First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 21
Mental health in the workplace

Is there a place for grief at work?

19 July 2022

When Lizzie Pickering's young son Harry died in 2000, she embarked on a journey to understand grief, how to live with it and how to help other people when their life has changed. In this podcast she shares the lessons she's learned from her own experiences and those of others.

We will discuss how to adapt to change and continue to work after losses, not only in the event of death, but also in the case of a medical condition, divorce, and a change of job. Is loss only a personal matter or should it be also touched upon at work? What employers and colleagues can do to support people when they are stressed or depressed?

Often others want to help but don't know how to deal with strong emotions, leaving those who are suffering to feel alone and frustrated. Are there any guidelines for coping with grief in the workplace? What is the impact of a workplace that handles grief well, as opposed to a workplace that doesn't?



Hello, everyone,

and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

Today, we're going to be looking

at bereavement, grief, and the workplace.

I'm Sandra Kuchen.


Bereavement and grief affect us all.

Many of us will have lost colleagues, friends, and family

during the COVID-19 pandemic,

where nearly 15 million people have died.

When we come to work, we bring our grief with us.

What can workplaces do to support their staff?

What can you and I do to help co-workers who are grieving?

How can we help ourselves

if we are going through our own loss

and are struggling to cope in the workplace?

To discuss this,

I'm very happy to introduce our guest, Lizzie Pickering.

Lizzie describes herself as a grief investigator.

She's also a speaker and produces podcasts and films.

Sadly, her eldest son Harry died in November 2000

when he was just six.

In the years that followed,

she began to use

her personal and professional experience of navigating grief,

to offer grief guidance to companies.

She does presentations, podcasts, writes grief guidelines,

and gives one-to-one sessions

to help people back to work following a bereavement.

Her book When Grief Equals Love

is due to be published in 2023 by Unbound Publishing.


Lizzie, a very warm welcome.

Thank you, Sandra.

Lizzie, it's great

to be able to have this conversation with you.

I think a lot of people will find it helpful

because, well, grief can be difficult to talk about

and perhaps even more so at work.

To start off with,

could we explore what brought you to this grief guidance work?

Thank you, Sandra.

27 years ago now,

my son Harry, my eldest son, was diagnosed with a genetic condition.

This was the first curveball that hit my family.

At that time, I absolutely loved the work I was doing.

I was working in TV production.

I had a happy family life.

I'd moved out to the Cotswolds in England from London,

and everything was going really well.

I think this will resonate for so many people

when a curveball hits you,

it comes from nowhere,

and you have to really adapt to the change.

My realization now

is that my first grief was really on the diagnosis.

It was that diagnosis that caused our lives to change.

Really I was dealing with grief every day from that diagnosis.

Then, in the year 2000, Harry's health had deteriorated a lot.

He was having a lot of lung issues

and pneumonia

that actually caused his death in November 2000.

Although I suppose I thought

I might have mentally tried to prepare for that,

I don't think anything can prepare you for the loss of a child,

but it's interesting,

when I say the loss of a child, I don't see grief as competitive.

I think anyone's grief

is whatever the worst thing is that's happened to them.

That worst thing happened to you.

I'm really sorry, Lizzie, for your loss.

Listening to your story, it's made me curious

how your own experience of grief

then translated into you wanting to help others

with their grief and specifically in workplaces.

Why workplaces?

I asked because I suspect

some of our listeners may think of grief as a highly personal experience,

which it is.

Because of that,

maybe it belongs maybe to a personal sphere

rather than a professional one.

It's a great question, Sandra.

I suppose I evolved into this work.

It was sort of organic and incremental in some ways.

When Harry died,

he died at a children's hospice in Oxford called Helen & Douglas House,

which was the first children's hospice in the world

and offered the blue-print for children's hospices globally.

It was the most wonderful place.

They didn't have a fundraising team at that time when he died,

and they wanted to build a teenage hospice as well.

