, still others may not be able to financially afford more time than the workplace provides. Though the discussion may feel unsympathetic, the employee often craves clarity.

With the bereaved employee back at work, managers must recognize grief will remain intense for months with the ebbs and flows lasting years. The employee will feel confused, exhausted and pain often accompanied with times of ambivalence wanting, but unable to move forward. This ambivalence is unconscious and comes out as inconsistency and personal absence. One moment the employee may be focused on a complex problem, followed by a moment unable to respond to a simple question. Grief disrupts focus, consistency and drive. Managers must recognize this is a manifestation of grief and not lack of competence or interest. Hold the employee in the same regard as previously without the same expectations. Be patient.

Hope and resolve will emerge at times. Managers should listen and show interest. Provide the employee affirmation, but don’t cheer them along. Be open. Create a kinder workplace.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

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