4 strategies for coping with grief and your mental health at work after coming back from the holidays
- Vivian Nunez is a NYC-based writer, public speaker, and content creator. She is the founder of Too Damn Young, an online community and resource site for grieving young adults. She also hosts the podcast, "What Happened After?"
- For many, especially those who have dealt with grief, the holidays can be a difficult time. And one component of that is returning to work after what many see as a time of celebration.
- Create responses ahead of time to generic holiday questions, think about what level of information you want to share with others, and commit to a coping mechanism.
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While for some the holidays wrap with the drop of the ball on New Year's Eve, there's an informal - but large - community of people who navigate the first few weeks of the year differently.
Whether you're a caregiver, navigating your own mental health, or working through complex family dynamics that span year round, the holiday season can be a difficult time - and the drop of the ball doesn't stop it from being complicated. But you're prepared because those same tactics you use to brace yourself at every other time in the year can be the same ones you lean on during those first few weeks in January. You just need to remind yourself they're in your toolkit.
I know because it's what I do.
After my mom's passing 17 years ago, I grew up alongside grief and the different ways to navigate it. Along the way - and with my own mental health struggles with anxiety and depression under my belt - it became apparent that the only way I was going to get through the beginning of January was with a mapped out plan.
Expect the questions
Expect questions from anyone and everyone, even those who know the particulars of what you're carrying. Questions are as baked into our holiday vernacular as presents, so anticipating them will take the sting out of having to navigate the anxiety at work.
Jotting down the most generic questions or the most common assumptions gives you a starting point for crafting responses at your comfort level. Those same answers will remind you that you have the power to direct the conversation wherever you want it to go. Having canned responses has made it easier for me to remember that, even when presented with that level of anxiety, I can still direct the conversation where I want it to go. The power rests with me, and I don't have to share more than what I'm comfortable with.
Some common questions or comments I've gotten include, "How were your holidays?", "I'm sure you had a great time!", or "Hope you had an amazing holiday season!" Seeing these for what they are - common phrases - helps me feel less ashamed of what they sometimes feel like: reminders that my holidays are different than the norm.
Assess the audience
When it comes to sharing all you may be navigating, you get to decide with whom and how - and that decision doesn't stop being yours when at work.
While it may feel trickier when a coworker asks, doing some personal homework beforehand can help make the decision to share a bit easier. Brainstorm the different friendship and coworker dynamics you have at work: Who would you consider a personal friend versus who is someone you just have a work relationship with? The answers to those questions will help you decide who deserves an honest version of your holiday or mental health, and whom you are okay giving a short, vague answer to.
Work, like the rest of your life, is made up of different pockets of people who warrant different levels of trust. Holding yourself to those boundaries doesn't make you a bad person. Personally, making sure that I understand whom I'm comfortable (and not comfortable) sharing with has made me feel more safe and confident when I do decide to share openly about my grief and mental health.
Look for support
I have been going to therapy for the last six years and it's been the training ground for figuring out what's in my toolkit, what's missing, and how to build connections with myself and others. I belong to a few different communities given that I lost my mom and grandma at different pivotal stages of my life, and that, as a 21-year-old, before my grandmother's passing, I served as her primary caretaker.
Identifying these pockets I belong to has made sure that the help and support I needed even after their passing was baked into my everyday life. Whether therapy, an ERG at work, or other community touchpoints feel more comforting to you, seeking these resources out can be pivotal in helping you balance reintegration to work and minimizing the guilt you may feel for having a different lived experience than others. For instance, for the 10 million millennials who are caregivers in the US today, these support networks can be very helpful for the realities that will still be present throughout the year.
Commit to a healthy coping mechanism
I'm a huge proponent of taking your personal growth and mental well-being into your own hands, but sometimes the thing you have to do is not think about any of it.
Give yourself some time and space this week to ignore everyone's questions about the past holidays and think about your future year. Focus on how to carve out some time for yourself, even if it's just a handful of minutes of quiet in your own bathroom, and what you will do with that time.
Committing to therapy, yoga, and learning to cook won't eradicate my depression, but they're just a couple of more tools I can lean on whenever an episode pops up.
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