Separating Work and Grief

When a person feels depressed, friends and family or even a doctor may often prescribe work as the best cure. It will “keep you busy”and “take your mind off” your anguish, they advise, assuming that work concerns will eventually replace all others. And for most of my 54 years, I also subscribed to this belief.

Then my 25 year-old daughter, Kristen, was killed by a hit-and-run driver as she was crossing the street. My life will never be the same. And my work will not be, either.

Outwardly, of course, work is not different. I operate a corporate communications and freelance writing business from home. And not long after my daughter’s death, I was back at my desk full time. But I do not see how work can ever help remove the constant ache I feel. Perhaps it is still too early; work has, indeed, proved a useful diversion at times. But I find that my workday is still regularly punctuated by my loss. While my brain may be fully engaged on a project and the creative juices still flow, there is a darkness in my life that I do not believe work can ever help lift.

Each day I find that I must force myself, physically and mentally, into a working mode. If I am lucky, associates and clients also force themselves into a “business as usual” approach because it is the easiest way for them to face the fact that I unavoidably a different person now. It is the best way: succeeding at work and coping with mourning must be kept separate. But this is where many employers fail in understanding workers who return after a tragedy, seeking normalcy that will never return to their lives.

A friend told me that he had to leave the brokerage firm for which he worked for a number o years because co-workers persisted in treating him differently. They did not know how to help him keep his anguish at bay as he eased back into work. Instead, they spent too much time trying to console him, or shied away from him because they didn’t know how to console him. I sense that people I do business with regularly feel the same awkwardness. Many seem to want me to get past the grief, when all they need to do is get on with business and let me grieve privately.

But “getting on” with business will be different for me. Today, the culture and trappings of business are not as important as they once were for me. I am annoyed by minutiae, petty office complaints and office politics. And I avoid casual conversations in favour of quick, candid business dealings. Unless I avoid personal chatter, the diversionary quality of work is lost. In addition, “missions” and “visions” and “core principles” have lost whatever meaning they once had, except to keep me on track, again keeping the diversion intact. They do not serve as the prime motivator of my behaviour.

To the vast majority of co-workers, I suggest that they think about me as having an altered perspective on the organization’s operations. It is not necessarily a profound view or a better one, nor does it threaten my ability to carry out their business; it is just different.

People who have suffered a loss or a sudden tragedy are unalterably changed. But our public work life and co-workers need not– in fact, should not- outwardly change. Colleagues simply need to be aware of the lasting nature of the psychological and emotional changes going on inside of us.

The separation of work and private mourning is very important to me. And it is the start of my “second career” – learning to get on with my life.

Excerpted from an article by Richard O. Nemec in the New York Times and Reprinted from Heartlights
Volume 10, No.3 Winter 1997