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Happy Holidays? Not When Employees Are Grieving

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In offices across the nation, losses are dimming the brightness of the upcoming holidays, especially in close-knit departments where an employee has recently died. But there are practical steps managers can take to help boost morale and keep productivity from plummeting.

Choose Rituals Wisely

First, decide which holiday departmental rituals and customs feel right and which ones seem too stressful. Some traditions, such as a couples’ dinner and dance event at the same country club where everyone has partied for years, might seem like a downer for the group. Fun-loving Marianne will be missed big-time, and you know her newly bereaved husband would be uncomfortable attending solo. With a specific budget to adhere to, ask employees for alternative suggestions such as, perhaps, an event held on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, with parents and children invited. That way, Marianne’s husband and four kids could be encouraged to attend. Lots of the kids already know each other, and the afternoon’s activities could all revolve around the children: a bounce house, Santa Claus, a toy exchange. Staffers could plan and implement the day’s activities. The camaraderie would be healing for everyone, especially Marianne’s family. And by being willing to begin a new holiday office tradition, your staff will feel like they are actively engaged in providing grief support to Marianne’s loved ones. That loving outreach will go a long way toward promoting their own healing.

Gifts in Her Memory

Rather than the timeworn gift exchange among employees, invite your staff to consider giving a gift to a cause or charity that seemed particularly important to Marianne. For example, if she was an animal lover, you might choose donating to the local animal shelter or humane society. Have everyone bring in a wrapped gift for a dog or cat. Then, at the Christmas kids’ party, present the bag of gifts to Marianne’s family and suggest they visit the shelter one day so they can brighten the holidays for abandoned or orphaned pets. Her family will be touched by your selfless caring, and your staff will be grateful to know they’ve participated in such a meaningful gift project. Compassionate initiatives such as donating to a charity help employees work through their grief.

The Empty Chair

At one of December’s staff meetings, perhaps the one where everyone hands in their gifts for needy pets, go ahead and leave Marianne’s chair in its usual spot. Everyone is feeling the impact of the empty chair, so why not take time to acknowledge this loss? As each employee gets up to put their gift onto Marianne’s chair, encourage them to say something about Marianne, if they are comfortable doing so. For instance, they might share a fond or funny remembrance — personal or professional — or tell the group one of Marianne’s favorite jokes. They might want to share feelings of gratitude for having had her in their daily lives. Or, perhaps a coworker will want to express some of the many reasons she misses her old friend. There are no right or wrong things to say. Validate each person’s approach, and reaffirm that together you will all get through this period of sorrow.

Grief Is a Process, Not an Event

As a manager, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that each of us heals from a major loss in our own way and on our own timetable. Camaraderie and support can be powerful healers within an office. But while one worker might have deep faith from which to draw to sustain him, another might find Marianne’s death has rocked her to the core. Be aware of triggers that can bring on a grief attack, such as a longtime customer calling to wish Marianne happy holidays and needing to be told of her recent passing. Try to be gentle and honor where each employee is in his or her journey through grief.

Grief Support Meetings

If the emotional trauma of Marianne’s death is adversely affecting productivity in certain employees, suggest that they attend grief support meetings. Most hospices nationwide offer free bereavement meetings afternoons and evenings to anyone in the community who needs counseling. You can find any hospice by visiting the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s website at

Receive the Joy

Even when a recent death has turned our work world upside down, it’s okay to enjoy the treats and treasures of the holiday season. When we’re mourning, we sometimes feel guilty about laughing and having a good time. So give yourself — and your staff — permission to experience those moments of joy. By doing so, you will be honoring the memory of Marianne in a variety of beautiful ways.

Can the holidays truly be happy when we are newly bereaved? Can employee morale and productivity find their ways back to previous levels? Yes, if we remember to choose rituals wisely; find creative ways to buy gifts that help others; honor the reality of the empty chair; remember that grief is a process, not an event; suggest grief support meetings; and decide to be open to the joys of the season.

About the Author

Karla Wheeler is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Co., a direct outgrowth of her personal and professional hospice experience for more than 16 years. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Karla now dedicates her journalism career to easing the way for dying patients and their families. She is the author of gentle grief support books and leads the editorial team at Quality of Life Publishing Co. For more information, please visit
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 grief  holidays  camaraderie  offices  traditions  dinners  suggestions  healing  Quality of Life Publishing Co.

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