Grief at Work: What Does a Grief-Competent Workplace Look Like?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how multiple losses can complicate grief. And if they happen in a short period of time it can overwhelm our ability to cope.

If we work with animals in shelters and vet clinics, the sheer number of losses we experience can be a major challenge (see: cumulative grief). In some workplaces we’re experiencing daily losses and in large numbers.

This puts us in a constant cycle of fresh grief with coping skills that might be really overloaded. And I’m not even including the losses we experience in our personal lives. Which I should, since most of us are grieving on any given day

Have you read the “ball in the box” description of grief?

It’s wonderful. And it made me think about some of you and how, if the losses are constant, the ball never has a chance to get smaller naturally. The losses stack up and the pain can be overwhelming.

Yet we hardly talk about grief at work.

So I have questions. 

What do we do with all this cumulative grief? How do we tend to it and allow ourselves to experience the pain (so that it’s not trapped inside and causing damage), but still remain functional at work? 

We do a pretty terrible job of allowing for grief in our modern society. It’s all the more challenging when our workplaces are filled with unacknowledged loss and pain. Or when we avoid acknowledging that some of the losses we experience have been traumatizing.

Sometimes we’re afraid to feel or do anything because we worry that acknowledging the loss might “break the dam” and we’ll fall apart.

We’re holding so much in.

But what if we acknowledged the grief more regularly, so that there was no dam to break? What if our workplaces were psychologically safe enough for us to be vulnerable with one another?

What would it look like to acknowledge grief and to create shared rituals that allow us to grieve together in workplaces that are constantly impacted by loss?

What would a “grief-positive” or at least a “grief competent” workplace look like?

Like I said, I have a lot of questions. 

But I’d never leave you hanging without some ideas for what we can do to address this.

A friend who works in harm reduction (for people impacted by drug use) mentioned how many losses her community was dealing with and shared this resource for grieving on the job, born out of AIDS bereavement work, called When Grief Comes to Work.

I highly recommend it if you’re in a leadership role. The guide includes a number of prevention and intervention strategies such as: trauma-informed organizational culture, varying workload, education so staff understands what they’re experiencing, social/group support, workplace rituals, mental health coverage, supervision to process events, and resources for self-care.

No matter where you work please don’t miss this amazing interview with psychotherapist Francis Weller.

In particular, I’m turning over his thoughts on the powerful relationship between grief and gratitude, sorrow and joy:

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible…

A heart that does not somehow deal with grief turns hard and becomes unresponsive to the joys and sorrows of the world. Then our communities become cold; our children go unprotected; our environment can be pillaged for the good of the few. Only if we learn to grieve can we keep our hearts responsive and do the difficult work of restoring and repairing the world.”

Don’t skip the interview. It’s rich.

If you have anything to share about how organizations can address grief and loss, I’d love to hear from you.

Are any of you offering groups facilitated by a veterinary social worker or grief counselor for your staff? Do you have any rituals to acknowledge your losses? I’m curious to know what’s already being done. Leave a comment or send me a message anytime. I always want to hear from you!

Why I Waited 6 Months Before I Got Help for Depression

If your arm was broken how long would you wait before you got help?

1 second. 

I would wait 1 second. 

But when I was experiencing depression a couple of years ago, I waited about 6 months before I asked for help.

In all fairness, I didn’t realize I was depressed for most of that time. I thought my inability to concentrate, weepiness, and lack of energy was from grief (two of my pets died in 5 weeks) and finishing up grad school. And for the first couple of months, I think that grief and stress were indeed the cause. 

But a few more months of feeling bad and I began to suspect it might be something more serious because it wasn’t going away, no matter how much self-care I threw at it. 

It was my gynecologist that helped me see I was depressed.

She didn’t come to that conclusion during my pelvic exam (my cervix was surprisingly cheerful). We just talked. I took a simple depression screening. It was clear that I was more than sad. I had a medical condition.

With that clarity, I could stop trying to self-care my way out of it (I hear that’s not how you fix a broken arm either). I started taking an antidepressant.

This is the same gynecologist who asked me how she would know when it was time euthanize her senior dog. Crying and talking about dogs during Pap smears is our thing. 

I was high functioning while I was depressed which is why I didn’t think I needed help. But when I felt better I looked back and it was clear that I hadn’t been myself for months.

Unlike having a broken arm, depression isn’t always immediately obvious. It was hard for me to accurately assess what I was experiencing. That made it tough to get the right care.

Later on, I found a great therapist. I’ll tell you about her some other time.

I’m 100% these days. I was able to get the help I needed. 

But so many people never do.

Only about a third of those suffering from severe depression seek treatment from a mental health professional.

36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.

10 years.

That’s heartbreaking.

I worry that many of you aren’t getting the care you deserve. 

There are so many reasons why people don’t seek help. Health insurance. Stigma. Access to services. Cultural differences. Fear. 

And there’s a TON of confusion surrounding mental health care.

Plus, there’s the mental illness itself. When you’re depressed it can be really challenging to muster up the energy to make a bowl of cereal, let alone interview therapists.

This much is clear: if a woman who was raised by two therapists and has no problem talking about mental health issues (that’s me) needs some help figuring out she’s depressed so that she can get the right care, then it’s safe to say lots of us could use a little help when it comes to sorting out mental health stuff.

