Dealing with personal loss at work


Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has recently been in the news as a consequence of the sudden tragic loss of her much-loved husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg. 

She wrote openly and movingly about her grief and shock, and numerous publications and social media have posted (and retweeted) her thoughts. 

Sheryl’s willingness to admit her vulnerability has been praised as empowering and creating new possibilities for innovation and collaboration.

Are organisations ready to handle grief?

While it’s true that leaving our feelings at home dehumanises the workplace, the reality is that many offices and organisations are not yet up to processing grief. Unless the company leadership demonstrates its sympathetic handling of people’s emotional loss (and Sheryl’s example is well worth following), there is sometimes insufficient response given to people’s suffering, which compounds bad feeling all around.

Despite the growing premium placed on emotional intelligence, grief is not especially well understood, and the tools and language of empathy are clunky. This is in part because we all experience grief in unique ways and also because we do not want to say the wrong thing. Some people need to commune alone; others are the better for discussing and sharing their experience. Many go into denial. A few behave “out of character” for a period. Much also depends on a person’s background, beliefs and workplace culture. There is no one way to help a person through a sudden or even expected loss, and not all workplaces are as accommodating as Facebook.

Buddhism holds that suffering is caused by attachment to someone or something – an interesting perspective – but it’s human to bond, and not necessarily viable to posit that we should all practise more detachment. 

If you’ve experienced sudden loss, you may need to:

  • Request some time off work if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Allow yourself to grieve somewhere private if people’s sympathy or curiosity is unbearable
  • Talk to people who have your interests at heart but who will give you the necessary space to heal without judgment
  • Process your sadness through keeping busy, walking, talking, possibly making a point of going to work (this helps some people)
  • Seek comfort within reason and health parameters

Stay away from unhelpful people who make you feel worse:

  • Impatient types who prescribe thoughtless quick-fixes –
  • “You’ll be OK” “Try not to think about it” “Just get good sleep” “It’s fate” “I know how you feel” “Go for a holiday”
  • Well-meaning types with banal solutions – “You’ll meet someone else in time” “Take sleeping pills at night – it helped me” “You should do meditation” “Have you thought about hypnosis?”
  • Those prone to snap judgments that may include family – “It’s all for the better” “You should move out of that house” “I told you it would end badly”

In the meantime, there are constructive things to do:

  • Accept help if and when it’s offered. This may include simple things like someone offering to cook you meals, or taking kids out.
  • Don’t put up a front if it’s hurting to do so – and seek counselling if you’re feeling desperate.
  • If someone is clumsy but sincere, try not to rebuff them, no matter how angry and hurting you may feel.
  • Give yourself time and don’t make unrealistic demands of yourself.

If you’re witnessing a colleague’s grief, show that:

  • You’re there if they need to talk, or if they just want someone to sit with them, or quietly go to lunch.
  • You’re supportive if and when they require it.
  • You’re not afraid of emotions in their various manifestations, knowing they’re experiencing something that may be devastating to them personally.
  • Do something nice and thoughtful for them, unobtrusively and without expectation of thanks or gratitude.
  • Don’t expect them to respond in their usual way. 
  • Give them space if they ask for it but don’t suggest that they need to feel OK.

Listen with care, discretion, and without judgment. Stop and appreciate those around you that you love. You never know what is around the corner.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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