Life, Love and Work: How to Navigate Life in the Workplace After A Loss

Life cannot be compartmentalized. Life and loss happen at the same time that you are expected to fulfill obligations at work. Here are some tips for dealing with challenging life events and remaining productive.

The challenge of maintaining emotional stability at work while going through a divorce, death or other major loss is called a “dual process” – on the one hand, you are navigating your loss, and on the other hand, you are getting back into your life and its obligations.

It is important to attend to your loss.  If you try to push your loss under the rug and not deal with it, this can lead to delayed grief, a form of complicated grief.  In order to prevent this, it is important to have support – reach out to others who have gone through a similar loss.  Join a support group. Get emotional sustenance from your spiritual community.  Get professional support from a counselor specializing in grief and loss.  Express your feelings to a trusted friend or co-worker.

Grief and loss can make us question things we always believed in, and journaling or other forms of expression can help us create meaning.  Take care of your physical health.  Grief is extremely stressful in all areas, including the physical.  Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating healthily.  See your doctor to support you in maintaining your physical health.

If you attend to your physical, emotional and spiritual health, you will be more successful in re-entering the workplace and maintaining emotional stability on the job.  Don’t forget, though, that you aren’t perfect and that “grief spasms” can come without warning.  If you get sad or angry and start to cry or snap at a co-worker, excuse yourself.  Take a two-minute break.  Breathe in cool, nourishing air, and breathe out stress and tension.  Roll your shoulders and neck as you breathe in this way.  Feel your feet grounded firmly on the earth. It may be helpful to confide in a trusted co-worker, and ask him or her to remind you to take those mini-breaks.

It is important, though, to maintain a balance regarding how much you share about your personal situation at work.  If you feel that your feelings around your divorce or other loss are interfering with your job performance or if your situation requires you to take time off from work, you may want to explain to your boss — in professional and non-emotional terms — what is going on and that you are going through a difficult situation and you are confident that you will get back to peak performance shortly.

It is also good not to confide in too many work colleagues about your personal life – keeping a boundary between your personal and professional life is important in all circumstances.   Additionally, work can be an “oasis” where you can just do your job and put your feelings aside for a while.  We all have our own balance point, and it is important to be mindful when you are tipping to the side of expressing too much about your personal life.

If you are unable to get the emotional stability to do your job, whether you are feeling overwhelmed by your loss, are finding that the pain of your loss remains fresh with little relief, are having intrusive thoughts that are preventing you from sleeping, having negative beliefs about yourself or other difficulties, a therapist who specializes in grief and loss can be extremely helpful.

The Pain of Unaccepted Grief

Carl’s partner Bob died. Bob’s parents would not allow Carl to play a role in Bob’s funeral plans and Bob’s healthcare providers did not recognize Carl’s decision- making authority. Peggy’s beloved dog Lolly died three months ago, and her friends don’t understand the depth of her grief. Janet’s ex-husband died in a car accident, and her friends think she should be glad he is finally out of her life instead of being sad and grieving. Barbara’s best friend committed suicide, and she feels more judgment than compassion from her peers regarding the death.

These are all examples of what has been called (Doka, 1989) “disenfranchised grief.” Disenfranchised grief has been described as “a grief that persons experience when they sustain a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported” (Doka, 1989, p. 6). Disenfranchised grievers may feel that they don’t have the right to grieve, and may feel abandoned or isolated in their pain. Validation, acknowledgement and support are vital to the healing of grief, and when these elements are missing, the grief process can become complicated and difficult, requiring professional grief counseling.

Disenfranchised grief can occur when (1) the relationship is not recognized, (2) the loss is not recognized, or (3) the griever is not recognized. Examples of unrecognized relationships include those between gay partners, ex-spouses, neighbors, colleagues, counselors and others. In the example of Carl and Bob described above, Carl sought grief counseling to work out his feelings of anger toward Bob’s parents and toward the medical establishment. My nonjudgmental validation of Carl’s feelings and acceptance of his grief assisted him on the road to healing.

Pet loss is an important example of a loss that is not recognized. Peggy came to see me because her grief about the loss of her beloved Lolly had become depression: she blamed herself for Lolly’s death, and was judging herself and feeling shame for having such strong feelings of grief. Peggy’s harsh self-judgments were reinforced by the responses of her friends that it was “only a dog” and that she should “get over it.” In validating the depth of Peggy’s grief, I assured her of the strength of the human-animal bond and the unconditional love we receive from our pets, and that her grief was not only acceptable, but right.

