grief waves coping in public and work

Coping With Grief Waves at Work and in Public Places

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: April 2, 2024

There is never a convenient time to lose someone you love. Nor is there a good time to be bowled over by emotions, especially at work or in a public place. 

I know this firsthand. I can't tell you how many times I have cried in a grocery store, on the street, or a restaurant during my last major loss. And it is not uncommon for my clients to ask me how to cope with waves of grief that come crashing down at work.

In an ideal situation, you would just excuse yourself from whatever meeting you were in, go to the "Designated Space for Grieving Employees," and let the feelings flow while someone else took over your job for as long as you need a break. Better yet, you would get to take about 40 days off for bereavement. This, by the way, is what the studies indicate is the sweet spot to take a break from work after a major loss, according to my colleague R. Glenn Kelley in the Grief In The Workplace podcast episode we recorded a few years back. This isn't to say that we are finished with grief after 40 days—it is just that going back to work then can help us feel more "normal." 

Before I give you tips to help you cope with your next grief wave, I want to be very clear that there is nothing wrong with feeling and expressing your grief. So really the first rule is to ride the wave of grief and let your emotions flow. But we do live in a world with social rules, and it is up to you to determine when and where to ride the wave of grief, and when and where you need to regulate. Now that has been said, lets look at 15 quick, actionable tips to help you bring your nervous system back into balance so you can self-soothe and move through your day.

1. Practice RAIN Meditation

Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture (RAIN) is a mindfulness tool that can be used anywhere to manage intense emotions, and it only takes a minute or two. Learn how to practice RAIN Meditation.

2. Not Now, But Later

Place one hand on your heart, or to be more subtle, wrap one hand around the other wrist, while gently thinking "not now, but later." This combines a self-soothing touch with the promise to yourself that you will address your needs at a more opportune time. 

3. Wear Sunglasses

Sunglasses can offer a sense of safety and privacy when you feel vulnerable while hiding at least some of your tears.

4. Designate a Safe Space to Cry

Even just a few minutes of crying in private may restore your nervous system's equilibrium. Whether it is your car or a washroom in a low-traffic part of your office, know where you can go when you need to retreat.

5. Cold Water Splash

While you are in the washroom, splash cold water on your face. This sensory experience will help ground you in the present.

6. Phone a Friend

Have a supportive friend or family member who understands what you're going through and is okay with receiving a quick call or text when you need a grounding voice.

7. Humorous Videos or Memes

Keep a collection of videos or memes that make you laugh on your phone. A brief moment of humor can be incredibly therapeutic.

8. Portable Aromatherapy

Wear an aromatherapy necklace or bracelet and give it a sniff when you feel your emotional weather start to brew. This works on both a sensory and neurological level to help bring you back to the present moment.

9. Carry a Comfort Object

Have a small, comforting object with you, like a stone, a piece of jewelry, or a photograph. Something tangible to remind you of your inner resilience.

10. Use Discreet Fidget Tools

Fidget tools, like a spinner or a stress ball, can provide a subtle outlet for your nervous energy and help keep overwhelming emotions at bay.

11. Pop a Mint in Your Mouth

Flavors like cinnamon or mint can help focus your attention on your senses and away from the emotional trigger, at least temporarily. 

12. Soothing Sip of Tea

While we are on taste, herbal tea is another way to ground yourself through your senses. 

13. Play Your Mood-shift Song

Music can be emotionally evocative, but it can also shift your mood. Have a playlist of silly or uplifting bangers ready to listen to with headphones.

14. Count Your Breath

Focusing on your breath can help anchor you in moments of distress. Counting your breath from 10 down to 1 may take your mind off of your thoughts and help your body come back into a state of equilibrium.

15. Walk Away

Whether giving yourself permission to leave a place altogether, taking a walk outside, or around the block, moving your body will help you feel like you are taking action.

Navigating grief requires patience, kindness, and a toolbox of strategies for those moments when waves of emotion catch you off guard. These 15 tips can be your anchors, helping you stay afloat through challenging moments at work or in public. Remember, every step forward, no matter how small, is a testament to your strength and resilience. If you're looking for a community that understands, the Awaken Online Grief Support Program offers a space to explore these strategies together, building resilience through grief and beyond.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Living with Grief and the guided journal, From Grief To Peace. She is the creator of the Mindfulness & Grief System that is featured in the Handbook of Grief Therapies (2023) and is the founder of Awaken, a mindfulness-based online grief support group. Heather also hosts the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and offers mindfulness-based grief support online through her organization, the Mindfulness & Grief Institute. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She currently lives in Falling Waters, WV.

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