My father died on Valentine’s Day 2017. It was unexpected. I still remember every single detail of that day, and not so much of what happened in the days and weeks that followed.
Those first few days coming back to work were harder than I would have anticipated. While I looked forward to the distraction of work, my confidence was shattered in ways I wouldn’t have expected. I found myself lapsing into my very old behaviors. I wanted to sit in the back of meetings. I didn’t feel like participating. I didn’t feel like I could add any value. I became unsure of myself and thought that people would question my value.
Some days the hours seemed to fly by, while other days the hours dragged by. I would temporarily forget that my dad was gone. And something simple would trigger me, reminding me that he was indeed gone. I would find myself running to the nearest restroom and slamming the stall door only to collapse into a ball of tears. I had been conditioned for so long not to cry at work. Now, it seemed like I was crying all day, every day.
As my brother so poignantly said, there was now two distinct chapters of our lives: there was life before dad and now there was life after dad. I needed help figuring out what life after dad looked like. I was lucky to have an amazing group of coworkers — my family at work — who helped me get through those early days.
Here are some of the things my family at work did to support me. Now, when I find out anyone I know at work is grieving, I try to think about how we can all be more supportive of them:
1. Not avoiding me.
If people were avoiding me, I knew it immediately. I wasn’t contagious; people wouldn’t contract anything by chatting with me. Their father wouldn’t suddenly die. And for those who didn’t know what to say, a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” or “you have been in my thoughts and prayers” would have sufficed. Text or email works if you can’t do it in person.
2. Giving me a handwritten note.
Handwritten notes are a lost art form. I had a group of coworkers send me a card with lots of scribbled handwritten messages and a Starbucks gift card enclosed. Another sent me a beautiful card sharing the story of how she had lost her own father. I could feel their love for me physically emanating through those cards.
3. Getting me a cup of tea unexpectedly.
Yes, I love Starbucks. I was grateful for coworkers who showed up with my favorite chai latte or just a hot beverage. We would sit for a few minutes, and the silence was comforting.
4. Reminding me to eat when I forgot.
Some days, I would be in a trance and forget that lunch had passed. I remember someone bringing me a sandwich. She didn’t ask, she just showed up with ham and cheese. Normally I don’t even eat ham, but it didn’t matter. We ate and discussed Game of Thrones.
5. Not asking how my father died.
A few people did this — usually the ones I didn’t know well. It’s tacky and just not appropriate. I wasn’t interested in reliving the details — how, when, why. Curiosity can get the best of us. Please don’t ask unless the individual wants to share.
6. Allowing me to throw myself back into work.
When I asked to be put on one project, the response was to give myself some more time; to ease back in. I appreciated the sentiment, but I needed to find my new normal — life after Dad — and I wanted to work.
7. Asking for my help.
When my team, peers and leaders came to me for advice, asked my opinion in a meeting or asked for my input on a critical decision, my confidence started to rise again.
8. Not asking me what was wrong.
I remember months later I was in a meeting and looked out the window. The color of the bright blue sky reminded me of an Indian top my dad often wore. An individual in the meeting asked "what's wrong?" in response to the sober look on my face. I wanted to scream: "My dad’s dead, that’s what’s wrong!" Instead, I said “nothing" and another individual knowingly squeezed my arm as I exited the room.
9. Not asking me: "are you feeling better?"
Sheryl Sandberg talks about this in "Option B." She didn’t have the flu, her husband died. We don’t ever feel better, we don’t ever feel the same — we are changed and feel different after loss. Sandberg suggests asking “how are you doing today?” to keep it grounded in the present and to ask how you can help on that day.
10. Crying with me.
I have had so much of my family at work share their own stories of grief. We would cry together and still do. It has deepened my human connection with so many individuals to talk about loss.
11. Reaching out on Father’s Day, his birthday, and anniversary of his death.
That first Father’s Day was especially daunting — especially because my children wanted to celebrate my husband and my father-in-law. Those texts and messages from coworkers gave me strength. I knew I wasn’t alone.
Grief can be so isolating. Grief can be all consuming. Grief can crush you. And grief is not just about the loss of a family member. It’s about the loss of a pet who becomes a family member. It’s about the end of a marriage or a relationship, the end of a job, the loss of a home and moving to a new home. It’s about struggling with an illness. It’s about watching those we love struggle with an illness and feeling helpless.
Grief is all around us — all day, every day. We need to name our grief, call it out and let others know we are grieving. We need to support and hold each other and allow for space to grieve in our workplaces.
Building an inclusive culture goes beyond building a workforce that reflects the communities we serve every single day. It’s about allowing each of us to bring into to work with us our struggles, and allowing us the space to heal at work.