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Dealing with Death at Work

I’m not going to lie. This will be hard to write, but I believe it’s important and necessary.

Almost three months ago now, my step father Robert Scarborough passed away from stage four liver cancer. He was a great man, and the last six months of his life, I slowly watched a once energetic, fun loving man, slowly turn sick and die. It was heartbreaking and one of the most stressful events I’ve ever been through.

I specifically used the word “stressful” when writing this. There are many more words, that describe deeper pain that I felt throughout this process, but stressful is fitting because of the circumstances that were going on in my life.

I’m 26 years old, and this is the second father I’ve lost to cancer. But this is my first time dealing with a close death in my adult life. When I was 14 I lost my actual father to cancer too. And yes, as painful as that was, especially since my actual Dad was my best friend, Rob’s death hurt more. Not because I loved him more, it’s because I’m an adult. In my opinion, dealing with death as an adult is much harder than going through it as a child.

I’m not trying to ramble on about my own personal loss, but I have to give you context to support the main point of this blog, which is dealing with death at work. I referred to Rob’s death as “one of the most stressful events I’ve ever been through.” Here’s why: While watching Rob slowly die, I also had to manage my everyday work life and responsibility. I had to try and be a professional for at least eight hours a day.

Two months before Rob passed away, I accepted a new position as a Digital Marketing Manager for a $200 million dollar privately owned company. I’ll leave their name out, for sake of me not promoting a company that has an unhealthy work culture. So to say the least, outside of watching my step-father die, I was also having to adjust to a new job and work culture.

I carried pain and stress everywhere I went because of Rob’s decline. I wasn’t right. And I won’t lie, it reflected most in my professional life. I woke up every day and went to a new job I truly didn’t love, and left work every night to go help take care of my dying father. As I’m sure you can imagine it was a horrible scenario.

I’m not sure if there is any good advice when it comes to managing your professional life when dealing with death. All I can do is write what I learned through my own experience. Listed below are my takeaways, and hopeful tips and words that might help one who is going through the same thing. Please note, these are in NO particular order either.

Acknowledge Your Pain

It’s okay to admit you hurt. In fact, it’s better to admit it. I encourage you to be open with not only yourself, but the people around you. I was 100% open with my “work friends”. I told them what I was dealing with. How sick my step-father was.

I did this so people would understand. My motives weren’t to get attention or get sympathy. It was so my immediate colleagues would know what’s going on. Right or wrong, I wanted to have a human connection and response with my co-workers when it came to this subject. And more than anything, I couldn’t hide the fact that I “wasn’t right”.

Admit you hurt, and understand it’s alright to embrace and accept the pain you’re feeling. Inevitably, no matter what you try and do, nothing “cures” the pain. And I believe, for people trying to manage “death” in their outside life, while maintain being a professional, you will be impacted.

Acknowledging that you’re hurt is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of honesty. I not only encourage you to admit this to yourself, but also the people you’re around and come in contact with daily. Ie; Your spouse, family, co-workers, ect. The reason for this is to let the people around you know exactly where you are. This will give them a better pulse on how they can approach and communicate with you during this difficult time.

Talk with your Boss

This next bullet point sucks, I’m not going to lie. But it’s a must if you want your boss to work with you during a time like this.

When my step-father was dying and I accepted that new job, the first thing I did was speak with my direct report with what was going on. I had to be 100% transparent with what was going on in my outside life. I let my boss know that my family and I were waiting for my step-father to pass away, and we weren’t sure when it was going to happen, but when it does, I would need to take some time off.

I did this one, because I was brand new to the company. I knew this company didn’t have a bereavement policy and I knew I needed time off to be with my family once my father passed away. (Never put a corporation above your happiness).

I also did this because I wanted my boss to know what mindset I was in. It’s only fair as a professional of integrity to be upfront with your direct report through times like these. I let him know that I was going through some difficult outside personal stuff so he would understand that he would have to communicate with me differently. (Whether your boss does communicate with you differently or not is a different story, and there is no guarantee that they do. Just a FYI).

Just like I stated above, you have to be honest with yourself and the people around you. Dealing with death directly impacted me at work. Being honest with my boss was not only fair in my opinion, but it made me feel better. It gave me the security knowing that I didn’t have to try and “hide” anything while having to be a professional for at least eight hours a day.

Take Time Off. Heal.

This sounds simple. But it’s not that easy. Once my step-father had passed away, I made the mistake of only taking one day off. I gave myself a three day weekend. And honestly, it wasn’t enough. Yes, I did this partially in part because my former company didn’t have a bereavement policy and I didn’t want to be the “new guy” taking a lot of time off, but looking back, I should have taken more time.

Time off is critical for anyone after a major tragedy like death. You have to heal. You need to have “YOU” time. I get it, sometimes work can be a positive to keep your mind off things, but to really grieve and heal, you need your own time as well.

Looking back now, I would have taken a whole week of work off. I jumped back into work way too soon and my production and heart just weren’t there. That’s unfair to your work, and more than anything, unfair to yourself. You need time to heal. You need time to process. And most of all, you need time to reflect.

Dealing with death at work is tough. It was hard for me to be human, and be an ultra corporate professional. But looking back, I learned some valuable lessons. I hope this blog helps someone someday. I really do. But honestly, I hope my readers don’t “need” this blog right now, because if you do, that means you’re hurting, and if that’s the case, understand that you are not alone.

Thank you.

@JHarperMedia