Good Grief

It was Christmas Day 2005 and the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line informed me that a well-respected, long-term fellow employee and his wife had tragically drowned. It would be weeks before the bodies were recovered. The grieving process for employees at Five Rivers MetroParks had begun. If it was your agency that encountered such a tragedy, would you and your employees be ready for what comes next?

What Comes Next?

Experts agree there are five steps to the grieving process:

· Denial--actually a buffer against the reality of what has happened

· Anger--grumpiness, short fuse, rage, resentment, obstinacy, confrontation

· Realization--not necessarily acceptance; some call this step bargaining

· Depression--guilt, unhappiness, negative thoughts about the future, a feeling of doom and gloom

· Acceptance--beyond the realization of the loss. Acceptance does not necessarily bring happiness. Happiness is stimulated by other events that have nothing to do with the loss.

Other emotions include shock, emptiness, helplessness, devastation, loss of spirit, low mood, lack of confidence in one’s self, withdrawal, irritability, confusion and more.

Personal Vs. Workplace Grief

Although loss and subsequent grieving have some similarities between the workplace and personal life, there are additional issues that must be considered when dealing with employees and grief.

For instance, the need for physical contact as an expression of compassion and mutual support can be as strong in the workplace as in personal situations. However, this need conflicts with a policy co-workers have been taught--physical contact in the workplace generally is not acceptable.

Grieving in the workplace also tends to be more contagious than in personal life, oftentimes extending the period of grieving. In personal life, individuals can take time off from work to focus on and deal with emotions. The workplace, on the other hand, can be the catalyst for recurring emotions (the desk is still empty) from which it is difficult to escape.

Easing the grieving process by telling personal stories or even “secrets” can contribute to the healing process in personal life. The desire to do so at work as part of recalling fond memories is still there--along with a strong reluctance to do so because such sharing in the workplace is considered improper.

At home, a person can often “get away” physically by taking a trip or just leaving the house for a few hours or days. In the workplace, expect an increase in absenteeism and a decreased level of concentration on work assignments.

In addition, employees move through the grieving process at different rates, experience different highs and lows, and express themselves differently. Be prepared for someone to complain, “I can’t believe that Sue is so happy today. It was just three weeks ago that we lost Tom.”

Managing The Grieving Process

Strong leadership is important during the rebound from a loss in the workplace. Understand that leadership in this instance knows no reference to the organizational chart, with one exception--the one at the top ultimately must remain the person in charge. Allowing individuals up and down the chain of command to step forward in leadership roles tends to pull the group together in an expression of team and sharing. Here are some basic rules to remember:

· Let leaders lead by example

· Utilize the agency’s crisis plan

· Provide employees the opportunity to visit with a counselor

· Provide opportunities for employees to gather and share

· Create a list of things employees can do to help--pick up assignments, work on a fundraiser, finish cleaning out the vacated space after the family has had an opportunity to do so, and facilitate discussions

· Look for signals of deeply troubled employees, often expressed by repeated demonstration of any of the emotions noted above

· Allow leaders the opportunity to move around the workplace to be available and ready to listen

· Postpone major decisions that impact the agency, if at all possible. This is not the time to announce a re-organization plan. Maintain routines, which can be like a comfortable cocoon.

· Plan a one-year anniversary of the loss.

· Let employees know that the compassion and friendly feelings don’t have to stop.

Finally, leaders must at some point encourage the organization to realize that work and life must go on. This message can begin quietly and subtly--almost subliminally--then gradually become more evident, as demonstrated by the leaders themselves. The goal is to learn to cope with the loss, not to forget the lost.

Steve Dice is the former director of Parks and Conservation at Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at