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Make room for grief at the workplace too

The loss of a colleague can leave a vacuum. Give yourself space to grieve—and celebrate who they were

We are capable of living and holding space for grief.(iStockphoto)

By Sonali Gupta

LAST PUBLISHED 09.12.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

I never got the chance to meet Chandrika Mago, senior Mint editor and head of the Lounge desk, who passed on last week. I only exchanged emails around edits, yet it still feels like grief. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the loss of a colleague, someone we work and spend so much of our time with, impacts us and how we need to make room for grief at our workplaces too.

We spend a huge part of our day at our workplaces and as a result, the relation- ships we cultivate become an integral part of our life. When we lose a colleague, it leaves us with a feeling of grief and a vacuum. Our work relationships, where we work, talk, and laugh together, often take the form of a chosen family and sometimes they become what I call our family of friends. When we lose them, we don’t remain the same and our workplaces don’t remain the same either. It’s okay to acknowledge this. Giving oneself permission to talk about this both in our personal and professional spaces helps us work through our grief.

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The thing about grief is that we are never really taught how to make room for it. How we respond to grief is very personal and we can never really be prepared for it, even when we know someone is dealing with a chronic illness. My father was in and out of hospitals for around 25 years, and yet, when he passed on, I don’t think I was prepared, I still felt lost. I have worked with clients, who very quickly move into the doing mode, focusing on how they can support the family of the colleague, and then there are others who feel paralysed and don’t know what to do and how to feel. At the same time, there are some for whom tears don’t stop and then others for whom grief comes in bursts, often out of nowhere, so unpredictable and yet so devastating. Then there are others who feel numb, shocked, and in those moments, I remind them that the feeling of numbness is a reminder that we are overwhelmed with many emotions. Sadness, regrets, fear, longing, anger and many more emotions come all together when we experience grief. It also leads to questions about how we want to live, evokes fears about our loved ones, and existential questions such as, “Why do bad things happen to good people?". That’s why in the aftermath of grief, there are some of us who can’t concentrate, pay attention, stay still or focus—grief feels all-consuming. Sometimes loss also manifests in chronic headaches, low blood pressure, gut issues, and other somatic concerns.

Some days feel like a grief activator, whether it’s the office party or Thursday, which is production day for the team at Lounge, so learning to be kind to oneself on all those days is important. At the workplace, it’s important to sit down and ask, how do you want to continue honouring the legacy of the person who has gone. Whether it’s done individually or collectively, it allows people to make some sense of their grief. At the same time, in early days of grief, it’s okay to grieve and not force oneself to make sense or see any meaning. I often ask clients, “What’s a quality of the loved one who passed away that you want to cultivate?" It’s a way of celebrating who they were, and it helps us not to become bitter. Eventually, choosing a way to mark their birthday or death anniversary is important and everyone who has lost a loved one finds a way to do that.

As I have grown older, I often think of grief as love that lingers in the absence of our loved one. We are capable of living and holding space for grief and at the same time remember that it’s symbolic of our love. We can know this and at the same time acknowledge that grief still feels hard.

As I finish writing this, I realise that Chandrika will not read this and there will be no mail from her, asking about edits, and that remains difficult.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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