Grieving in the Workplace
In the fall of 2018, I learned my grandma had a brain aneurysm and needed to get surgery to remove it. My grandma raised me when I was young, so when I heard the news I knew I needed to go back home. The thing was my home is a long 15-hour plane ride away in South Korea, and I had just started a new job at Fractured Atlas after spending over a year in job hunting purgatory.
I remember spending a long time crafting my ask to my manager about needing to take some extended vacation time to travel home. I asked every trusted person in my friend group for advice on how I could ask. I worried that I would come off as lazy or I was making excuses to take more time off. After overanalyzing it way too many times, I pressed the enter button to send my message on Slack and started to anxiously wait for a response.
This summer, a very close friend unexpectedly passed away. I found out when I was away at a conference for work. I sat in the hotel room crying and not knowing what to do with myself. The next day I woke up and stepped into a huge conference room filled with pumping pop music and people speaking really enthusiastically about marketing. I felt very small.
While I had a colleague attending the conference with me, I didn’t want for them to feel pressured to take on my weight so I tried to put on a good face. Again, when it came to asking for the inevitable time off to fly to my friend’s home to say goodbye, I spent a long time crafting my ask to my manager for time off. Even in the face of deep grief, I couldn’t help but feel like I would be judged for taking care of myself.
The process I described of asking for time off is probably a pretty familiar one to most folks. Whenever something happens in life, it inevitably affects your work. But there never seems to be a clear answer for what the best way is to ask for time for yourself. Especially as someone who is in the earlier stages of a career, it seems even harder to ask for time to take care of yourself.
Workplace and Grief
Why is it so hard and how can we create better work environments for us to take care of ourselves? Instead of saying take self-care outside of the workplace, what are the moments that we can take for ourselves while we work?
When it comes to grieving and healing through tough moments, work tends to push in the opposite direction of what you need to do for yourself. Even in the most seamless circumstances where you can ask for time off with no barriers, the fact that time off is involved goes against the capitalist ideas of deserving your pay because of your work and if you’re not productive, you’re not a “real” person in our society.
Our COO, Tim Cynova, talks about psychological safety and team diversity as two traits of high-performing teams. To take it one step further, I think psychological safety is key not only to work better in general circumstances, but also to take care of ourselves better when life throws us boulders.
For example, if you’re not comfortable and worried that asking for time off will lead to mistrust or a certain negative perception of who you are, then you’re probably not going to ask for time off. Especially in times of grief or high stress, taking time off can be key to your health. If you’re unable to do so, then you have two sources of stress. One is the fact that you don’t feel comfortable asking for time off, and two the actual stress you should be dealing with but you’re not.
Even in workplaces where you are comfortable and safe, not everyone will understand you. Especially when it comes to something as personal as grief. Grieving and healing takes all sorts of forms, and even outside of work relationships it’s hard to navigate. Not everyone around you will have the time to make space to hear you out or check in with you (which is also totally okay). You may not even want to share what you went through for various reasons. Because there’s no one-stop manifestation of grief, it’s even more important to have workplaces that are flexible.
Dealing with Loss as a Young Professional
On top of general grief and stress in the workplace, the relationship that millennials have with work probably exacerbates the situation. There are so many articles on burnout and work culture affecting millennials I don’t think I need to get into that. But as we exist in an economy where our relationship with work means we change jobs frequently and many of us are either contractors or freelancers, I can’t help but think that would create very little room to process grief.
I’ve noticed my friends say two common things when it comes to asking for time off that seem to be related to being a young professional. One, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that if you’re not present then everything will fall apart. Two, this is made even more complicated by the fact that you feel like if you don’t work through the hard parts of your life then you won’t be able to advance in your career.
Complicating these feelings even more, as an immigrant person of color, I know that this idea of “work more, don’t rest” comes directly from my immigrant background. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like their identity informs the way they behave at work especially when it comes to tough situations. And people of color tend to face more battles as they navigate the workforce. All combined, these make a good recipe for a tough professional career.
So How Can We Make the Workplace Safe for Grief?
I want you to know, my manager’s response to each ask was met with incredible care and support. It’s one of the best parts about working for the team that I do, and the colleagues around me. However, I know that in many work environments, this is not the case. Even in my work environment, I ask myself - should I be patting an organization or a company on the back for being empathetic and giving a basic human right to someone going through trauma and pain? Or should that be the standard set for all organizations to be better.
I asked myself what were the things colleagues said to me or the infrastructures set in place that make me feel supported during this process. A disclaimer, I’m not a certified grief counselor or an HR person. These are just some things that worked for me.
Acknowledge what happened.
I am learning every day that loss becomes part of you, and helps you grow. So if someone pretended that this event didn’t occur, that would be very odd. Even if it’s something as small as “I’m sorry that happened” it helps. Loss and death can be triggering to you or you may just not have the capacity to be available, and that’s completely alright.
Give people time.
Don’t make it feel like you’re jumping through hoops to get time off to grieve. Capitalism says we need to push, and always work and that’s not the case. Even just saying, “take the time that you need” can go such a long way. When my manager said do what I need to do to take care of myself, I felt such a big weight lifted off my back. It gave me room to grieve.
Know grief doesn’t have a timeline for it to end.
Like I said earlier, losing someone becomes part of you. So that experience impacted who I am as a professional (and human being) now. It comes and goes, and once in awhile you just need time to reflect or take care of yourself. I found that taking care of myself in the workplace when grieving meant asking for help more often. I also make sure that I take actual time when I need it to rest and care.
Again, these are just some things that worked for me. And I’m aware that I am privileged to have colleagues who understand or an organization that offers time off for personal matters. I hope this helps provide some guidance if you’re going through something tough right now, and know that you’re not alone.
The world is a tough place, and work is just one part of the larger picture of you. Recently I’ve noticed during times when I feel the most alive - whether that’s being super engaged in a work project or I’m running a race - I think about my friend and I feel sad. A colleague told me that grief moves in waves. It seems like obstacles and stresses come in waveform as well. As the holiday season approaches, I wish you warmth and care as you navigate work and life.
Resources about Grief and the Workplace
Check out our Work Shouldn’t Suck podcast led by Tim Cynova and Lauren Ruffin, Fractured Atlas’s Chief Operating Officer and Chief External Relations Officer respectively. Episode 3 covers the topic of grief and the workplace more in depth with interviews of different professionals figuring out how to grieve and heal. Check it out here:
While going through my own stages of healing and preparing myself for this blog post, I put together some resources (helpful for both employer and employee) for those going through similar situations. Please feel free to check them out and let us know if any have helped and/or you have more to share. We’d love to hear from you.
About Sophia Park
Sophia Park is a writer, curator, and arts administrator based in Brooklyn, NY and originally from Gumi, South Korea. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Oberlin College and currently is a candidate for an M.A. in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts. She currently works as the Director of External Relations at Fractured Atlas. Prior to joining the Fractured Atlas's External Relations team, she worked at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is a co-founder of Jip Gallery, a curatorial project based in Brooklyn and online. You can find her writing in Womanly Mag, Strata Mag, Monument Lab’s Bulletin, Asymptote Journal, Inciter Art, and others. She’s currently thinking about communal practices of care, diasporic memory, and artist support. But that may shift readily tomorrow. You can also find her running some silly distance, trying to get back into tennis, or dancing somewhere.