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Handle with Care: Empathy at Work

Dec 9, 2019

Is it, really, the most wonderful time of the year?  With all the holiday greetings and everybody, telling you to be of good cheer?  Maybe not.  Maybe its not the most wonderful time of the year.  And that is why today is a special holiday edition of the Handle with Care podcast.




Cookies bake.  Fires crackle.  Familiar Christmas favorites play over the radio.  There is holly and family gatherings and everything can seem to take on a glow of glad tidings. 


And yet, this time of year can be a challenge, especially for those that have lived through a disruptive life event in 2019. 


As I begin today’s podcast, it is with a special thanks to our sponsor, FullStack PEO.  There are so many demands on a small business.  That is why the men and women at FullStack manage your employee benefits so you can get back to business.  We are also sponsored by Handle with Care Consulting. Through interactive, impactful sessions, Handle with Care empowers you to give support when it matters most. 




Today is a special holiday edition of the Handle with Care podcast, in honor of the most wonderful time of the year.  The focus of the podcast is empathy, showing others that we care, that we recognize their pain and make space for it.  And so, I want to take a few moments to give a glimpse as to why this time of year could be particularly hard for people you care about and how you can be a supportive, caring, coworker or friend when they need it most. 


For some, the close of the year is a reminder of the person that is no longer present at the table, the relationship (once warm) that is now cold and estranged.  Or of the dream that simply did not come to be.  On top of that, time with family can be strained and uncomfortable even in the most stable of circumstances, the shared table becoming a place of dread. 


In the course of my work, I come across a lot of hard stories.  Let me set the stage with a few of them:


  • Michelle found out she was pregnant this spring.  This is her first child and she was so excited, planning for her December baby. She and her husband had picked out names and started to move out furniture for the nursery when she miscarried. The snow and the lights are a reminder of the baby that she was supposed to hold this Christmas.  The party dresses and events remind her of the maternity dress she thought she’d be wearing.  She feels tired all the time.  Tired and sad. 
  • Angie is getting ready to celebrate her first Christmas after the divorce became final. She gets the kids on Christmas Eve but they will be with her ex’s family on Christmas Day. Angie dreads waking up to a quiet apartment on Christmas morning.  She still feels angry about how the whole divorce went down.  And the questions from her kids only make it worse.   
  • Mark’s dad is in hospice this month. He’s been there for nearly a year, Parkinson’s can be a relentless disease. But now, they think that he’s near the end.  Mark never really had a strong relationship, but now he wonders if he should be visiting more.  The end of the year is crazy at work and he doesn’t want to take time off, but what if this really is the end. 


These are just a few of the stories of people who don’t feel all that jolly this year. 

The holidays can be hard.


Everyone is supposed to be happy.  Hallmark movies and parties and the marketers want to show that everything is OK.  But, for those who have lost someone, their entire interior universe has been rearranged.  Familiar rituals might be painful. 



Tremendous pressure, everyone from the television to the guy with a bell outside of Kroger to your Starbucks cup is wishing you glad tidings and you wonder if you will ever be alright again. 


In my own story, the first major holiday that followed Mercy’s death was Easter, a time of celebrating new life and renewed hope.  The trappings of the holiday could not have felt further from my reality.  I remember the dread of the holiday, we were alone, living in Bloomington, and Easter could not have seemed further from the truth of my existence.  We used a left-over gift certificate to pick up food from MCL Cafeteria.  That was our holiday meal, unpacked from plastic containers. I just wanted the holiday to go away. 


And grief, it can hijack you at the most unexpected moments.  A familiar smell, a song, you can be going about your business, feeling fine when out of left field, you are powerfully sad all over again.




There are a range of good resources on the Internet if you are someone in grief encountering the holidays, but there isn’t as much for those of us who are supporting our friends and coworkers that are grieving.  So here are three tips for the holidays


  • It is not your job to fix someone or control their situation. This is a particularly American temptation: we want everyone to be happy and we are profoundly uncomfortable with grief.  This can be further complicated in the workplace, where managers and coworkers want to get someone “back up to speed”.  Yet, the word “bereaved”, sometimes applied to mourners, means to be torn apart. Mending takes time. Rushing someone through their grief or causing them to stuff their feelings will only backfire in the end.  Alan Wolfelt uses the term “companioning the bereaved”. Being with someone in their sadness and resisting the urge to fix them.  What this looks like in a practical sense:  allow people to skip the holiday party or the gift exchange. Let them know that their presence would be welcome but you understand if they can’t come.  This could sound something like this:  “The Office Christmas party is next Friday.  I’d love for you to come; you are an important member of our team.  But, I realize that this could be a hard time of year for you.  If you don’t feel like coming, you don’t need to come.  Feel free to make the decision that feels best for you. 
  • Take time to acknowledge their loss. This might mean saying the name of the person that they have lost: “I know this is your first Christmas without John; I imagine that could be really hard.”  Or noting the reality of a new life situation:  “This is your first Christmas since the divorce became final, I want you to know that I am with you as you find your way through this new reality.” Maybe you don’t even know what to say. What you say is less important than showing that you remember and that you care.  If you feel at a total loss, say something like, “I have no idea what to say; I’ve never been through a divorce but I want you to know that I support you and am here as your friend/coworker etc.
  • Send a card, give an ornament, fill someone’s car up with gas, bake some cookies, or make a playlist of meaningful songs. Any of these meaningful gestures show that you have not forgotten.


Thanks to our sponsors: FullStack PEO, providing turnkey HR for emerging companies and Handle with Care Consulting, we help you attract and retain talent through holistic employee care.


A closing thought: there is no set timeline or progression of grief.  Your heart can still hurt years after a loss.  Knowing you are not alone is always meaningful.  Connection is an essential part of stabilizing and surviving after loss.  So, this holiday season, take time to remember those that have suffered disruption. Sit down for five minutes and think of people in your organization, your friend group.  Write down their names and, over the course of the next few weeks, reach out.  Your kindness matters.