3 ways to support employees navigating grief

With tragedy often in the news, most people today are working while grieving. KFI’s Amelia Haynes explains how leaders can support employees by understanding the science behind grief. 

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

In the current landscape, where tragedy hits the newsstands with frightening regularity, we must acknowledge that most people today are showing up to work having lost something.

People—at all levels of an organization—are experiencing the loss of children, loved ones, community members, identities, and homes. In many cases, this loss is both personal and collective—a shared trauma that is deeply felt by and throughout a community, and across generations. 

Despite the ubiquity of loss, grieving can be an incredibly lonely process. Understanding the science behind grief not only gives people the tools to move through it in a healthy way, but also gives us insight into how we can support each other through our most challenging times.

Grief is an unpredictable process.

Though the popular narrative says grief is a straightforward process, neuroscience shows it is neither linear nor predictable. Grief, instead, is delicate and complicated—and largely misunderstood.

Grief is often confused with depression, reduced to sadness or pain, or conceptualized as a clearly defined course that marches you through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression, then spits you out whole and healed at Acceptance. But neuroscience research illustrates otherwise. First, grief recruits entirely different neural circuitry than depression and sadness do. Second, people don’t always experience all five stages, and they don’t always experience them in that order. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, grief is associated with activity in the neural circuits in the brain that control reward-seeking in response to reward-predictive cues following the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). This kind of neural activity means that grief is what’s called a “motivated state”: an internal physiological state that plays an important role in initiating behavior, selecting actions to perform, and orienting a person to achieve desired goals. In the case of grief, this is often seeking something that has been lost.

Rather than sadness or pain, which tend to be fairly straightforward, grief is more akin to a state of yearning or desire for something that is familiar, yet unobtainable. In addition to the regions of the brain activated by pain, grief involves the same areas involved in motivation, craving, and pursuit. Understanding grief as a motivated state establishes grief as a process that has a beginning, middle, and end.

Grief is governed by three dimensions of attachment.

Grief depends on the nature of our attachments, defined by space, time, and closeness. Our attachments to people and things are maps—cartographic representations of our connections laid out in time and space. We understand our relationships in the context of where, when, and how we were when they mattered to us.

When we are attached to someone, our brain makes a map of where they will be, when they will be there, and how we can get to them. We rely on the fact that our map will take us there—that we can count on what it tells us. Our attachment to a person is based largely on our ability to predict these dimensions of space and time—on a reliable understanding of where and when we will see them again.

Neuroscience research shows that the hippocampus is also acutely involved in the grief process. There are different cell types in the hippocampus that serve different roles. There are neurons that fire when we enter a familiar location (place cells). There are neurons that fire in response to proximity (space cells). There are neurons that are activated when we expect something to be in a given location, but it isn’t there (trace cells). In essence, this is a neural circuit responsible for tracking the absence of something. Studies show that these cells become very active immediately following the loss of a loved one, illustrating that these neural networks map onto our emotional attachments as well.

After a loss, our maps have to be reordered and redefined. They no longer represent the reality of our experience, and they will not help us find what we are missing. And although we know that something we’ve lost will no longer be where it used to be, why is adapting our maps so hard to do?

Attachment is about memory.

Our attachments are based on episodic memories. The conscious recollection of our experiences of people and things is a combination of our understanding of those memories and our context for them. In other words, our memories are intrinsically qualified by the space and time in which they took place.

We have a rich catalogue of experiences, stored as memories, that informs our future expectations. When we experience a loss, that memory bank is not deleted. Rather, the brain continues to make predictions that a person will still fall within the patterns anticipated by previous experience. What’s more, the activation of the NAcc puts us in an action state—we actively seek that person or thing. Our brain becomes disorientated; it maintains that close attachment, but can no longer accurately predict presence and absence.

The idea that someone or something no longer exists is something the brain can’t easily conceptualize. The brain relies on experience more than it relies on knowledge. We can hold knowledge that something is gone—and understand that it is gone—but in the early stages of grief, that knowledge conflicts with our memories. 

We are seeking something that can’t be found with a map, and that leads us in circles.

Three ways to help employees move with grief management

Today, taking care of people at work includes understanding that many of them are grieving, and that this grief underlines their day-to-day lives. For some employees, their grief may feel insurmountable, affecting their ability to perform on the job. For others, the impact may be subtly present, but still influence how they work.

Although many people find themselves feeling lost after loss, grief is navigable. Here are three ways leaders can support employees with grief management.

1. Allow employees to hold grief in the present.

Set aside a dedicated period of time where people are given the space to feel their attachment deeply. Consider offering extended bereavement leave—beyond immediate family members. Avoid conversations about counterfactual thinking (what could have been if…). Counterfactual thinking creates an infinity of possible alternatives that can be neither confirmed nor refuted. It does not support the uncoupling of the emotional attachment from the episodic memories. Often, it strengthens them. This makes it hard for our brains, which operate on pattern recognition, to redefine the real parameters of the attachment.

2. Be present and listen with compassion.

Some people imagine their lost ones in a new time and space, like heaven. Often, people’s religions or other belief systems offer guidance in this domain. Allowing ourselves and others to place notions of where a person or thing exists in a new time and place releases them from our former expectations and experiences of them. This allows us to remap the dimensions of attachment without undermining the intensity of the attachment itself. Acknowledge that many people have belief systems that inform the grieving process, and protect their freedom to express these beliefs.

3. Be patient and understanding.

Healthy grieving involves honoring the strength of an attachment and uncoupling that attachment from space and time—preserving how a person feels about an attachment without nursing the expectation that the things that happened before will happen again. This requires holding two realities in our minds at once, and this can often require a great deal of effort. Be flexible and forgiving. Work together to modify responsibilities and workloads and adjust expectations. Encourage calendar blocks as needed. Acknowledge that grief is a process, and that it is hard.