Meeting Grief with Compassion
Content warning: This article contains mentions of bereavement experiences, including loss of a parent and a child.
One morning in mid-February, I was working at home and about to join a committee meeting virtually when I got the call no one ever wants to get but some version of which we will all experience: it was my sister-in-law telling me that my mother had unexpectedly passed away. She had had health problems, but it was still a major shock, especially considering she had just been seen by three different doctors in the days prior and had a treatment plan ready to start. I count myself lucky that I was at home and not in the office and that my husband works from home and was there as well. A friend came over immediately, got us moving to make the 12-hour drive home, even called my supervisor to let her know I would be out for the foreseeable future.
Things I did not know at the time: my institution’s bereavement leave policy (up to five accrued sick days may be used), how long I would need to process this loss, what accommodations I might need in the coming months, and who to ask about what to do next.
“Death is a natural occurrence that happens every day,” higher education and grief researcher Chinasa Elue at Kennesaw State University reminds us. “But there’s just not enough conversation on how to support colleagues who are grieving. There’s just nothing really out there.” Elue lost her mother to cancer in 2019, which led to her interest in researching grief experiences of faculty and students in higher ed. “I know it sounds very academic to want to research the thing you going through, but it turned into a research situation where I wanted to know how we can humanize grief in higher ed—how can we create spaces where leaders are more aware and adopt an ethic of care when it comes to seeing colleagues and students who are experiencing loss? And how do we cultivate a space that really provides an opportunity for them to be human and to experience all the emotions and be able to show up even when they aren’t okay?”
Similarly, industrial and organizational psychologist Stephanie Gilbert at Cape Breton University used her personal experience of losing a child at full term, to shift her research agenda as well: “Most of the work I am doing is really looking at the idea that if we work full time, or even part time, our work experience has the potential to affect our overall quality of life. In this grief work, I’m recognizing that there are times in our life when having a positive work experience and having support at work might matter so much more—times when we’re vulnerable or going through loss or some other significant or stressful life event.” But she also notes, “In general, we’re really grief illiterate in our society. We don’t talk about grief.”
I spoke with Elue and Gilbert to find out what higher ed leaders need to know about the grief process to best support colleagues who are grieving in the workplace. Here we look at what we can expect from those who are grieving, including ourselves; in my November article, we’ll explore specific strategies leaders can employ to support bereaved colleagues.
Many readers will be familiar with Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief model, but Gilbert reminds us that grief isn’t linear: “[Kubler Ross] was an amazing researcher, but she was actually studying patients in palliative care that were anticipating their own deaths. That’s how those stages were developed. Later on, they became applied to bereavement grief, but we know that those stages may not always be representative of bereavement grief, and we certainly don’t progress through these stages in a linear way. So, what we know instead is that everybody seems to have quite a unique and individual trajectory of their grief and that we might grieve in very different ways and for different types of losses.”
When I asked what we can expect from a typical grief experience, Gilbert shared a list of characteristics to consider: “In most cases, there’s likely to be an acute period of grief, probably up to six months after your loss, where your daily activities are impaired by your grief. Common grief symptoms are things like brain fog, really having difficulty with cognitive function or making decisions, taking in and processing new information. All these things that we do in academia are trickier, and maybe we’re impaired in our ability to do those things when we’re grieving. But we might also have physical expressions of grief. We know that our immune systems are compromised when we’re grieving, and we’re more likely to get sick. And some of us might be more likely to express grief that way than others. Some are more doers in our grief, and others are much more emotional in our grief. So what to expect is to expect change and constantly changing needs, changing emotions, those waves of grief to come over the grieving person at sometimes unexpected times.”
Gilbert also shared that while grieving, we tend to oscillate between a grief orientation, where we’re actively grieving, and a recovery orientation, where our brain just can’t be grieving 100 percent of the time. As we walk though our grief over time, we spend more and more time in that recovery zone, moving toward a more so-called normal.
Gilbert and Elue both mention that there is no national or mandated bereavement policy, so every organization has its own policies for taking time after a loss—but they also note that this time is rarely enough. Elue notes that “at most, you maybe get three to five days, and then you’re expected to hop back into work. And for a lot of us, that’s not even enough time to bury someone, let alone begin to make sense of the aftermath of the loss itself.” Gilbert found in her research that “many people we talked to took no time off, and certainly no formal time off was taken by any of these faculty members that we talked to. It’s like we have a loss and we go into survival mode and we say, ‘Okay, what, what needs to get done?’ But it’s very difficult to even determine, ‘Okay, of all these balls I’ve got in the air, which ones could drop right now? Which could I pass onto somebody else?’ And now at such a reduced capacity to function, you are still handling what is a very stressful job under normal circumstances.”
In Gilbert’s work, she found that in the right supportive conditions, returning to work quickly was a benefit for some people: “I went into this work really thinking that anybody that’s grieving is going to have a difficult time going back to work. But there are people for whom work was a massive benefit to them in their grief. I think these are people who like their jobs and generally have a supportive and healthy work environment. Going back to work for them felt like a great, healthy way to detach from their grief for a period of time and then, at the end of the day, go home to their grieving family and deal with that grief again. And during the day, have an opportunity to derive support from colleagues to focus their energy on a productive goal and just have like a little bit of recovery. So for some people, I think if our workplaces are healthy and we like our jobs, or we find them to be fulfilling and meaningful, work can be really beneficial. Everybody will be different in that capacity. Some people will want to go back to the classroom, and if you do, that’s okay.”
At the same time, Elue and I discussed the fact that it’s not uncommon for academics, especially teaching faculty, to return to work immediately because the culture of taking time, of colleagues offering to take classes or help with research students for an extended period, might not be strong at an institution. “It’s common for academics to jump back into work quickly, almost like a form of distraction in some ways, but then the deep work that’s required to navigate grief is often left undone because we’re piling all these things onto our calendar to almost not attend to the pain that’s there. We’re so prone to overworking all the time, and that in and of itself can be our chosen mechanism to help us not deal with the pain. It anesthetizes us to an extent. But the thing is, at the end of the day when you close your laptop and you have to close the journal and walk away from it, it’s still there. It’s waiting to meet you at the door.” Gilbert agreed that culture makes a huge difference, saying, “Just because a policy might exist doesn’t mean that there is a culture that people will take advantage of it.”
Gilbert found in her studies that “almost everybody looks back and wishes they’d taken more time off.” Agreeing with Elue, she notes, “There is a cost associated with pushing through, and while it might feel easier at the time because it’s so difficult to think of supports or leave options or ‘How could I get away from my work?’ They pushed through, they got it done. Very few people took extended leave. But we did have people though who took no time off and then needed to later take time off because they hadn’t coped and they hadn’t been able to process their grief.”
Both Elue and Gilbert stress that compassion is the most important thing to consider when working with a colleague or direct report who is grieving—compassion meaning not only seeing someone else’s pain but also wanting to help alleviate it. Elue says, “We have to approach colleagues who are reemerging back into the workplace with care. We can’t expect them to come back and be at tip-top, optimal shape when they are trying to make sense of this new world. Don’t think it’s going to take a semester. Don’t think it’s going to be the academic year. Give them some time. Others forget, and they need things done, and they’re expecting the grieving person to move at the same pace as before their loss. But we’re not the same people when we come back to the workplace after we experienced a loss like that. It’s debilitating. Recognize that comprehensive support is needed.”
What does that support look like? Next month, we’ll explore Gilbert and Elue’s advice for leaders.
Listen to the entire interview with Stephanie Gilbert on Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s podcast, the agile academic, on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).