Helping Staff Navigate Grief During This Unusual Holiday Season

Under any circumstance, grief is challenging to navigate and difficult to witness. The experience may be even more difficult during the 2020 holiday season, with many people having to reconstruct holiday plans without the camaraderie of extended family members and the comfort of their traditions.

This year, grief is affecting many people in new ways, as COVID-19 has resulted in so many types of losses.

Many people associate grief with the loss of a loved one. However, grief can occur after any significant loss or major life change. With the pandemic, many people are experiencing loss of family members, jobs, financial security, family contact, social interactions, and even planned vacations or holiday travel.

Encourage and Support Those Who Are Grieving

To cope with grief, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests talking with people you trust who understand and respect how you feel. We want to encourage people who are processing grief to focus on self-care by exercising, eating healthy meals, and getting enough sleep.

No matter the type of loss, those grieving should allow themselves to express the range of feelings they are experiencing, from happiness to sorrow.

When grieving a loved one, the American Psychological Association advises connecting with friends and family who share or can empathize with the loss, maintaining healthy routines, and celebrating the life of a person who passed.

Usually, holiday celebrations can provide this assistance when people can indulge in family traditions and reminisce about cherished memories. As such, the holidays can provide protective measures against depression and other consequences of complicated grief. (Watch our recent webinar to understand the difference between grief and complicated grief.)

Grief may occur as people come to accept that visions of traditional holidays and celebrations are no longer an option. The greatest source of pain is not from what has occurred, but from realizing what will never be.

As the holidays approach, health restrictions in society and the ongoing illnesses of those currently sick have hindered our ability to celebrate in accordance with individual preference. For the bereaved, this creates an additional barrier to healing by making it difficult to access important support systems.

With your staff experiencing different types of losses, how can you support them through the grief process when many traditional methods of assistance are not accessible?

Recognize the Impact of COVID-19

The loss of life due to COVID-19 is complicated by quarantine regulations and hospital and nursing home restrictions on guests. Many people are unable to say goodbye to their loved ones in person.

Families have also been further prevented from closure as quarantine restrictions affect their ability to hold funerals or abide by cultural, religious, and family traditions. While people are already struggling to adapt and comprehend the death of a family member, this barrier to closure can heighten their grief.

Managers should consider the heightened sense of isolation and loss employees may be feeling as they attempt to navigate grief without the usual means of closure and healing. It is also important to recognize the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on minority populations.

Adjust Work Expectations

The pandemic has drastically altered normal routines and forced many of us to temporarily alter our social supports in favor of forming quarantine bubbles. This includes the loss of regular social contacts by many employees who are now working remotely.

While managers cannot control these changes, the emotional impact can be mitigated by validating the experience. Loss is hard. COVID makes it harder. Adjust your expectations of what you expect from staff members who are facing loss. Aim to proactively communicate and ask if your adjustments provide the intended support. If they do not, adapt accordingly.

Be an Advocate for Staff

I remember when a coworker lost their child over the holidays to addiction. This trauma was compounded by the individual’s expertise as a substance abuse professional. This person’s dedication to helping others paired with seeing their own child succumb to the disease turned a traumatic loss into an existential crisis.

Our managers were proactively supportive. They ensured that the staff member knew the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gave them options to take time off to process their loss. The organization also offered support navigating the FMLA paperwork.

The processes the treatment facility used to advocate for secure employment protections for patients were the same ones used to protect the staff member. This sent a powerful message of support to all employees.

My coworker was able to take the time needed without fearing for their professional future. Taking this burden of anxiety away from staff increases the amount of emotional energy they can invest in their healing process.

Protect Against Vicarious Trauma

It is important to note that grief and loss can also affect those individuals who work near or with those who suffered the actual loss. For example, managers in human service agencies should consider that their staff may be at risk for secondary traumatization if they are working with clients who are struggling with grief and loss.

Sabrina Basquez, a licensed clinical social worker in North Carolina and a certified compassion fatigue specialist, encourages managers to remember that clinicians are as human as the clients they serve. “Helping professionals are really just like anyone else in the way that we grieve,” she said. “We vary in our backgrounds and life experience, which means we vary in how resilient we are during times of crisis.” Clinicians also have a finite amount of emotional energy from which to support their clients.

As a manager of healthcare professionals, you can encourage self-care and protect against burnout by providing your staff with a supportive working environment that promotes resilience.

Understanding resilience as a capacity can be a key mind-set. This allows resilience to be viewed not as a talent someone is born with, but rather a skill that can be coached and developed.

As a manager, this is where you can have real impact. Basquez continues, “For those who manage others, or work with others, holding space for and having genuine compassion for our colleagues is so important. Flexibility, allowing for smaller caseloads, or making space for side projects (like that group someone always wanted to do) can give us the space we need to breath, to process, to accept, to adjust, and to move on with our lives.”

Reconsider Goals

Marsha Linehan outlines three goals of communication in dialectical behavioral therapy. These goals include:

  • Objectiveness effectiveness – getting what you want from another person.
  • Relationship effectiveness – keeping and improving a relationship.
  • Self-respect effectiveness – maintaining or improving self-respect.

Managers may often find themselves preoccupied with objectiveness effectiveness; you need staff to do their jobs and do them well. If an employee is facing a personal crisis such as grief, however, you should be able to pivot to a goal of relationship effectiveness, where the primary goal is to support your employee. By doing that, you may well find you are better poised to achieve goals of objectiveness effectiveness once the crisis has subsided.

Not only is it the right thing to do (self-respect effectiveness), but you will find yourself with a team who trusts you to support them in difficult times. This lends to having a team who will support you in return.

Grief and loss are inevitable difficulties we all must face. Focusing on the human element and supporting and protecting the relationship you have with your staff gives them the space to heal and build the resilience needed to traverse the holidays and move forward.

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Cecilia Stonebraker

Cecilia Stonebraker is the owner of Stonebraker Counseling Services and offers professional counseling via telehealth throughout North Carolina. She is a licensed clinical addiction specialist and a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate specializing in substance abuse, trauma, dual diagnosis, and group therapy.

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