I co-founded the fundraising team there after Harry died.

By working at the children's hospice, I was connecting very strongly with Harry.

We ran workshops.

We did all sorts of work with the parents.

One of the things I started here through these sessions

was what a lonely landscape it was for bereaved parents in the working world.

How so many of them--

We were from every walk of life at the hospice

because it can happen to anybody at all.

Most people, myself included, had to go back to work.

We didn't have a choice.

A lot of us have been carers for a long time,

we'd lost income,

we'd been on benefits to support our children,

and we had to go back to work

because all of that stripped away the minute your child dies.

Not only are you in deep traumatic shock,

but you've got to go back and work

and often find work if you've been out of work for a while.

It's a very touching landscape.

For me, personally, I knew

I couldn't go back to TV production at that time.

I wanted to be connected to Harry

so managing to work in the children's hospice

was a real gift to me,

but people were saying to me,

they go back to work,

people don't know how to deal with them,

they don't know what to say,

there was silence,

and they'd gone back to work.

Often, as well as needing the money,

they also wanted a sense of old normality from work,

the familiarity,

if it was something they'd been able to carry on

while looking after their child.

It offers structure as well.

There are many, many good things about going back to work.

But, then when you're faced with this loneliness,

because no one knows what to say,

we need to educate people more

as to how to deal with bereaved and going back to work.

When I talk about bereavement and loss,

I'm not always just talking about death,

because as I've evolved this work,

I've realized that, when I give a grief talk to a company,

quite a lot of people

find that the talk resonates for them

over a diagnosis,

where your landscape has changed, where your work has changed,

workplace change.

It can be so devastating to maybe be sidelined by your company

and feel that your work isn't being recognized.

It can be devastating, of course, to lose your job.

Many of us have experienced that over the years.

Those things stay with you.

Also divorce,

I find a lot of people come through to me for one-to-one sessions over divorce

following a talk

because it's another instance

where your landscape has changed,

your community might have changed,

you might have had to move house,

you may be estranged from your family, for whatever reason.

It's a huge loss,

and we need to address that in the workplace too.

I often talk

about death, diagnosis, divorce, and workplace change

being forms of loss.

You saw that there was a real need, Lizzie,

to help people in the workplace,

to help them navigate their grief,

and also that there was a role

that employers could play to support their staff.

What are the things that you recommend companies do

to help provide grief support to their employees?

I'll often start maybe

with either a member of the management team

or the HR team,

talking to them about grief.

Often, that leads

to giving a grief guidance talk that can be available to all staff.

Of course, something really good

with the advent of Zoom and Teams and all those good things

and all the platforms like we're using now

that we can spread the word further.

It also means

that the talk can be recorded and kept on an intranet and accessible.

That can often provide part of a platform

where grief is addressed on an intranet.

That's a good start.

Those talks are educational.

We talk about the physical aspects of grief,

the path of grief being messy

and ongoing for so many people,

and the advantages of it being addressed well.

That's often a start.

Then from that,

it's great to have very good grief guidelines set out

wherever you like, on the intranet for most companies,

that staff can visit individually and privately and personally,

but access good resources.

From that, we can signpost

to whatever is on offer and provided by the company

and also external resources,

because there are so many global good charities

that have great resources

depending on whether it's a cancer diagnosis,

whether you've been through a stillbirth,

whether you've suffered grief by suicide.

There are so, so many different organizations.

It's very good to let people know

as many of those as possible through the company intranet.

I've had one law firm in London,

one of their young lawyers, who was bereaved through COVID.

Her father had died.

She came to me and said,

"We'd like to set up a bereavement network within the company."

They now, in the spirit of peer-to-peer support,

run their own bereavement group,

and they get together every couple of months,

either now in person or online.

It's a wonderful forum.

Sometimes they might have a podcast suggested

so that people could just listen to a 20-minute podcast,

and that could be discussion points or a TED talk or an article on grief,

and it gets the conversation going and then people share their stories.

