I wasn’t emotionally ready to return to work in January 2013. But three weeks after experiencing the death of my mom just 30 days after her diagnosis with stage IV pancreatic cancer, I stood before a class full of bright-eyed and needy doctoral students. My job, to guide them towards an understanding of compassion within the field of health psychology. The most troubling part, in my mind, was that the person who needed the most compassion in the moment was the one teaching the course. As might be expected, I never shared this sentiment, fearful that despite my serving in a field where emotional vulnerability is paramount, others might perceive me as weak. So I brown-knuckled my way through the three-hour seminar, riddled with impostor guilt. Like a foreigner in a strange and overwhelming land, I felt determined to simply push through the discomfort of it all.
Thankfully, I survived the first three hours and in my grief naïveté, assumed that with the passage of time, I would begin to return to my former self – assured, poised, and generally impenetrable to emotional waxing and waning. This persona had kept me focused and steady throughout graduate school, pre- and post-doctoral training, and in academia thus far. However, just days after returning to the campus, it became startlingly clear that I would never be the same.
Though I didn’t realise it at the time, the weight of grief began to shift from an inward experience to an external display for others to see.
I quickly became that person – the grief-stricken employee who, despite efforts to appear ‘strong,’ shed tears at random moments. My concentration failed me in critical conversations. Further, I looked visibly worn, with no amount of makeup enough to mask the profound sadness in my eyes. Finally, I realised that my presence and behavior inevitably made others feel uncomfortable.
As the spring semester moved forward, I began to experience the burden of sympathy-filled stares and whispers. Some colleagues appeared increasingly inquisitive about my weekend adventures, seemingly oblivious to the depth of my personal loss. Others expressed condolences via email. Even though they
shared space with me, many chose to retreat from the reality of my pain. A great wall steadily grew between me and them with each passing day.
What made things even worse in my mind was the location and physical layout of my office – a highly trafficked corner post by the department printer with a see-through glass door. Could I be more exposed, yet invisible?
Since childhood, learning and teaching have grounded me. I’d felt seen amid the myriad accolades over the years and safe, comforted by the predictability that both school and work consistently afforded me. However, for the first time, I experienced neither in the days and months after returning to work. Others’ discomfort with speaking openly about my loss, coupled with the unpredictability that often accompanies grief, thrust me further into isolation.
Mid-semester during a departmental meeting, the department chair asked for volunteers on a new committee, one which I had expressed interest in throughout the fall. The committee aligned with my professional skills, and I had time to serve. Nevertheless, when it came time to raise my hand as a participant, I declined. An unfortunate side effect of grieving, emotional and physical exhaustion, my stamina did not allow me to say ‘yes.’
As I immediately stood up and raced to my office after the meeting, I felt the urgency in my colleague’s footsteps behind me. “What did she want?,” I thought, certain that she intended to reprimand me in some way. She and I had discussed my prior enthusiasm about the committee, and I just knew she wanted to understand why I’d rejected the chance to participate.
In opposition to my thoughts, however, she gently called my name as I approached my office door. I turned around and met her compassionate inquiry: “Do you mind if I just sit with you for a little while?”
What are we, if not human?
Humanity bears no face, gender, or background, and it’s not contingent upon location. Thus, wherever each of us travels, our humanity has the capacity to flow. Nevertheless, sometimes we must remind ourselves of this truth.
Humanity, I would argue, is essential within the workplace – not only amid the cordial greetings and obligatory goodbyes on the elevator at the end of the work day, but also in the hard moments. Especially in the hard moments. Humanity offers companionship without the burden or expectation of spoken words. It not only tolerates silence, but welcomes it. Humanity provides a shield from the heat of unexpressed inquiry, pitiful stares, and soft whispers.
My colleague – a dear friend, now – shared one of the most beautiful gifts that day in my office, over 10 years ago – presence.
Too often, we humans believe that challenges are mysteries to be hastily solved or fixed. Puzzle pieces that require swift assembly. Admittedly, we live in a society where grief is typically not invited to the party. Within the workplace, our disdain for grief, coupled with the illusion that we can separate our personal from professional selves, often results in grief bypassing altogether. But what would it look like for our colleagues – our managers even – to offer up invisible, yet incredibly palpable, gifts?
What if on days when grief is all-consuming, they invited it to the table and sat down alongside you and it? What if they lingered in the discomfort of it all without urgency of any kind?
The grief process is not one that stays neatly tucked within the confines of one’s home or internal world. No, on the contrary, grief presents itself across settings and situations without any particular rhyme or reason. It marches to a beat of its own drum.
The more we promote humanity in each of these settings and situations, including the workplace, the more connected we will all be. Who is the workplace, if not people? What are we, if not human?