How to deal with bereavement

Grief is common, but talking about it in an open and helpful way is not – especially in the workplace. Here, academic Lauren Breen, Associate Professor in Psychology at Curtin University and a registered psychologist, dives deeper into this unexplored topic.

Hi Lauren. What exactly is grief and grieving?

Grief is normal and natural. It is the way we adapt to loss, whether than be of a person, place, possession, or pet, or something less tangible, like a role, identity, or hope for the future. Grief involves our emotions but is much more than an emotional response in that it affects us cognitively, behaviourally, physically, socially, financially, and spiritually.

How useful are conventional models of grief, e.g. the five stages, to our understanding of it?  

Early grief theories tended to emphasise the idea that there were stages to grief that generally began with shock and denial and ended in recovery. However, there is very little evidence for this, either in research or in people’s experiences of grief. Most grieving people will talk of waves of grief or describe a rollercoaster of grief rather than distinct stages. As such, grief researchers and grief counsellors draw instead on newer approaches to understanding grief. Unfortunately, the idea that grief is a series of stages that are completed in a short period of time can be harmful to bereaved people. It can make them think that they are grieving the “wrong” way or are going mad because their experiences of grief don’t fit how they think it should be. There is no one way to grieve and no right way to grieve.

How can grief and work be managed effectively?

Most workplaces provide 2-3 days of bereavement or compassionate leave. It is great that we have access to this leave but it is unlikely to be enough time to mourn someone with whom we might have been really close, for multiple bereavements, or to return to Country for Sorry Business in the case of Indigenous communities. Some grieving employees are also able to take annual leave or sick leave so that they can take more time but not everyone has access to these provisions, and some types of loss or relationships might not be recognised by the workplace as worthy of leave.

Just as there is no one way to grieve, there is no one way to manage grief and work. Some people decide to take as much time as possible from work, while others want to go back to keep their routine, to provide respite from grief, and to access support from trusted colleagues. Some grievers take the lead in emailing their colleagues asking them to refrain from asking certain questions and providing suggestions of support they would like to minimise awkward conversations or potential for upset at work.

How well do businesses approach the subject of death and how can it improve?

Some workplaces have been recognised for their compassionate approaches to loss. For example, The Compassionate Friends, a mutual help group for people bereaved by the death of a child, runs the annual Compassionate Employer Recognition Awards. Employers might consider postponing performance reviews or providing the grieving employee time to attend a support group or counselling.

The griever’s colleagues and managers might like to find out more about grief and how to provide a supportive and compassionate workplace. I would caution colleagues from making assumptions about how the grieving employee feels or what the grieving employee wants – I’ve heard stories of grieving employees returning to work to find that the photos they had on display of the now-deceased person had been removed from their desks and the hurt that this caused can last a long time. Grief can affect our attention, focus, clarity of thoughts, and memory capacity, and this might need to be taken into account for the safety of the employee and those around them.

What cultural sensitivities are there in Australia, e.g. in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander cultures, to be aware of?

Early understandings of grief were based on studies of white, middle class, older-aged women in the UK and the USA grieving the deaths of their husbands from illness – even today, we know comparatively little about grief from sudden deaths, how families and communities grieve, mourning practices across cultures, and so on. Much of my research has been in areas trying to fill these knowledge gaps.

Being able to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dealing with grief, loss, and trauma requires an understanding of these issues as experienced by them as individuals, but also in their families and communities. We need a better understanding of the relevance of current grief and loss theory to the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members as well as how to provide appropriate and culturally-safe support.

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