How to Ask for Help at Work After a Death

Updated

If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, you may wonder how to navigate through your grief and handle your job. You may even be returning to work after a few days and wonder how to manage it all. 

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This early period of grief can be overwhelming and confusing. You may have difficulty stepping back into your job at first, even if you’ve been at the same place for years. Everything can feel foreign and somewhat difficult for a while. Here’s some guidance on how to ask for help before or while you’re on bereavement leave, and how to get support when you come back.

Tips for Asking for Help at Work Before and While You’re on Bereavement Leave 

Grief can have a significant impact on workplaces. Unfortunately, many aren’t well prepared to handle grief and may not be supportive or flexible enough. People in grief are often distractible, tired, and aren’t as productive as usual. This reaction is completely normal, but it can create more challenges at work. 

If you have some time before you go on bereavement leave, consider the following tips for getting the support you need. Sometimes bereavement leave starts without warning. Try not to worry if you need to address these issues when you return. Every workplace is a little different, so keep that in mind as you review each of these tips.

Talk to your supervisor and coworkers as soon as you can

If you have time before you go on bereavement leave, take a few minutes and talk with your supervisor. You may be very emotional at this time and have trouble recalling details. It may feel uncomfortable, but being extra emotional can be part of grief sometimes. 

If you feel up to it, touch on the most high-priority items on your to-do list. Your supervisor may also find their own way to cover your work areas and tell you not to worry about it. 

Speak to someone in human resources

If you are unsure about how to ask for bereavement leave, it is best to ask your human resources office regarding the policy. Depending on your company, you may need to request leave and wait for approval.

Talk to someone in your human resources office about anything you don't understand. You may be able to take leave right away and address those details later if it's an emergency. They may also be able to tell you how much paid and unpaid leave you have to use.

Communicating with your office while on leave

Some people feel close to their coworkers. If this is your experience, you may not find it hard to communicate about covering your work areas. And you may find that staying in touch is emotionally supportive as well as practical. But not all job situations are like this, and that is also normal. It may be acceptable to keep communication limited and take care of details when you return.  

Write or talk about your work concerns

Even if everyone has told you not to worry about work, you may still have work-related thoughts bouncing around your mind. These concerns can make coping with grief even more challenging than it already is.

Take a few moments to write down any random work thought that comes to mind, even if it seems minor. Or ask someone you’re close to if you can chat and get a few things off your chest. Even if you just take a few minutes to address these concerns, you may feel better about leaving work behind for a while. 

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Tips for Asking for Help at Work When You Return After a Death 

Getting back into a rhythm at work can be tough after an absence. It’s even more challenging when you’ve been coping with grief and other activities related to a loved one’s death. You may be ready for a change of pace, but you may need some support as you get started. Here are some tips for getting the help you need at work when you return after a death. 

1. Prepare yourself for emotional triggers 

Even if you’re just asking about how to get the copy machine working again, your emotions may sneak up on you. Emotional triggers may be all around you right now, so your feelings could bubble up unexpectedly. Don’t let this possibility keep you from reaching out to others. 

If you typically keep deep feelings to yourself, a sudden rise of emotion may feel overwhelming at the moment. You may feel somewhat out of control or embarrassed. If your coworkers have expressed their support and sympathy, they understand this may happen. Try to be kind to yourself. Know that the moment will pass and you’ll have a chance to collect yourself again.

2. Start by leaning on one or two people

Make your return easier on yourself by leaning on one or two trusted coworkers at first. Even when others mean well, you may be a little burned out on having conversations with multiple people. You may not feel like telling the same story or answering questions related to your loss right away. 

Touch base with one or two people in the morning and later in the day. This daily routine can provide some support and help you keep track of your schedule. When you feel more grounded, it may seem easier to start conversations with a variety of people.  

3. Consider tasks you may need the most help with

Getting back into your groove may be a welcome change, but some tasks will be more exhausting than you may expect. You may feel overwhelmed even if you’ve had the same job for a long time. 

Take some time with your trusted coworkers mentioned in the previous tip. Let them help you sort out which tasks need to be shared or delegated. You can get your focus on a few things that seem manageable and will have less worry about your usual to-do list. 

4. Ask for help anyway, even if you usually don’t 

This statement bears repeating. It’s OK to ask for help right now. Even if you’re normally pretty independent, you’re going through a significant change. Pay close attention to this tip especially if you are used to being a big helper for others.

People who rush to support other people are often the worst at helping themselves. If you know this about yourself, ask someone you trust to check in with your self-care plan. 

You may feel forgetful, drained, edgy, or just not mentally sharp. These reactions are all normal, so permit yourself to accept help and support. You will likely get back to feeling more like yourself over time. But allowing the grief process to play out now is the best way to ensure a bounceback later. Pushing through it and not slowing down will only stretch out the process longer.

5. Ask for space 

Grief is exhausting, and you may not realize it until you try to put in full days at work. Instead of getting caught off guard in the middle of your day, plan for some breaks. Your coworkers will understand that you need some space, but you’ll need to speak up about it. 

You’ll handle things better if you intentionally plan for a few quick breaks each day. Let coworkers know about this strategy so they understand why you may be unavailable. 

6. Ask your supervisor about bereavement accommodations 

Your workplace may have benefits and arrangements to help you through your grief. Consider asking your employer about these and other accommodations that may apply.

Adjusted schedule and additional time off

You may underestimate the amount of energy it takes to process grief as you try to go through a workday. Maybe you're extra groggy in the morning and could come in an hour late. Perhaps leaving early would help because you lose steam in the afternoon. And now that working from home is more common, see if that’s an option for part of the week. 

Paid or unpaid leave

As you think about how much time to take off after a death, ask about all your paid or unpaid leave options. You may not need to use it right away, but it helps to understand how much flexibility you can add to your schedule. You may have more paid or unpaid leave available, even if you only use a few hours a week. 

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or mental health coverage

If your job offers benefits, find out about their Employee Assistance Program. You may also have insurance coverage for mental health services. If you’re struggling with your grief, these benefits may cover the cost of seeing a counselor. 

7. You may still need help months down the road 

When a loved one dies, you might feel like you get more attention than you want. Everyone asks how you are, how they can help, and it all feels like a blur. Months or more down the road, you may still feel the sting of your loss. But you may wonder if anyone realizes how much emotional weight you’re still carrying.

Keep in mind that grief can be chronic and can also come in waves. You may feel like you’ve bounced back, only to be hit hard when the first holiday or family gathering comes along. These grief moments often don’t get much attention. But it’s normal and reasonable to feel vulnerable. Maybe you’re doing better overall, and this feels like a speed bump. Or perhaps something has triggered a deeper emotional dip.

Whatever the case, you don’t have to go through it alone. Reach out and rely on the coworkers and loved ones you trust the most. Let them know what’s going on and accept their support.

Asking for help - Get the support you need at work after a death 

The bottom line is that grief can turn your world upside down. It’s understandable to need help getting back into your rhythm at work after a death. Your grief is your journey, but you don’t have to do it alone. Talk to people in your workplace and give yourself some grace. Grief doesn’t follow a timeline, so let others help you get back on your feet at work. 


Sources:
  1. Medlineplus.gov. “Bereavement.” US National Library of Medicine Medline Plus, 19 October 2017, medlineplus.gov
  2. MyHealth.va.gov. “Dealing With the Loss of a Loved One.” My HealtheVet, 1 September 2011, myhealth.va.gov
  3. Wilson, Donna M, Sehrish Punjani, Qingkang Song, and Gail Low. “A Study to Understand the Impact of Bereavement Grief on the Workplace.” Omega - Journal of Death and Dying, June 2021, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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