After the Funeral: The cost of grief and how to support grieving colleagues

Another year older and life is still happening. The New Year is a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future. Time to reflect on life and your place in it (attending three funerals will do that to you, especially when one funeral is on my birthday.)

The unexpected loss of a co-worker’s teenage grandchild, or loss of another co-worker’s daughter after a long struggle they thought she overcame, or the loss of an in-law’s beloved 91-year-old grandma who was well-loved by her family. All three happened at different ages in life while affecting all families deeply.

My question is what happens after the funerals? How do you give comfort to a family member, or co-worker, or friend? What do you say?

Most people want to empathize with the person suffering. Sociologist Charles Derber talks about two responses to emotional or uncomfortable conversations (in lieu of avoidance). The two paths are responses that shift the conversation or support the conversation. What are you doing?

An example of a shift response in day to day conversation is as follows: Joe: I am so swamped at work. Jim: Me, too. I can’t believe they have me working the holidays. An example of a support response: Joe: I am so swamped at work. Jim: What have you been doing?

Are you focusing on the person that is struggling versus trying to empathize by sharing your own struggle in an effort to connect? Are you encouraging the other person to share their story? Are you even aware that the person suffering a loss may still be struggling six months or a year later? More than a century ago families wore black for a year to visually represent this. Not so in today’s age where a 24-hour news cycle makes information old after just one day.

And why does it matter to the business community? Grief is an inevitable, natural part of life. Statistics show that one in four employees is grieving at any given time.* Unresolved grief may lead to emotional baggage that manifests later in harmful actions, cardiovascular risk, depression, or recurring illness. Even memory is affected. Those suffering grief have a lower short-term memory recall rate for up to one year after the initial event. Instructions or deadlines may need to be in writing to help the co-worker through this time frame.

Also studied was the economic effect of absenteeism (lost work days) and “presenteeism” (lack of focus while on the job.)

The study saw “an average annual cost of $75 billion in lost productivity, lost business, and poor performance for all grief-inducing experiences.” They also noted “an estimated 30 work days lost each year by each employee experiencing grief with no support from coworkers or managers; 20 percent of employees will continue losing workdays for more than a year.”*

So how do you help your workforce, family, co-worker or friend through this dark time? There are several options. The non-profit group Michael’s Place, located in Traverse City, will assist companies in developing a crisis plan and provide grief education and training. (They also provide peer-to-peer support groups at their offices in age appropriate groups, offer in school support and crisis counseling, and hold community workshops.)

Another group is Grieve Well out of Ann Arbor. Both Michael’s Place and Grieve Well offer online resources for those looking to learn more (mymichaelsplace.net and grievewell.com/resources/online-resources/). You might consider adding a company chaplain or counselor at your work for grief and other issues that impact employees. Team Elmer’s has a company chaplain on staff who provides support, helps with the process of healing, and connects individuals to ongoing resources.

Grief is experienced in many forms. Grieving a divorce, a career change, medical diagnosis, or financial hardships, are all forms of loss that may manifest similarly. There are individuals that can help with the process. Healing happens in the quiet moments long after the rituals are done.  Maybe time spent playing in the sand will help. One thing for sure: No words are needed, just show up and listen.

Tonya Wildfong is communications director at the heavy construction company, Team Elmer’s. A University of Michigan graduate and Track & Field Big Ten Championship teammate, Tonya currently serves on the Impact 100 TC and Chemical Bank Community Boards. She authored the children’s book, Bee in the Barn and still likes to play in the sandbox with her remarkable husband and two entertaining children. Have questions or comments, please contact TonyaWildfongTCBNews@gmail.com.

* The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation. (2003). Grief Index: The Hidden Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace

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