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Coping with Grief

HR's quick, compassionate response to the sudden death of an employee's loved one can boost worker morale, loyalty and - ultimately - productivity.

HR Magazine, September 2003

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1998, Christopher Novak, then an HR director for a ceramic dinnerware manufacturer in Syracuse, N.Y., was in a meeting with HMO representatives when he got a phone call that would change his life.

“I remember picking up the receiver and barely comprehending the words,” Novak says. The police officer told him that Cynthia, his wife of 14 years, had been in a car accident. Cynthia was seven months pregnant with their second son. Their first son, Ryan, was 9.

“After the call, I ran to tell my boss, the general manager of the facility,” Novak says. “He told me he would drive me to the hospital. He sat with me for hours.” The general manager was with Novak when the surgeon told him that both his wife and their unborn son, who would be named Hunter, had died.

Novak was devastated, but the outpouring of caring and support from his employer and colleagues helped. The vice president of HR flew in from Toledo for the funeral, Novak says. “He still sends me a card every August 10. His actions mean a tremendous amount to me.”

Hundreds of people attended a funeral reception that Novak’s employer coordinated. “My colleagues volunteered their personal time to care for my son while I ran errands,” he says. “Dinner showed up on our doorstep every night for six months, literally. My colleagues completely and willingly shouldered my work obligations to give me time to concentrate on my family. Their expressions of support meant a lot at a time when my emotional energy was gone. I will appreciate that forever.”

A death in the family—especially if it’s sudden, because of an accident, perhaps, or a heart attack, a criminal act or suicide—can plunge survivors into sorrow and even depression, altering their work habits and affecting those around them. How an employer reacts during this vulnerable time can make a difference in a grieving employee’s recovery. The HR professional’s responsibilities include:

  • Ensuring that bereavement policies are established.

  • Helping the grieving worker communicate with colleagues.

  • Helping co-workers express their sympathy.

  • Helping the bereaved employee and his or her supervisor deal with any lingering productivity issues.

Stages of Grief

Although people deal with grief in various ways—one person might feel angry, another anxious—experts say it’s a reaction that typically progresses through stages. Initially, there can be shock and denial, followed by anger, suffering and possibly depression. Next comes adjustment to loss, followed by acceptance and then reinvestment of one’s emotional energy in other relationships. Some people may not move through all of those stages, and some may move forward and then return to a previous stage.

Further, the sudden death of a loved one brings additional complications, particularly if the death had a violent cause or is outside the normal order of events, such as when a child dies before a parent. The most critical factor for the bereaved, however, is that there was no chance to prepare or say goodbye.

“When someone dies suddenly, you have to deal with everything at once. There’s no anticipatory grief,” says Helen Fitzgerald, training director for the American Hospice Foundation (AHF) in Fairfax, Va., and author of Grief at Work, an AHF resource manual. “You don’t have the chance to have the final conversation to talk about your life and what you meant to each other.”

Also, the shock phase of grief may last longer for those whose loved ones die suddenly. People often misinterpret the shock, thinking the employee is OK, when, in fact, the reality hasn’t hit yet, says Fitzgerald, who is certified in thanatology, the study of death and psychological mechanisms for coping with death.

“When [someone dies], people might be apt to support you, bring you food,” says Therese Schoeneck, executive director of Hope for Bereaved Inc., a nonprofit organization in Syracuse that provides support services for grieving people. “But when the reality hits, your co-workers have gone on about their own lives. Then it really sinks in.”

Policies and Procedures

HR’s most important task in helping employees overcome a sudden loss is to make certain there are policies and procedures for handling matters such as life insurance benefits, bereavement leave, emergency loans, leave-sharing and condolence gifts.

“HR departments must ensure that they are not lacking in their benefits administration procedures. This is not a trivial matter,” says Novak, who gives speeches on moving forward through adversity.

At least one week of paid bereavement leave should be available, says Naomi Naierman, AHF president and CEO. Also, it is considerate to have a leave-sharing program through which co-workers can donate their unused personal time to a colleague in need. (See “Giving Time to Grieve,” November 1999, p. 66.)

