Dying Matters Awareness Week – daily blog

Today Community Co-Ordinator Becky reflects on her experiences of grief in the workplace

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Given that death is one of the few genuine common experiences we will all ultimately have, it follows that we will all, at some point, be in the position of being bereaved.  Whether we grieve for a friend, family member, colleague, or someone else we were connected to, bereavement will happen to all of us as social creatures.

Freeman Brothers Community Co-Ordinator Becky

With my workplace being a funeral directors, I see more grief in my workplace than most, though there’s definitely a difference between business and personal.  Since I started at Freeman Brothers in October 2017, a close relative of mine has died.  There have, of course, been other deaths within my network, but there has been one of a very near relative – my grandfather.

When my maternal grandfather died in September 2012, I lived and worked in London, and within a business unrelated to funerals.  Most of my family lived in Sussex, where I grew up, and my Grandad died in hospital following a short illness.  I was at work when I received a phone call from my Dad to inform me that my Grandad had died, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, partly because Grandad was my first immediate relative to die in my lifetime.  I consider myself fortunate to have made it to the age of 25 before this happened.

My boss wasn’t even in the country that afternoon – in fact, she may have still been mid-air on her flight to the conference she was due to attend – and her boss was in a meeting, which I didn’t feel able to disturb.  My colleague, and close friend, was the first person I spoke to, and she immediately offered her assistance.  I wasn’t sure what to do, although I didn’t feel able to remain at work that afternoon.  Fortunately, my boss’s boss emerged briefly from his office soon after I’d learned of my Grandad’s death, and my colleague informed him of what had happened.  He gave me permission to go home, and that’s what I did.

The remaining details are hazy, but here’s what I do remember: returning to work the following day, exchanging emails with my boss and her expressing her surprise that I was at work (I wasn’t aware that I had permission to be elsewhere, having not experienced a bereavement previously, and not being in the frame of mind to do tedious things such as checking my contract for technicalities); catching the train to Sussex the day after that (co-incidentally, my grandparents’ wedding anniversary) in order to join my family; ultimately having a day off work to attend my Grandad’s funeral.  And that’s it.  I’m sure people would have asked how I was getting on, initially at least, but there was nothing beyond that.

Fast-forward almost six years, and the situation is rather different following the death of my paternal grandfather.  Firstly, he died on a Saturday, though this did happen to be a working day for me.  I wasn’t working when I was informed of his death, but I did continue later that evening to fulfil the volunteering commitment I had accepted on behalf of my company.  The following day, I decided I couldn’t sit on the news, and sent my boss a text message to let her know what had happened.  She reacted with sympathy and practicality, immediately offering me the choice as to whether I was present in the office the following day, and her support as a professional.

The following week was a mixed experience: with my new position at a funeral directors – though not as an arranger myself – I was able to mine the expert information available via my colleagues, and liaise with my family to keep tabs on arrangements.  I understood the process much better this time, partly due to age and experience, partly as I was receiving information first-hand relating to the progress of my grandfather’s journey with authorities in his area.  Ultimately, although my employer is located in a different area to the one my Grandad lived in, they have taken care of the arrangements, and this added another layer to my experience of being bereaved.  The balance of personal and professional became an interesting one, however I was relieved to feel so much more informed, and incredibly fortunate to have every faith in my colleagues and their handling of the Deceased.  It was comforting to be in the privileged position of personally knowing who would be looking after my Grandad.

On a pastoral note, my experience has also been very different recently.  Again, a consequence of being older and wiser, I have been upfront since I started my current role and communicated openly with my boss regarding my mental health (which I regard us all as having, whether or not we define as experiencing a mental health issue specifically).  On the fifth day following my Grandad’s death, and with confirmation that we would be able to collect his body expected imminently, I tearfully apologised to my boss for having been what I regarded as “off the pace” throughout the week in terms of my ordinary workload, and not being my usual efficient self with reference to projects I was managing.  She offered reassurance and kindly disagreed with my assessment, and asked what she could do to help.  In addition, she pointed out that arrangements were now at a point which would mean they were handled fully by my colleagues, and no longer by myself, so I was able to step back and return to the position of “client”.  A card was also organised by my colleagues, to express their sympathy towards myself and my family – a touch which the members of my household appreciated when I chose to display it on our mantelpiece, so that they could all read it.

As you can perhaps tell, my two experiences have been incredibly different and, for me, this is symptomatic of bereavements in general, as well as my situation specifically.  Every bereavement is different (I believe this is the word we should really be using here, as “grief” is a much more emotionally-loaded and judgmental term… but that’s a blog post for another day), and as such our experience will be different each time.  But it is also clear to me that I have learned some important lessons with regard for how I can best ride this rollercoaster of emotions whilst at work.

To summarise, I would advocate open communication in the workplace: “it’s ok to say” is becoming an often-used phrase, and I would support this rhetoric.  Individuals need not go into great detail if they don’t feel comfortable, I believe it should be acceptable to say, “I’m struggling today, and I would appreciate some space”, there needn’t be an outpouring of your life story if that isn’t comfortable or appropriate for you.  Equally, it would be beneficial for employers to provide an open ear if they feel able to do so, and some signposting towards other resources if not.  I think that taking this view would help employees to feel more comfortable in their position, and under less pressure to return to “normal” – kindness and flexibility are key.  Employees could also benefit from being made aware of how to communicate to their employer that they have suffered a bereavement whilst in service, and what their rights are regarding absence – this could reduce anxiety and unnecessary “presenteeism”, when what could help the employee most would be a sanctioned absence.

As adults, we have a responsibility to each other – to care for and support each other – and a responsibility towards ourselves – to recognise what we need and to ask for it.  Even the best employer isn’t a mind-reader, and therefore the only way to let our colleagues know that we need some support – whether emotional or practical – is to ask.  To put it another way, for those of us in full-time positions, we spend approximately a third of our lives at work, which means that if we aren’t acknowledging bereavement and seeking support in the workplace, we are missing out on a critical opportunity to look after our wellbeing.

At Freeman Brothers, we believe some of the stress that is caused at the time of a bereavement may be alleviated by having a simple conversation before the situation occurs.  With this in mind, we are celebrating Dying Matters Awareness Week this year by hosting a series of events entitled “Big Deal, Small Talk” – join us this week if you can, or get in touch to learn more if you’re not able to visit.  All events are free to attend and open to the public – we look forward to seeing you.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

May 17, 2018

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