Other examples of losses that are not universally recognized or accepted include abortion, divorce, infertility, job loss, disability, suicide and witnessing another’s decline due to dementia. Some of these losses, such as suicide or abortion, are not always socially validated, and cannot always be publicly expressed. A deep sense of loss may be felt after losing a job, losing one’s independence due to disability or illness or having a loved one with dementia. However, because there is no literal, physical death in these situations, the grief that these types of losses can cause is not always recognized or accepted. Group support, in addition to counseling, for these types of losses can be very helpful and validating.

Disenfranchised grief can also occur when the griever is not recognized, because it is incorrectly assumed that he or she is not capable of grief. Examples include children, people with dementia, roommates in nursing homes, and people with developmental disabilities. Everyone experiences loss and grief, and a person’s level of cognitive development or dysfunction must be taken into account in providing support and counseling.

Those experiencing disenfranchised grief may lack the social (or societal) support necessary to face the pain of grief and accommodate it, and if the relationship has been severed or not openly acknowledged, there are often no bereavement rituals or outlets for expression to help the disenfranchised griever cope with the loss (Rando, 1988). Indeed, the “very nature of disenfranchised grief creates additional problems for grief, while removing or minimizing sources of support” (Doka, 1989, p. 7). The support of a grief counselor or group can be of great help for those experiencing the complications of disenfranchised grief, so that the loss can be validated and the grief transformed into healing and growth.

References

Doka, K., ed. (1989). Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York: Lexington Books.

Rando, T. (1988). How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books.

Mind the Gap: Living in the Space Between Loss and Healing

One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning.  All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief.  For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one.  Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change.  The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.

Our lives are always in transition.  Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation.     After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable.  William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something.  So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”

Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth.   How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something?  The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety.  Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity:  Where do you feel it in your body?  What is it telling you?  Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.

Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone:  Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath.  Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath.  Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.

Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone.  Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious.  We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.

Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone.  The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward.  Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves.  Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal.  Without death, there can be no rebirth.

The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change.  We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them.  Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise.  As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found.  It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self.  We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”

REFERENCES

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA:  Perseus Books.

Washburn, M. (1996).  The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It:  The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith.  In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York:  G. Putnam’s Sons.

The Use of Narrative Therapy in the Transformative Work of Healing Painful Life Transitions

Helen Keller has said that “the only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.”  This is certainly true in the work of transforming painful emotions, such as those we experience after a divorce, into healing and growth. This process involves allowing ourselves to feel the intense emotions of grief – sadness, anger, despair and other difficult emotions, as well as tapping into our internal strengths and external sources of support.

Narrative therapy and has been used with a wide variety of difficulties and issues, including reactions to a major life transition.  The role of the narrative therapist is as collaborator or co-author with the client.  As such, the narrative therapist partners with the client to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life (White, 1995). The The

Narrative therapy is thus an empowering vehicle for “re-authoring lives” (Carr, 1998, p. 468; White, 1995), in which the therapist takes the role of a partner or collaborator with the client, rather than an authority figure (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1999).. The narrative therapist partners with the client to create a safe place to feel the emotions of loss and change, and to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life. The use of narrative or story is a useful vehicle for making meaning and sense of difficult experiences in our lives, by allowing us to access alternative cognitions and gain self-knowledge.

A narrative therapy tool that is often used in this work is the use of written expression, such as journaling and letter writing.  This can be a powerful vehicle for expressing the emotions of loss and change and accessing the individual’s unique internal strengths and resources.

The collaborative approach of the narrative therapist can be useful for accessing the client’s spiritual strengths by respectful inquiry into the client’s worldviews, including his or her beliefs before the loss, and how they may have changed since the loss, and discussing spiritual and existential issues that arise in this context. (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2000, p. 167).

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition and its difficult transitions (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000).

Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for working painful emotions and finding new meaning in one’s life.  The process of expression literally takes deep feelings out of the body, externalizing them so that they become workable. Through this process, my clients are able to see that they have some control over their lives, and can tap into their strengths and their inherent wisdom.  With my guidance as a partner on the path of healing painful life transitions, my clients can discover their unique strengths, resources and resiliency, deepen their spiritual beliefs, and enhance the meaning of their lives in the context of the human condition.

Top Ten Communication Tips for Successful Relationships

A common reason that people see a psychotherapist or couples counselor is difficulties in communicating.  The key to good communication is being a good listener.  Here is  my top ten list for being a good listener:

1.  Stop what you are doing and be present.

2.  Allow the other person to finish his or her thought without finishing it for him or her.

3.  Avoid giving advice, unless it is specifically requested.

4. Let the other person know you have heard him or her by reflecting back what you have heard.

5.  Do not interrupt.

6.  Listen with your heart, not just your head.

7.  Listen for your triggers and take a deep breath.

8. Look directly at the person speaking.

9.  Keep your body language positive – avoid rolling your eyes, crossing your arms across your chest, etc.

10.  Slow down and breathe!