Types of grief and how you can help your employees right now

May 5, 2021 - 12 min read

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Grief leadership in action – a personal story

What is grief?

Why grief leadership is needed right now

Types of grief employees may experience

Tips and resources to help your employees right now

A year into the pandemic, many in the workplace are experiencing grief. Most businesses and managers don't know how to support grieving employees and are ill-prepared for the kind of impact different types of grief can have on employees and the business.

Grief leadership in action – a personal story

Lori's mom, Carleen, was diagnosed with cancer in August 2020. Lori is a Senior Learning Architect in the Customer Experience organization at Cisco Systems. 

This difficult time in Lori’s life could have been more difficult with the demands of a global role in a large technology company. What Lori experienced instead was a team that had her back when her mom went to the hospital or let others know why Lori was not in attendance at an event. Her team was her champion, sending cards, flowers, food, and made her laugh with silly jokes and texts.

After sharing the news with her manager, Drew, he assured her that “family comes first.” Lori took the time she needed to go with her mom to chemotherapy appointments. Drew leaned into uncomfortable moments, asking Lori what she needed. When Lori did not know, Drew offered suggestions.

Drew also ensured that she knew about the company Employee Assistance resources. Lori eventually took a Leave of Absence after her mom went into hospice one week before Thanksgiving in November 2020.

When Lori returned to work after her mom died in January 2021, she felt lost and unsure. She had spent months as a caregiver and needed to redefine herself as an employee. She set up a meeting to discuss work priorities before she returned. Drew, however, focused the conversation on how Lori was doing. He assured her that there would be plenty of time after she returned to talk about the job.  In doing so, he demonstrated in real-time how he cared for her as a person and as an employee.

So many things had changed since she had taken her leave. She missed whole projects, changes in the organization and work priorities. But her team took time to bring her up to speed and to fill in the gaps. They spoke of how much they missed her at a time when she needed to feel needed. 

Drew opened space for Lori to grieve and to share the special relationship she had with her mom. Lori would cry in some of these conversations, yet Drew made her feel safe to share this type and level of emotion. Drew summed it up this way, “To me, it’s totally okay not to know what to do or say in these situations. The best thing I could do was to ask Lori how I could best support her right now. I asked questions and listened rather than feel like I needed answers.”

Drew and Lori’s team did so many things right. They allowed Lori to grieve and return to work gracefully. Lori can now continue to impact the business in the way she has over her 25+ year career at Cisco. The good news for you as a leader is that grief leadership can be learned with the help of some knowledge and a few simple tips.

What is grief?

Grief is experienced in the face of loss, especially losses that helped form your identity. Thus, grief does not need to be caused solely by the death of a loved one.

It can be triggered by any event that involves identity-altering loss. This can include loss of a job, social connection, divorce, one’s own illness or that of a loved one, and certainly the death of a loved one.

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Why grief leadership is needed right now

The mental health implications of COVID are sometimes termed “the second pandemic.” 

Most businesses are ill-prepared for the kind of impact such chronic stress has on employees, leaders, and the business. 

Fortune Magazine states that the cost of lost productivity from employee burnout even before the pandemic was estimated at $265 - $300 billion a year in health care costs. Of that, nearly a third is attributed to grief. From these statistics, it’s clear that grief leadership is not just the right thing to do for employees. It makes for good business outcomes as well.

Types of grief employees may experience

Grief is universal, yet everyone experiences grief in a way that is unique to them. This can complicate interaction with employees because there is no one “right” way to support them. 

Let’s look at the various types of grief which will help to understand the emotions your employees may be experiencing.

  1. Normal or Uncomplicated Grief. The American Psychology Association defines this as grief that lasts 6 months to 2 years following the significant loss. There may be cultural differences to consider as well.  For example, some cultures have grieving practices that call families together over a period of several years to mourn the deceased.
  2. Anticipatory Grief. This type of grief is felt in anticipation of a significant loss. This includes things like terminal diagnosis, anticipated layoffs or impending divorce.  Anticipatory grief is normal and should be treated as grief even if the loss has not yet occurred.
  3. Delayed Grief. This type of grief may be caused by growing up in a culture that discourages grieving, or simply by not wanting to face the loss. Sometimes delayed grief surfaces in the face of another significant loss.  
  4. Complicated Grief. This type of grief is marked by conflicting feelings for the loss. For example, grief over the death of an estranged parent or abusive partner, or the loss of a job that no longer brought joy.
  5. Cumulative Grief. Grief of this type builds up over time and is marked by a number of losses taking place in a relatively short period of time. The fatigue felt by many in the face of the COVID pandemic is a type of cumulative grief.
  6. Disenfranchised Grief. Kenneth Doka, Ph.D., writes in Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow that this type of grief occurs anytime someone feels that society has denied their “need, right, role, or capacity to grieve.” Examples of this type of grief include hidden or secret relationships, pets, or where the loss is seen as small by others or minimized by the culture. According to Anthony Casablanca, Co-Founder and President of GriefLeaders, “this is where leaders may unknowingly complicate an employee’s grief level. It’s important for leaders to avoid minimizing or ignoring an employee’s grief which leads to disenfranchisement.”

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Tips and resources to help your employees right now

As leaders, you play a pivotal role in supporting your employees in their grief. For most lay people who do not have training in grief and bereavement, supporting someone who is grieving may feel daunting. 

You don’t need to be an expert though, just a leader who cares, with the help of a few simple tips:

  1. Be present, be vulnerable. Let them know if you are not certain what to say but that you care and are sorry for their loss. 
  2. Be curious. Ask them what would best support them right now. Be prepared that they might not be sure what would be helpful. Make space for them to explore or consider what they need.  Allow the grieving employee to share how much they want the team to know.
  3. Work with them to adjust their workload. Explore items that others can take on, that can be pushed out or reprioritized. Adjust your approach to what they need, allowing them to participate in the workload discussion. Or, if they prefer, own this for them so they can completely step away.
  4. Allow the team to help. Others in the team might want to help but are unsure how. Share these tips with them. Encourage them to be present, be vulnerable and be curious with their teammate.
  5. Offer resources. Remind employees of company resources like paid time off, leaves of absence and employee assistance resources.
  6. Take care of yourself. Think of what you need to support your own resilience and ability to be there to support your team and your grieving employees.
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Published May 5, 2021

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Fellow Coach

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