Very few of us feel like we know what we’re doing in this area. That’s why I always have a live Q+A with a therapist (Hi mom!) in all of my compassion fatigue classes.

People are confused:

What kind of therapy is the right fit for me? Will my boss know if I use the EAP to find a therapist? What should I do if I notice someone at work seems depressed? Can my boss hold it against me if she finds out I used the health insurance I have through work to get medication for a mental health issue? Is compassion fatigue the same thing as depression? How do I find a good therapist (my last one wasn’t so great)?

These are just a few of the questions we get asked every year. 

If you work with animals or people who are suffering and traumatized, I bet you have questions like this too because the work you do takes a toll on your mental well-being. It leaves all of us wondering WTF? some days.

If you’re in a leadership role in an animal shelter or vet practice, I’ve got to ask: what’s your plan for supporting the mental health of your staff?

At a minimum, please have a staff meeting to make sure they understand how their health insurance or your EAP works. Be sure to address confidentiality issues. 

It would help if we all got some training on mental health first aid, so that we better understood these issues for ourselves and felt more competent reaching out to those who need us.

I have other thoughts on this: 
7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community
Are You Thinking About Suicide? And Other Questions We’re Afraid To Ask
Depression and Suicide In Animal Care Professions: What Can We Do?

There’s so much to say about mental health in animal welfare, it’s hard to know where to stop.

But for now, if you’re wondering if what you’re experiencing is depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. please take an anonymous screening today. Knowing is the first step.

And if you want to keep talking about this sort of thing, join us over in the Compassionate Badassery Collective. It’s my private FB group where asking these sort of questions is always okay. 

Being a human is hard stuff. Let’s pinky swear we won’t wait 10 years to ask for help, ok?

Grief, Grad School, and What I Ate

…By choosing food as your drug—sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs—you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old—something that is not an option if you’re regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of ‘carers,’ and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction, making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that is why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.

I sometimes wonder if the only way we’ll ever get around to properly considering overeating is if it does come to take on the same perverse, rock ‘n’ roll cool of other addictions. Perhaps it’s time for women to finally stop being secretive about their vices and instead start treating them like all other addicts treat their habits. Coming into the office looking frazzled, sighing, ‘Man, I was on the pot roast last night like you wouldn’t believe. I had, like, POTATOES in my EYEBROWS by 10 p.m.’.

– Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman, excerpt from I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings


grief and ice cream


I gained about 20 pounds this winter.

My cat and my dog died just a few weeks apart from one another.

I was already pretty exhausted from pushing through my final semesters of grad school, including grinding out my capstone (on resilience building for caregivers – oh, the irony), while working and teaching.

Then I fell into an ocean of grief, bringing a cruise ship full of vegan Ben & Jerry’s and ALL THE CARBS with me. 

If you were working with me over the winter, spring, and summer, you probably didn’t notice I was snorkling through pint after pint of PB & Cookies, because, as Moran so astutely points out, you can be fully functional and overeating.

I did good work, I got straight As, I walked the dogs.

In August, I graduated from school. I was able to really rest for the first time in a very long time. The grief began to lift and I started taking better care of myself in all ways, including physically.

Last week I took part in a online photography experience with a group of brave, creative women. Among other things, we dared to share our bodies as they are, so we could reclaim our wrinkles and rolls. It was life-shifting. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Today I’m feeling good AND I have a big belly.

I’ve been trying to be really kind to this part of my body because it’s a tangible expression of how sad I’ve been and how much I love the family members that I lost this year.

My fat is a physical manifestation of my grief.

I talk to my sad belly sometimes. I tell it I don’t blame it for being here. I don’t hate it or want to punish it away. This is a new approach for me. I usually just beat myself up.

I’m not doing that right now, because:

  1. I’m just glad I made it through a really hard time. If I’m a little fatter for it, oh well.
  2. I’m committed to talking to myself with more kindness. I don’t want to be mean to myself anymore.

But I do want to feel better, stronger, more flexible. And for that reason, sad belly and I are, with deep affection, saying a long, slow goodbye to each other this winter. We’re working out and taking long walks and eating just a little ice cream.

This is what I know about myself: eating is my drug of choice when I am depleted, overwhelmed, and stressed. It’s how I numb out and self-medicate.

As I fill my life back up with fun, friendship, art, and relaxation it’s easier for me to unhook from the freezer aisle.

My personal work is to more consistently nourish myself in ways that are authentically sustaining during these times of intense stress and heartache.

My professional work is helping others do the same, so it always feels a little dicey sharing how I still struggle.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it?

We can know all the things and yet, we’re human. So we’re going to stumble (and if you’re like me, you fall face first into a slab of cake from Silly’s), but we can still reach out to help one another.

Each year that I’m lucky enough to be alive I understand myself better. I meet myself with more kindness and skillful care. It’s a practice.

Whatever we’re struggling with, all we can do is practice as we go.

Maybe for the first time, I feel really okay with who I am and how I make my way through the world. I am doing the best I can, sad belly and all. That’s good enough for me.


Friends, tell me: do you have mashed potatoes in your eyebrows too? 

If you do, here is resource that might support you on your journey:

TEND: A Chat with Dr. Deb Thompson from Your Nourished Life – This recorded webinar is specifically geared towards helping professionals (a whole lot of us are overeating). It’s also where I got this quote from and there are worksheets.

with love,

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