Sunday, December 16, 2012


Soon, many of those affected by the Sandy Hook shootings will be heading back to their workplaces, and I’m going to pray for them, because the workplace does not deal with grief very well. After the initial shock and the memorial services and the funerals, we basically expect people to return to work as they were before the loss, mostly because, I think, we don’t know what to say or do for the grieving person, and hey, life goes on, and there’s always the work.

I’ve been on both sides of this situation, as an employee who lost her mother and as an HR professional responsible for educating folks on the company’s leave polices during their times of need. As a result, I think I understand a little about it.

I remember returning to work after my mother died and honestly not caring that much about Betty Sue’s squabble with Billy Boy or that such and such was mad about her bad performance review. I needed to work through that new-found apathy, and I did, but anyone at this time in my life expecting me to attack workplace conflicts with the same intensity and interest as before my mother passed would have been sorely disappointed. Some might criticize me for this, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But I’m human.

The experience of losing my mother altered my perspective in another way, too. Now when an employee came to me requesting information about family leave, debating how to balance the demands of work with the instinct to go home and be with family I’d say, “Listen, if you think you need to go home, then go home. Your work will be waiting when you get back.” And I’d make extra sure the employee’s manager understood the company’s policies and legal obligations in this case.

HR professionals have some power to create environments in which it’s okay for an employee suffering a loss—such as the losses now being endured by the families of Sandy Hook—to take just a little time to process their new world, the one devoid of their mother, father, child, parent, spouse, or other loved one. In my opinion, women need special permission, because we are told that if emotion affects our work, we are weak and “unprofessional.”

Employer resources are limited, and there is no policy that can heal a broken heart. There is no amount of time an employer can offer after which everything will be alright. But we don’t have to go the opposite extreme either, expecting that with the funerals over, employees can go back to acting like nothing has changed. We can exercise a little wisdom. We can exercise a little kindness. We can be human. It’s fine, really.

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