Four ways to deal with grief at work - a psychologist's tips for what to do when you can't shake the sadness
When former US vice-president and contender for the Democratic presidential nomination Joe Biden lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident in 1972, he found himself in an emotionally dark place. In a 2012 speech to the families of fallen military service members at the 18th Annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, he said he remembers looking up and telling God, "You can't be good, how can you be good?"
It was a long and difficult journey trying to process his grief.
"There was still something gigantic missing," he added. "And just when you think, 'Maybe I'm going to make it', you're riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, 'Maybe I'm not going to make it ...' Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news."
Tragedy struck Biden again in 2015 when his son Beau passed away at the age of 46 after a battle with brain cancer. In a statement, Biden wrote that the death left his whole family "saddened beyond words".
Joe Biden's wife and 16-month-old daughter Amy were killed on December 18, 1972 in a traffic accident in Delaware. Photo: Getty images
Despite the losses, Biden pushed on " with the added burden of doing so in public. He admits that returning to a normal life was tough and there were points along the way where he wondered how he would cope. In an August 2019 interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper he said that "(loss) really takes a part of your soul".
Grief is a difficult and painful emotion to process, yet when we lose someone we love, society often expects us to move on quickly. We may get a few days of compassionate leave at work and friends may allow us to mourn for a while, but at some point we are expected to get back to 'normal'. But what if we can't?
There are five stages to dealing with grief, according to clinical psychologist Dr Sanveen Kang. Photo: Shutterstock
Grief is a highly individual experience. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no knowing how long it will take to resolve.
"There are five stages to grief: denial and isolation; anger; bargaining, depression; and acceptance," says Dr Sanveen Kang, a clinical psychologist at Psych Connect in Singapore. "People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or even experience all the stages.
"We also spend different amounts of time working through each stage, expressing each stage with different levels of intensity, and we move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death.
"How we grieve depends on many factors, including our personality and coping style, our life experience, our faith and the nature of the loss. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months while others take years."
Whether they receive support is also crucial. Compassion and understanding from family, friends and colleagues are key in helping a bereaved person heal.
In a small study, carried out by University of Arizona researchers and published in 2017 in the journal, Computers in Human Behaviour, even taking part in online virtual reality support groups was beneficial. Participants " widows and widowers aged over 50 " were asked to communicate their grief to others anonymously in online chat rooms for an hour, twice a week for eight weeks.
After the study, the participants reported better sleep, less stress and loneliness, and an improvement in symptoms of depression.
Communicating your pain to others can help. Photo: Shutterstock
Unfortunately, many who are bereaved do not receive empathy, understanding and support. They feel they are not allowed to mourn, so "soldier on" and smile, suppressing their emotions and ignoring symptoms such as anxiety, fear and depression. This hampers their ability to heal and makes moving on feel harder.
A 2018 study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that grief can cause inflammation that can kill. The researchers, from Rice University in the US, interviewed people who had recently lost a spouse, and tested their blood. They compared people who showed symptoms of elevated grief " pining for the deceased, having difficulty moving on, feeling that life was meaningless " to those without such symptoms.
Those with such symptoms had up to 17 per cent higher levels of bodily inflammation. The subjects in the top one-third of that group had a 53.4 per cent higher inflammation level than the bottom one-third.
Inflammation contributes to many major diseases in older adulthood, from depression and heart attack to stroke and premature death.
Still, grieving people should not force themselves to feel better as soon as possible. Kang says: "Healing happens gradually, and while allowing adequate room to grieve is vital to our well-being, no amount of time off work will speed it up."
When you do get back to work, Kang says to be honest with yourself and others. Recognise where you are emotionally and don't fight the natural process of mourning. The sooner you can confront and work through your grief, the sooner you will be able to live the rest of your life in a healthy and productive manner.
If you need help coping with your emotions, see a grief counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
For most people, the intensity of their grief tends to lessen after about six months, Kang says. The grief has not necessarily been resolved, but it has become better integrated and no longer interferes with your daily functioning.
Biden and his wife Jill Biden attend the funeral mass for his mother, Jean Biden in 2010. Photo: Susan Walsh/AFP via Getty Images
Grief that lingers and is prolonged is called complicated grief. "It is like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing," Kang explains. "You may have trouble carrying out normal routines; isolate [yourself] from others and withdraw from social activities; experience depression, deep sadness, guilt or self-blame; believe that you did something wrong or could have prevented the death; feel that life is not worth living without your loved one; or wish you had died with your loved one."
Over the years, Biden has turned his loss into purpose, comforting others who are grieving and doing what matters to him and the ones he lost. He has also received support from fellow politicians, friends and family. Still, he admits that the burden of grief is constant.
At a recent town hall meeting in the state of Iowa, he told the audience: "There will come a time where the thought of the person you lost will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. That's when you know you're going to be able to make it. But it's hard."
Dr Sanveen Kang has some tips for dealing with grief at work.
Focus on "doing"
You may feel like shutting down and doing nothing, but being productive can be a springboard for healing as it helps you regain a sense of stability and avoid becoming consumed by feelings of anguish and depression. Don't confuse doing with ignoring, though. Pushing emotions away and staying busy so that you don't have to experience your grief is different.
Let others help
Don't close yourself off and assert that everything is fine. It's OK to ask for help " it's likely that your colleagues want to, anyway.
Forgive people for their responses
Most people struggle with a proper response to death. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing so they avoid the subject completely. Don't hold this against your workmates " recognise that they are trying to be sensitive to your emotional state and don't want to cause despair. Let them know if they say something hurtful " to pave the way for healthier interactions.
Find a quiet place to retreat
Grief tends to come in waves. You never know how "stable" you'll be from one day to the next, so have a place to go to when you feel like breaking down. If you don't have your own space, find an empty wardrobe, rarely used stairwell or bathroom stall. When you feel the tears coming on, find solace in your "quiet place".
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.