Grief Doesn’t Stay Home: Navigating Loss in the Workplace

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

Grief is on my mind. I am reflecting on an unfinished project and a remarkable client.

Years ago, my wife and I selected a private preschool program for our boys that focused on character development rather than just ABCs and playtime.  My children benefited from a safe, loving environment in which to grow and learn, and they absorbed the values that Primrose Schools wove throughout each day, including honesty, compassion, and generosity.

In recent years, I had the opportunity to become a consultant to Primrose Schools, helping the leadership team connect their organizational values to their approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. My partner on this effort was Sarah Funk, the Primrose Chief Talent and Performance Officer.

From the very beginning, Sarah and I “got” each other. She started as a client and professional connection who soon because a friend through our mutual authenticity with each other and our shared values. To me, she personified Primrose culture and lived the values daily. She was vibrant, present, engaged, caring, solution-oriented, and aligned with her organization’s values. She met people where they were and collaborated with them to reach someplace better.

Our project aimed to create experiences led by leadership to emphasize the importance of core values. Sarah spoke passionately and eloquently about integrating these values into daily interactions, and she wanted to ensure everyone in the organization understood and embraced them.

The work progressed at a pace that was right for her organization and its stakeholders, building consensus and achieving compromise at key points. Because we had regular touchpoints and our partnership was a priority to both Primrose and Sarah, I knew something was wrong when my messages went unreturned. I reached out to another member of the leadership team and learned that Sarah had passed away from brain cancer. She had a terminal diagnosis that she fought bravely and quietly, with inspiring determination and grace. Her colleague and friend, CEO of Primrose Jo Kirchner, shared that at the end she leaned on her faith, coming to acceptance and peace. Jo said it was an honor to have had Sarah’s exceptional leadership at Primrose and her priceless friendship in life.  

I was shocked, then grief-stricken. And in the weeks after learning the news, I decided I needed to write about Sarah and about grief.

How we support grieving employees should be guided by our values and our emotional intelligence.

We need to stop tiptoeing around the idea of grief and vulnerability at work. As leaders, how we support grieving employees should be guided by our values and our emotional intelligence, or EQ.

Understanding Grief in the Workplace

Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. And we know death is a universal human experience. But just because everyone experiences loss at some point, we can’t expect team members to keep on working as if nothing has changed. While everyone faces bereavement in their own way, we won’t know what they need until we ask. As a leader, it’s critical to be present and sensitive to how an associate is experiencing loss, and find out how they want to be treated.

When my mother passed away several years ago, my then-supervisor came to my desk when I returned to work.

I was still deeply emotional. The funeral was fresh in my mind.

First, he showed me that he was there for me by coming to sit with me quietly, rather than faking joviality or offering to “catch me up” on what I had missed. Then, he shared that he did not know how best to support me. He admitted that not having lost a parent yet, he couldn’t really fathom what emotions I was processing. So, he asked me to take the lead.

That moment was a true gift. It allowed me to respond authentically, rather than cueing me to keep my grief private. I told him I wanted people to talk with me about my loss; it would comfort me to speak about my mother. He passed this along to colleagues, so no one felt awkward about what to say. Thanks to his approach, my coworkers knew to engage with me about my grief, rather than avoiding the topic.

I look back on that time with a sense of feeling supported. But had that leader not recognized that grief can negatively impact a team member’s performance, mental health, and overall well-being, I would not have been able to work in that role for long.

We remember how leaders react not only when things are great, but also when things go badly. Building a compassionate work environment that supports productivity and a sense of belonging sets the foundation for positive interactions in the face of negative events, whether they are work-related or personal.

Building a compassionate work environment that supports productivity and a sense of belonging sets the foundation for positive interactions in the face of negative events, whether they are work-related or personal.

An executive client at a large Fortune 500 company was reeling from his wife’s cancer diagnosis. He shared the news in an all-associate meeting so that his team would know what he was grappling with and how he’d be less present in the office while helping her through treatment. One team member came to him and said, “No matter what happens, we’ll get through it together.” He connected with this heartfelt expression of support deeply. To him, this was not only a caring human-to-human exchange, but it was also the fierce and true representation of their organization’s core values. Some time later, when that associate stepped back from her role to care for an acutely ill family member, he had the opportunity to demonstrate that compassion and care in kind. Their culture supported them both.

Supporting Grieving Team Members

Not every leader knows instinctively how to act in these difficult situations. You may find this list of actionable ways to support grieving employees helpful:

  1. Open Communication While Respecting Their Privacy: Initiate a candid conversation with the grieving employee, expressing your condolences and asking how they would prefer to handle their grief in the workplace. This can help them feel seen and respected.
  2. Be a Good Listener: If they do want to talk, listen attentively without interrupting or judging. Sometimes, people just need to express their feelings.
  3. Flexible Work Arrangements: Offer flexible work schedules or the option to work remotely, allowing employees the time and space they need to grieve. Having choices about where and how they work can alleviate stress and demonstrate your understanding of their situation.
  4. Provide Time Off: Encourage them to take bereavement leave. Ensure they are aware of any leave policies and help facilitate the process. Be open to granting additional time off if necessary.
  5. Regular Check-ins: Maintain regular, empathetic check-ins to ensure the employee feels supported over time, not just immediately after their loss. Look for signs that someone is struggling with their grief and offer additional support.
  6. Encourage Use of EAPs and Counseling Services: Ensure employees know about Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and counseling services if they are available and encourage them to take advantage of them.
  7. Be Mindful of Triggers: Be sensitive to potential triggers like anniversaries or events related to their loss. Offer extra support during these times if needed.
  8. Peer Support Groups: Facilitate or encourage participation in peer support groups where employees can share their experiences and make connections. You may even offer to accompany them to a group if they feel uncomfortable going alone. 
  9. Prioritize Compassion: Lead by example and operate with empathy when a team member is grieving. Encourage colleagues to be understanding and patient with grieving colleagues.
  10. Follow up: After some time has passed, follow up to see how they are coping. Grief can be a long process, and ongoing support is often appreciated.

    Compassion as Your Compass

    Remember, there is no expiration date on grief. While I am experiencing fresh grief, I am also feeling emotions surface from losses I experienced even years ago.  

    The project Sarah and I worked on for Primrose was meaningful to both of us because it represented the highest level of employee interaction and collaboration, encouraging excellent work while respecting each individual’s humanity.

    My hope is that we will finish this work and use it to honor Sarah’s legacy by laying the foundation of a supportive and authentic work environment.

    Supporting employees through grief is a profound way to lead with emotional intelligence and demonstrate your commitment to both organizational and personal values. By proactively addressing and acknowledging their pain, you help to create a compassionate workplace that honors the humanity of your team. Leading with empathy and understanding during such times is not just good leadership; it is a powerful example of how to blend EQ with professional integrity.

    Don’t look the other way when a team member is experiencing loss. Embrace this opportunity to show genuine care and build a resilient, connected, and values-driven culture.