The biggest taboo in the workplace

How to deal with work after losing a loved one.

Almost everyone will lose a loved one during the course of their working life, and yet grief is one of the biggest taboos in the workplace.

Just two weeks after I lost my mother who had suffered a particularly traumatic death I had to present a big plan to the board. I thought everything had gone really well, until I got some questions about the financial aspects of the plan. I looked at the figures again and realised that they were completely wrong. Six surprised faces stared at me, and I felt so awful that I had lost my grip on something that I am usually very good at. The embarrassment! I took my plan back, saying that I had to look at it again.

I was lucky. The board knew about my situation and several of its members offered their help and support. They were genuinely nice, which helped me a lot. But this doesn’t happen everywhere.

After you have lost someone, you face a lot of extra challenges at work. Death is a difficult subject for many people, and the workplace isn’t a place for big emotions, so they may react with awkwardness. They might stare at you, or ask questions about your feelings at inconvenient moments, or they might ignore what happened completely. And work itself is harder. The pressure is the same, but your concentration is not. And how can you be effective in the workplace when you are in such a bad state?

Coping with these extra challenges while being in so much pain is very hard. Here are some ideas on how to deal with your work situation after bereavement.

1. Organise what you need

This will be an exceptionally demanding period for you, so it’s very important not only for you, but also for your employer, that you organise things at work in the best possible way. So talk to your boss and to HR and tell them exactly what you need.

  • If you find it difficult to be around people all day, maybe there is a place where you can be by yourself. Or maybe you could be allowed to work from home more, especially during this pandemic.

  • If working full time is too much, maybe you could be allowed to work shorter hours.

  • Maybe there are certain work activities that are especially hard now. Make arrangements for what you can do and what you can’t.

2. Deal well with the reactions of people

Most people find death a very difficult subject, especially in a work environment, and they may react awkwardly.

  • Realise that these people mean well. They find what happened really awful, but they don’t know how to handle the situation and their response to it can be clumsy.

  • Prepare an answer for when people ask how you are, so you are not taken by surprise.

  • Some grieving people really need to get a lot of attention and sympathy, while others prefer to be left alone. Be clear about what you need. There are many ways in which you can do this: by email to everyone, in person at a meeting, or you can speak to people individually. This will make it easier for your colleagues to know what to do, and make it easier for you as well.

3. It’s OK to have emotions

You might become emotional at work. This can be really awkward but everyone will understand. Go out for a walk alone, or with a close colleague.

4. Give your work a different place in your life

You have been through a lot. It’s not just the loss of a loved one, there might also have been a long illness or sudden bad news, and then there was the funeral to deal with. It’s likely that work will have a new place in your life now. Maybe it looks less important than it was before. Or maybe it’s something to hold onto during a difficult time. It’s very important to be conscious of the place your job has in your life right now, so you really know where you stand and what you want from your work.

Do you need more?

It can be really difficult to go back to work after you have lost someone. Tips can be useful, but you may need more.Do you recognise yourself in this blog? I coach people with all kinds of work related issues, including working after a bereavement. Why not have a look around on my website,, or book a free taster session.

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