That is a very simple and beautiful way that staff can support each other.

I've had clients in quite large companies who really have suffered loneliness.

Actually, in the UK, this week, it's Mental Health Awareness Week.

The theme is Loneliness.

It's a really important topic.

If you're constantly focusing on not crying,

not breaking down,

not having anywhere for an outlet at work,

because people either don't know what you've been through

or they just don't know what to say.

That's what we need to prevent,

and by simply having a good grief guidance provision,

it gives people a place to let out those feelings and to talk.

Then they suffer less during the working day

from that feeling

that you've got to keep it all under wraps.

It comes more naturally,

to be able to cope with it

in a very healthy way

rather than constantly striving to keep it all in.

I want to pick up on what you said, Lizzie,

about people not knowing what to say,

I wonder if lots of people at work would like to show more support

for a colleague who is going through a bereavement

but maybe they hold back

because they don't want to say the wrong thing

or they don't want to seem like they're intruding,

but, at the same time,

they can see their colleague is struggling and they want to help.

What suggestions would you have?

I think the biggest thing

is realizing that grief is ongoing,

and people have to learn to live with it

at home and in the workplace,

so keeping on checking in with a colleague is a really important thing.

Sometimes the companies I work with will have a grief ally,

in the same way that we might have a mental health ally.

That's, becoming more the norm in companies

that there's a structure for that.

I really encourage companies to do the same with grief,

maybe under the Mental Health umbrella

or through their grief guidance provision,

and when somebody maybe goes through a major bereavement at work,

talk to the team,

talk about it,

and see who could be their grief ally.

Then let them be the person to check in regularly

with the person's permission.

Then sometimes that offers the chance for that person

to translate what's going on with permission

and help people to understand

because grief is messy,

it's nonlinear.

The deep traumatic shock

can be way more than a year of grief.

I think there's this notion that maybe you're better off a year,

and you're not necessarily, you might be feeling stronger,

but you're not better now,

and you're not better after six weeks of counseling

that's often offered by companies.

That's a wonderful provision to start you off,

but then you've got to learn to live with it.

Somebody to check in with you

is a really, really great thing.

Also other staff

to remember anniversaries, to remember birthdays,

whether that's the HR team

or whether it's people personally

just jotting down

the anniversary of the death,

the person's birthday.

Just remember that and be--

because I can't tell you, as a bereaved mother,

the people that for the last 21 years have checked in with me,

and sometimes sent a card on Harry's anniversary

or his birthday.

It's so special, and it makes such a difference.

Sometimes just receiving something like that

from somebody who's thoughtful

can make all the difference

to just not holding that grief

and being able to live with it in a better way.

I would never hold back from the checking in

and also recognizing

that you may say to the bereaved person in the first few months,

"Would you like to come for a drink?

Shall we grab a coffee together? Would you like to talk?"

They may not want to, they may simply not be able to

in their state of deep traumatic shock.

It's enough for them to be balancing a heavy workload and family life

and just simply the energy required to deal with their grief,

but, as time passes,

they may want nothing more than to talk,

but you as a colleague have given up

because you felt rebuffed, you've taken it personally,

and you've thought, "Well, I'll give up, they don't want my help."

Please never, never feel like that. It is just grief changing.

A year down the line, you may [audio breaks] getting together.

That's exactly what they feel like.

Always check in and keep in touch,

whether it's just by a text or phone call or whatever else.

How grief changes over time,

I find that really interesting to think about,

how grief can evolve

and the kind of support someone needs can also evolve.

It also makes me think

about that expression, time heals all wounds.

That's a notion that I've wondered about.

For you, Lizzie, is that the case?

Have you seen that time heals the wounds of grief?

It's a very difficult notion, I think, time healing.

The way I personally like to think of it,

but this is also informed

from the many, many, many bereaved people that I've spoken to and listened to.

