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Mental Health – Dealing with Grief in the Workplace

Milton Walters Taking some time out for me. Bernadette my wife for over 30 plus years and mother of our 5 children died a few months ago. Bern had been ill for close to 7 years and unbelievably was only diagnosed last year – Multiple System Atrophy – an insidious cruel neuro-degenerative terminal disease. Over the last four/ five years she had been confined to bed, could not do anything for herself i.e. eating, moving, going to the bathroom and worst of all it had taken her voice in 2015. It took everything from this kind, gentle, wonderful woman except her beautiful mind and her unconquerable spirit. In the end, she contracted pneumonia and courageously declined treatment. Bernadette died within 5 days in early July last year. When the end came, my first emotion was relief – relief for Bernadette that it was finally over for her as well as for my family. We could rest knowing that her suffering had finally come to an end. I took a few weeks off work and then knowing that in order to get my mind into a better frame, I thought it would be best to return and my experience prompted me to write this piece. How do we deal with grief in the workplace? We have leave entitlements built into our policy, we have procedures, but how do we not feel awkward or uncomfortable in the office when someone is dealing with such a significant event in their life. It’s hard because it’s not common and death is one of those subjects we struggle to have a conversation about. The toll it takes on you watching someone you love slowly deteriorate and ultimately die is immense – except you don’t realise it’s happening. In my case, I have been in senior leadership roles during this period at Textura (now Oracle), Procore and now Hammertech and although I instinctively knew I wasn’t at my best – I thought I was doing ok. I have always thought I am resilient but when people tell you – “you are doing a great job, looking after your ill wife and still being a father to 5 children (4 of whom are adults) and holding down senior roles – you tend to buy into this falsehood that you are alright. How can you be? As the person who is grieving its tough because you don’t know what to say to your co-workers, you want it acknowledged that you are suffering but you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable in your presence. It's challenging. How do you initiate a conversation without wanting to bring everyone into your grieving state of mind? I can’t recall working anywhere throughout my career where there has been a tragedy or a loved one of a co-worker has died – so this is new territory for me. I have read books on grief and watched TED talks about the process of grieving and I am confident I am following a traditional path to what most people feel and experience. But I haven’t come across much in relation to workplace grieving – I am sure it must be around just haven’t seen it or found it yet. A few months on now – I am feeling better, it’s still raw obviously, but with the help of family and friends, I will come out the other side. My ability to re-engage in my workplace is beginning to see green shoots and many whom I have crossed paths with during my career have reached out and offered their words – that’s been comforting. At the end of the day what can anyone really do other than to offer their sympathy and their support – it’s a personal journey, but really that’s a great start. Bernadette was universally loved by people far and wide. She understood from a very young age the power of kindness. To me now, in relation to interacting with those who are grieving – that’s what really helps you the most – being the recipient of kindness – it’s powerful and it’s healing. A few weeks back I walked into our kitchen at work and there was a team member who had been with the business for three months making herself some breakfast. She turned to me and asked me if I was ok? I said, ‘yes I’m good’. She responded by saying to me ‘no I mean are you really ok?’ In that moment I thought what a wonderfully kind person you are and I was immediately uplifted by her heartfelt warmness to me. This was what I was looking for within our workplace someone at that very human level looking out for my wellbeing. Life does go on – it has to. Just asking someone R U Ok? It’s a great way to demonstrate that kindness that may just allow someone to feel that they are cared for during this most challenging of times. I posted this in September last year on Linkedin - I was overwhelmed by the inmails I received from people all over the world. In mid October I decided I needed time for me and resigned my role. It was necessary as processing grief is not easy and when working its more difficult. In late January - I am slowly coming out the other side - just so glad I took the required time for me.

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