Carol Hoffman, a licensed clinical social worker who manages the work/life program for the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), also recommends having an emergency loan program to help employees pay for funeral and related expenses. Although you should coordinate other thoughtful, personalized gestures for the bereaved, it is wise to send an official condolence gift from the company immediately.

At Aegon Direct Marketing Services, an insurance company in Plano, Texas, Laura Robinson, divisional HR development/communications manager, gives bereaved employees a copy of a book, presented in a cedar case, with monthly readings and information on coping with loss.

Hoffman emphasizes that managers should treat all bereaved employees equitably. “You don’t want to send flowers to one person and not to another,” she says. “Have some guiding principles.”

HR should also streamline its procedures so they can be completed quickly. UC Berkeley instituted an e-mail system that notifies the necessary administrative departments—HR, benefits, employee assistance program (EAP)—when an employee’s loved one dies.

Thoughtful Gestures

Another key role of the HR professional is to serve as liaison between the bereaved employee and his or her colleagues. The HR professional should ask the employee what to tell colleagues about the loss, Fitzgerald suggests.

“With sudden death, some things are confidential [such as suicide] and not everybody needs to know,” she says. “I would call that person and ask, ‘What do you want me to tell your colleagues?’ This is important, because you don’t get into the game of who knows what.”

Also, HR can coordinate thoughtful gestures. “Channel colleagues’ desire to help into constructive avenues that offer both compassionate support and practical assistance to the employee and [his or her] family,” Novak says. For instance, his colleagues worked with the local bank branch to start a scholarship fund for his son. “It gave people a personal, constructive way to contribute.”

Other ways to help include making meals, providing child care or mowing the lawn. Schoeneck says thoughtful gestures are appreciated—a fruit basket, cookies, flowers or even a bag of paper plates, cups, napkins and tissue for the endless stream of funeral visitors. She also recommends spreading out thoughtful acts over time. For example, writing a note or a card periodically shows ongoing support.

And by all means, attend the funeral.

“Be there,” says Kenneth J. Doka of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a senior consultant to the AHF and editor of Living with Grief After Sudden Loss: Suicide, Homicide, Accident, Heart Attack, Stroke (Taylor and Francis, 1996). “There’s nothing like tangible support. People remember what others did.”

Also bear in mind that the ways you react to the employee’s unexpected loss have far-reaching implications among your workforce. If co-workers see that the bereaved is treated well, they will feel more confident about their employer, Hoffman says.

Grief Education

Grief costs U.S. companies more than $75 billion annually in lost productivity, according to the Grief Recovery Institute, a nonprofit foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Helping employees to deal with their grief and that of others is compassionate and proactive, and it bodes well for productivity. “When you educate people about grief, you normalize it,” says Fitzgerald.

Hoffman advises employers to offer programs that help employees and their families keep their wills, medical directives and other end-of-life legal paperwork up-to-date so they won’t have to deal with it while they are grieving. For instance, employers can host presentations on topics such as power-of-attorney and funeral options. (See “Help with Elder Care,” page 113.)

HR can also provide grief education training. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Aegon invited AHF to give a one-day workshop on grief to its HR staff. “We wanted to be prepared to help our folks in case something else happened,” Robinson says. “We talked about the stages of grief and how people manifest those stages. [The trainer] gave us information about different religious practices, so there was some diversity training, too.”

Grief education is available through EAPs, AHF, organizations such as Hope for Bereaved, hospitals and other local health organizations. Some services charge regular seminar rates; others offer programs at no cost.

What if an employee loses a loved one before you have provided grief education? Bring trainers in within 72 hours of the death, advises Schoeneck. “If you go in much later, the walls start to go up, and employees aren’t so [receptive].”

Grief education “was a godsend” for the employees at Beacon Federal, a bank in Kirkville, N.Y., after the sudden death of clerk Toni Wood’s son five years ago, says the firm’s president, Ross Prossner. “I was at work when it happened,” Wood says. Prossner and a co-worker, Donna Maxwell, took Wood outside, where undercover police officers and her sister-in-law were waiting. They told her that her 14-year-old son, Billy, had been struck by a speeding car while riding his bicycle and had died instantly.