I think it's more that we grow around our grief.

It's always there.

I will always be Harry's mum. That has not changed.

He died at six and a half, but I am still his mom.

I still have three children.

It's just that one of them isn't here physically.

That is so hard.

There's no way that I will ever get over that grief.

There's not a hope at all of me getting over that or of time healing.

In some ways,

this isn't a depressing thing, but time can make it harder.

As a mother, it's harder for me

to say, "I haven't seen my eldest son for six weeks,

particularly when he was six and a half,

then I haven't seen him for six months,

then it's six years, now it's 21 years."

That gets harder.

Time doesn't heal that

because it's unnatural as a mother not to see your child,

but what has become easier to deal with is that I live with it.

It's always at the center of me,

but I've become much better at living alongside it.

You touched on my book earlier.

It's interesting

because in relation to this,

the title of my book actually changed.

When I started writing it 21 years ago,

I started writing diaries, never imagining I would publish them.

They were really for my younger children

so that they would know what they've been through.

At that time,

I called the book or the diaries A Grief Endured,

because every day felt like endurance, I didn't feel like I was living,

but 21 years on, now I'm publishing it.

I've interviewed 23 other people

about their long-term perspectives of living with loss,

because I hope that will help others.

I've called it When Grief Equals Love.

In answer to your question,

that's my perspective I've gained over 21 years

very gradually and incrementally,

is that if I can frame the pain that I still live with,

as representing my love for my son,

then it really, really helps me to cope with it,

so I wouldn't say time has healed,

but time has given me a very gradual and different perspective.

That’s a wonderful way to frame grief, Lizzy.

I imagine that perspective has helped a lot of the people you work with

although I’m guessing it may take some time to see it that way.

And that’s what I’d like to get to now.

We’ve talked about what employers can do to help ,

what co-workers can do to help,

but ultimately someone’s grief is their grief,

it’s resting on their shoulders and they’re the ones dealing directly with it.

For people who are returning to work and finding it difficult to cope

what kind of advice do you give?

It's a tough one,

and I really feel for

anyone going through grief and starting out back at work

and dealing in those early years.

There are many ways though,

and I know we hear so much about self-care,

but it is so important in grief.

My dealing with my grief is much better

when I have a bit of a grief toolkit to dip into.

I think over the years and through work,

I have realized how to manage my grief,

and that's what we need to do in going back to work.

A few of the things that have helped me and that I now

talk about to my grief clients,

many of whom have very, very heavy workloads.

It's so ironic

that when somebody dies

or when we go through a traumatic experience,

stop breathing properly

and then we're starving our vital organs of oxygen.

The very first primary thing is to remind people to breathe properly.

Personally, I do that through meditation using very short meditation apps,

even 10 minutes can help,

and also yoga.

I now do yoga every morning in pajamas before I start my working day.

If my working day is starting mega early, I just do 10 minutes.

Even that helps set me up for the day at a very, very cellular level

and particularly regarding the breathing.

That's been a huge thing for me.

For someone else, it might be running,

it might be just doing some exercise of any sort.

There are so many ways that we can help ourselves,

but it's setting ourselves up for the day with a focus,

whatever that is for you.

I've found reading, personally, has helped me enormously.

If people don't feel like reading in a deep sense of grief,

then there are so many listening platforms.

There are so many good podcasts on grief.

However you like to access your learning,

I do think sharing of stories is important

and we can learn enormously from each other.

The tips of what's helped people, the ways they've moved forward,

and particularly reading about people who have survived grief well and healthily

can be very inspirational and offer help to somebody who's in deep grief.

My other thing that has really massively helped me

is music festivals.

I absolutely love music festivals.

For me, being with good friends in a field listening to music

where I can laugh and cry and be open

and just experience life as it is now without my son,

but I would say, 21 years on, I lead a happy life,

but it's taken a lot of work to get there,

and so I do believe that we must never leave grief untapped.

in decades ago.

