I’ve been very quiet here for some time now. It’s taken me more than 6 months to get up the courage to talk about this in a digital forum. But I’m finally ready to address it. My daughter Katie passed away at the age of 28 in April. It was shocking, devastating and unthinkable: my very healthy, happy and wonderful daughter dies suddenly of an undiagnosed and asymptomatic heart issue. We talk to her at noon, and everything’s fine. Three hours later, she’s gone. It has been and continues to be a very difficult time for me and my family.
I’ve never lost someone in my immediate family before. In the past when a friend or colleague lost a loved one, I’d offer my best wishes, maybe send a card or flowers, and then I’d just not bother them or ever bring it up for fear of upsetting them. I always wondered what else I could do. So, I decided I’d share my personal experience around grief to offer some insight into how people can support their work colleagues who are grieving. Grief is highly personal and individual, so just because I share my experience doesn’t mean it’s a universally-accepted truth, but I believe it will be directionally helpful at minimum.
There’s a phenomenon with grief that your mind just drifts off. Sometimes I’m just yearning for my daughter. Other times I’m overwhelmed with how my life is going to change. And sometimes I’m questioning everything I’ve ever known or believed. This is especially true in the first few months after losing a loved one. It’s impossible to pour the same amount of energy and focus into work. Your mind just won’t cooperate. There’s too much else it’s trying to deal with. It has to rethink what it means to live without your loved one. It has to reckon with the fact she will never be there again. It has to plan memorials and deal with legal and personal affairs and manage the grief of the rest of their family.
This is a cue to colleagues who care. It’s time to step up. Offer to shoulder some of their work. Tell your friend/colleague you want to take things off their plate. Don’t let them take on new projects – volunteer to take on what they would normally do. I have a friend whose boss was particularly kind as he transitioned back to work after his partner’s unexpected death. He told our friend to essentially just “Show and up do whatever you can, but don’t worry about being productive.” The rest of the team had agreed to take on his entire workload until he got reoriented. I know for a fact this kindness has been repaid tenfold now that our friend is back on his feet more. It’s not always possible to completely take on someone’s work, I realize, but asking someone to return to a high-pressure role a mere week or two after losing a spouse or child is absurd. Find the kindness and compassion to be supportive. The grieving person will return the kindness – guaranteed.
This is a big one. There’s so much complexity involved when you’ve lost someone dear to you. You miss them terribly. You might want the world to know about them – all the wonderful things they did and what they meant to you and to others. You might want to talk about how they hurt you. Or just say how lost you are without them. There’s so much spinning around inside your head and the world as you know it has stopped making sense. I welcome people who open the door to me talking. Anyone who is willing to sit and listen, offer comfort and just show they care means the world. I have so much I want to say, and it will take years of conversations to process it all. Again, my experience may not be universal. There are definitely people who can’t and don’t want to talk about their grief, but making the genuine offer to listen will almost certainly be appreciated. One grief expert I heard said that the reason some people get “stuck” in grief is that they just don’t feel like their grief has been heard. Don’t let that happen to anyone you care about.
Another big piece of learning. I highly recommend the book It’s Ok That You’re Not OK. As a culture, we all want things to be better. We want the people we know who are hurting to be “over” their hurt. We want them to be back to themselves, and it’s our job to fix it. And that’s the problem.
Grief generally needs to be reckoned with. It can’t just be swept under the rug or wished away. Things like, “She’s in a better place.” Or “At least you have other kids” or “You just need to get back to a routine,” weren’t very helpful for me. I know these comments were said with good intentions, but they really missed the mark. My daughter’s passing was so sudden and unexpected I’m still just adjusting to the reality that she’s gone. In the first weeks/months after she passed, I was nowhere near being ready to look for “solutions” or ways to “get past it”. I needed (and still need) to sit with my grief, and try to understand what it all means. Grieving people need friends who’ll listen. There’s no making it better in the short term. Empathy and compassion are what we crave. Be ok that we’re sad. Let us be sad. We’ll be ready to talk about getting better when WE’RE ready. Your advice, however kind, will not land well. If you want to be helpful, ask us if we’d like to talk about it. Ask us to lunch or coffee and let us sob. Go on a walk with us after work or on the weekend. Tell us you’re there for us. Just please don’t tell us to keep our chin up or be strong. We’re not, and we won’t be for a long time. And that’s ok.
I’ve appreciated everyone who reaches out and suggests get togethers – “Do you want to go on a hike next weekend?” “Can I come over and bring you dinner?” Can we play golf in the next few weeks? Or meet for coffee or a drink? Those concrete requests feel more sincere and actionable vs. “call me if you need anything” or “if you ever want to talk, just let me know” That’s nice, but it can be hard to really feel comfortable just reaching out and pouring out my sadness – especially to someone whom I haven’t seen for a while or who might never have had a very deep or emotional conversation with me. When someone says, “let’s get together” and has a specific plan, it says to me they really want to be there for me.
This may seem obvious, but it’s not always clear exactly HOW long it takes. For the first few months and weeks, we got a lot of people reaching out and giving us love and support. When you hit 4-6 months after a death, things start to get quiet. There’s an expectation that you should be getting over it and getting back to “normal.” This is a really difficult time. I want to be better. I want to be the old me, and I want to be able to “move on.” For most people like me, that’s just not realistic. I lost a child that I’ll never have back. I mourn her, the life she’ll never have, and the future I’ll never enjoy with her. There’s no replacing her. What I’ve learned is that there will always be a big hole in my life. Like a deep cut, my life will heal around the injury, but there will always be a scar. I can and will be happy to differing degrees, but just because I laugh or have fun with you at some point doesn’t mean I’m better. Check in with your grieving colleague regularly and over time. Months, years even. See where they are. See how their thinking and grieving has changed. Keep listening and keep caring.
As I said earlier, this is my experience. I still miss Katie so desperately, every single day. I’m fortunate to have counseling and lots of loving support from family and friends. I have learned a lot about grief, and how much more I could have done for my grieving friends and colleagues in the past. I wish I knew then what I’ve learned in the last six months. Now I know better, and I hope that after reading this, you do too.