Wood was shattered. “You live and breathe your kids; to think you could go on without them is unbelievable,” she says. “What I remember was, when they told me, Mr. Prossner and Donna said, ‘We are here for you; we are going to help you through this.’ They didn’t just say it, they did it.”

The company shared Wood’s loss. “We were so grief-stricken, it paralyzed the whole organization,” says Prossner. At the time, the bank had about 70 employees. “When grief overtakes the heart of an organization, you need some coaching.” Prossner asked Hope for Bereaved to do some in-house grief education training.

“They spoke to our employees about the grieving process and helped us understand how we could support her,” he says. “They coached us on how to be with her. Everybody wanted to run up and cry with her, but you could do that all day long. Getting back to work is part of what you have to do, even though you don’t want to.”

When each co-worker expresses condolences, it can be overwhelming, Novak says. “Every time the phone rings and a person asks how you’re doing, you want to be gracious, but you’re operating on emotional empty.”

Instead, Novak recommends having a representative—a close co-worker, supervisor or HR professional—who can check in with the grieving employee every few days during bereavement leave. Schoeneck suggests that on the employee’s first day back at work, a spokesperson could say: “I’m representing the rest of us. We didn’t want to inundate you, but we’re so sorry for your loss and we’re here for you.”

The Return to Work

When the employee returns to work, the HR professional should refer the person to grief counseling resources and be a liaison between the bereaved and supervisors. But HR’s role in fact begins earlier. While the employee is away, HR should become well versed on the company’s EAP and mental health benefits. Also, HR professionals should have an up-to-date resource list of community grief counselors and support groups, Fitzgerald suggests.

For instance, when Wood returned to work two and a half weeks after losing her son, Prossner took her to Hope for Bereaved. “They gave me a lot of tools,” she says. “I don’t know if I would have checked that out [on my own].”

When the grieving employee is back at work, HR should facilitate a meeting between the employee and supervisor, Fitzgerald says. “Set up a context where the [bereaved] person can say, ‘I’m having a rough time on this project; can I get some help?’”

Doka adds, “When people experience a significant loss, it affects them cognitively; they don’t work as efficiently. The key is good communication.”

Fitzgerald agrees. “It’s important for bereaved employees to have open communication with their supervisors. Schedule regular meetings to talk openly about performance.” Have follow-up meetings with the bereaved and the supervisor at predetermined intervals, such as at 30 and 90 days.

Begin the meeting by asking the employee if he or she would like to talk about the experience, and then listen. Bereaved people often feel compelled to tell their stories. Next, discuss any accommodations the employee needs—such as a flexible schedule, reduced workload or temporary reassignment—as well as the supervisor’s expectations.

“If the work is redistributed, it’s very important to include all co-workers in the decision, rather than just do it, which causes resentment,” Schoeneck warns.

Keep in mind that the employee needs ample time to grieve. “The weight of that experience doesn’t just dissipate when you go back to work,” Novak says. “There were days when I just had to go home.”

Prossner allowed Wood to go for a walk or go home when she was having a hard day, he says.

“It’s helpful to take time off when you need to go to the lawyer, sell the deceased person’s house or just be sad on the person’s birthday,” says Hoffman.

Discuss potential reassignments if the bereaved cannot or does not want to perform his or her usual tasks. For example, when Wood returned to work, she requested—and received—a different position. “I used to be a customer service representative, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that,” she says.

Prossner allowed her to switch positions. “She was a great employee; we just used her talents in other areas of the bank where she didn’t have to meet people face-to-face,” he says.

Thanks to support from his company and others, Novak was able to move on after his loss. He founded The Summit Team, a training and consulting firm, and he has remarried. In early May, his wife, Jeannette, gave birth to a son whom they named Connor James. His older son, Ryan, is an honor roll student, a musician and an athlete.

“Recognize that the employee needs a champion in [his or her] corner at that moment,” he says. “Be that champion and do what you can to minimize every other work-related worry for them.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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