I think we've suffered the ripple effects of that.

There was that expression, "Don't mention the war."

It was globally. It was "Don't ask questions.

Don't talk about what you've witnessed."

There was this sort of silence.

I think in recent years, we've been trying to unpick that silence.

I suppose the work I'm doing in the workplace

is trying to do that.

A lot of companies

feel they'll be opening a can of worms

if they open the lid on grief for colleagues,

as you touched on earlier,

is it a personal thing?

Should it be added in the workplace?

Yes, it should,

because we work so many hours, we spend so much time at work.

We're close to colleagues, hopefully,

so it shouldn't be the last taboo of mental health.

It should be something we talk about.

On your last question,

the other thing that's immensely helpful is looking up resources.

There are so many good charities

that share good resources and good written materials

on different forms of grief.

I really would search those out

because they can help,

and they can also offer you a way

of talking to your colleagues and talking to your friends and family.

If there's something you've found useful,

then share it with people,

just send an email around or on a WhatsApp group


"I've just found this article really helpful,

and it sums up where I am with my grief now.

I thought it would be interesting for you to read it."

If you feel up to it,

try and share some of the things that have helped you.

Not only will they help other people but it will help you to be understood.

There you described a situation where a person feels hurt,

and they feel like they're in a supportive environment at work

where they can share their feelings.

But, I imagine you've come across workplaces where this just isn't the case.

What's the impact of a workplace that addresses grief well,

as opposed to one that doesn't?

If it's addressed well, people will stay at work.

If it's not addressed well, they will leave.

They will leave for a company where nobody knows what's happened

and make a fresh start.

If it's not addressed well,

companies will lose their really good staff

purely because they've been through a terrible life [audio breaks],

bereavement, or loss of some sort.

That is a crying shame,

to lose your people who form your work community,

because they haven't been supported and they felt that loneliness.

If it's addressed well,

there's an incredible loyalty to the company

because you feel so well supported and so grateful for that support.

There's an openness,

and personally, many people say to me, "Isn't your work depressing?

Talking about death every day,

listening to people's stories in one-to-one sessions."

Honestly, I can say

I find it so life-enhancing and uplifting

because I think when we come together in grief

and when we support each other at work or at home,

we witness such courage.

I witness such courage and the strength of human nature

in all of my clients

and all the people that I've walked beside and who have walked beside me,

and that as the basis for a working community

I think when we walk beside people who are grieving,

we learn about life,

because one of the greatest shifts that I try and make with my clients,

is to say

we can't change what's gone before.

I cannot change what happened to my son,

it was out of my control,

but what I can change is how I deal with it

and how I go forward in honor of his memory.

My son lost his life,

but I'm here, so are my other children.

We live in a positive way in honor of him.

We live for him and still alongside him in many ways.

He's so much part of our family.

If we can do that in the workplace, what a powerful thing that is going to be.

I think Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister,

summed it up so beautifully,

when she said words to the effect of, "We cannot know your pain,

but we will walk beside you every step of the way."

It's so important not to placate people who are going through grief

because there is no cure for it, there's no getting better from it,

but if we can support them well in the workplace,

to feel secure and safe in their grief

and that they can share it in a healthy way,

the workplace will be a better place.

Thank you so much, Lizzie,

for speaking with me today

about bereavement, grief, and the workplace.

None of us are immune to loss and vulnerability.

It seems to me

that workplaces, employers and workers alike,

can all benefit from the ideas you've shared

so thank you very much.

Thank you, Sandra.

To you, our listeners,

I hope you found this discussion helpful.

Our guest today was Grief Investigator Lizzie Pickering.

Finally, if you want to know more about her work

or more about the Future of Work,

please visit our website voices.ilo.org

for more interviews and stories like this one.

That's it from us today on ILO's Future of Work podcast.

Please join us again for our next episode.