The one perk to losing my 40-year-old husband during the Great Recession was that my PR firm had no qualms about granting me an unpaid leave of absence. Clients had been departing en masse since the financial crash, and when my own world crashed with Alberto’s sudden heart attack on March 15, 2009, my return date was thankfully not a priority.
Even after an unprecedented, four-month bereavement leave, I still felt NSFW (not safe for work). But my depleted bank account — and a rush of new clients — demanded otherwise. I had a sense of how awkward the transition would be: My only sibling died in a car crash when I was 19, and several office colleagues had pulled me aside back then to share stories of their pets being hit by cars.
In an ideal world, employee orientation would cover more than work safety and sexual harassment — it would include grief education. Trained counselors would explain how to interpret the body language and conversation cues of the bereaved, and offer ideas for supporting a grieving colleague. In reality, it’s on us — the mourners — to re-learn how to perform, interact, and care about the reports and quotas that no longer qualify as emergencies to us. Among the strategies that helped me cope, here are a few that address common workplace awkwardness.
Situation #1: Small Talk
In Year One, I lost my ability to chitchat, and even questions like “how are you?” seemed loaded. “Fine” wasn’t just a lie, it seemed like an insult to my recently dead husband. But no one at work wanted to hear that I was a puddle jump away from falling apart, so I scripted a few stock replies to this question. Answers like “busy” or “glad to be back” or “looking forward to X” would effectively steer the conversation out of the danger zone. Volleying the question back to the other person will also shift the focus from you to them.
Situation #2: Focus
Pre-loss, “complete new biz proposal” was a typical item on my To-Do List, but any sort of large-scale task sent my post-widowed self into fits of hyperventilation. To combat this, I started breaking down tasks into embarrassingly simple steps: info-gathering, research, writing, image placement, rehearsal, etc. Setting smartphone alarms to go off every hour from 9 to 5 also helped me stay on track(ish) at a time when I had the attention span of a mosquito. If your desk is in a high-traffic area, wear headphones or ask if you can take that empty desk in a quieter part of the department.
Situation #3: Triggers
It’s impossible to anticipate every landmine, but we can usually predict a few of our triggers. I knew that my work inbox, which contained several hundred emails from Alberto, would be a discomfort zone. So I contacted a friend in IT, who kindly agreed to move all those emails off the server and into a separate desktop folder. One trigger: avoided.
Headlines about heart attacks or news of weddings and anniversaries could derail my day in a hurry, but following the media’s daily stories was part of my job. I found ways to avoid tragedy-centric news outlets, but I asked my director to reassign my pitch duties from wedding media to business and men’s publications. More often than not, people want to help us cope, so if you can identify a work-around for your triggers, don’t be shy about suggesting it.
Situation #4: Meltdowns
On the verge of a meltdown is not the moment to look for a panic room, so plan ahead. If your desk doesn’t come with its own office door, find somewhere to retreat when you sense the unstoppable. Maybe it’s a conference room or the bathroom on another floor. I personally frequented a fire escape, stairwell and loading dock. I kept these spots a secret, but made a point of bringing my smartphone in the event an actual PR crisis occurred in those 15 minutes. Because courtesy.
Situation #5: Flex Time
Settling an estate can involve meetings with lawyers, accountants and insurance companies, so find out your company’s policy on flex time. As in, can you take one Friday a month or one morning a week to handle these responsibilities? Some organizations have protocols for making up hours; some don’t. If you don’t already have an ally in HR, make fast friends with the kindest person in that department.
Grief itself is a full-time job, and working two jobs simultaneously means dumb mistakes will happen. Our short-term memories will fall short. Something will fall through the cracks. Plan to shake it off and move forward. And when we can’t stop obsessing about an error, can we remind ourselves that if no one’s dead as a result, it’s really not that big of a deal?
Tré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. She is an award-winning copywriter whose essays have appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire and on MindBodyGreen.com.