There is no onboarding process to ease you back into work after bereavement leave. No pretty HR girl sits opposite you in an oversized boardroom with a box of chocolates, a Kleenex box and a stack of helpful papers explaining what’s appropriate to share with boss-lady and colleagues regarding your loss. No one warns you how alone you’ll feel when cramped in a conference room. No one mentions the alienating stares you’ll receive as you turn down another company softball game and subsequent happy hour in favor of your newest avocations: breakfast for dinner and the DVR.
You are: at the brink of emotional instability.
You’re not: alone.
You’re now one of the many grief-stricken women getting back to her desk all-too-soon after experiencing loss. You’re like me –– coping at a corporate level. Unsure of how to act once we’re back, our first instinct is to pack the tears, anger, anxiety and frustration neatly into Tupperware and save the mess for later. Compartmentalize. With cleared plates, we cling to our deadlines and inboxes to show the world we’re strong enough for the day’s decisions and responsibilities. In reality, we do little but challenge our computer screen reflection to consecutive staring matches or construct bulletproof arguments in favor of human hibernation.
We’re lost in loss. And those stockpiling leftovers crowd our ability to heal. It’s no easy task to tight rope the line between personal breakdowns and professional benchmarks, but these pointers aim to offer a bit of direction towards a greater work-grief balance.
Outfit Your Outlook
Allow me to step onto my soapbox for a hot second and preach about what not to wear when accessorizing a perma-frown. Though traditional and respectful, black on black on black on black is a heavy emblem of emptiness that does nothing but remind you of sadness while negatively affecting your efficiency and perception of the world. Lay off it. Limit yourself to an outfit that is only 50% black so that you’re only half-nailed down to a negative mood at the office.
There is, of course, more to mood than hue. Instead of unapologetically reaching for the yoga pants and baggy sweater for the 17th consecutive day, try a skirt or a staple necklace – anything that makes you feel unique and worthy of recuperation. You have to fake it to make it. Play the game. Maybe start by taking care of your “barely-there” unibrow, or lap on a few layers of mascara, and end by running everything that gets draped over your sleepless body through the sniff and lint tests. Nothing good comes from being a round-the-clock-ragamuffin, so from 9-5: look good to feel good to do good work.
Cry At The Corner
Triggers aren’t courteous. Cruel and unpleasant forces, they always manage to sneak attack you into sob mode when you’re neither in private nor wearing waterproof eye makeup. Whether you’re in the break room, presenting to a client, or having a casual conversation with team members about upcoming holiday plans, you’ll have roughly eight seconds before the pinch in the back of your throat signals overactive tear ducts to drop salt bombs. Find the nearest escape route and make a break for it. Crying at the drop of a hat is absolutely normal in grief, and you’d be severely mistaken if you thought only the weak well-up at work. Let yourself feel when you need to feel, but excuse yourself, however abruptly, and cry outside. Take a walk around the block. Park it on a neighboring curb. Just let the fresh air mix with your tears as a catalyst for healing. Life is bigger than what has you cooped up every day of the week, so walk outside to take all the time and space and tears you need to remember that. To remember the one you lost.
While loss has a tendency to be an elephant in the boardroom, it also has an unparalleled ability to bring people together. It’s important to share your pain with select colleagues and shine light on your current hardships. You’ll likely discover people with parallel stories, glean advice and even find refuge in an unsuspecting someone’s empathy.
There is, however, a time and place to gravel in group angst. Best behind closed doors, or over a glass of wine some place off company radar, it’s okay to let coworkers in. Remember that you are a person first, a professional second, and it will serve you well to be honest and open with the people you work with directly. They’ll appreciate your courage and will honor your bravery with understanding and patience. Be particular and be sparing. Also be sure to keep a healthy stash of dark chocolate in the top drawer of your desk for blissful bits of bite-sized sympathy for those moments you can’t jump out of your chair for hugs and shoulders to cry on.
When battling the grief monsters at the office, some days you’ll win, others you’ll lose. And that’s perfectly all right. So long as you stay kind and true to yourself, you’ll make it through to the other side. It’ll be difficult, no doubt, and you’ll likely find yourself dismissing the idea that you’ll ever be a fully functioning professional again. Be patient. Start with these basic steps and you’ll find yourself making your own leaps towards recovery.
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