Tyler: “The people that you work with are just, when you get down to it, your very best friends. They say on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office; but I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed. I actually don’t understand deathbeds. I mean, who would buy that?” Michael Scott (The Office, Season 7, Episode 22: Goodbye, Michael)
Oh, how I appreciate the wisdom of a good quote from the philosophical guru of our times, Michael Scott. I’ve watched The Office on a loop for years and years, doing my best to avoid Season 8 (talk about a long, national nightmare), and knowing that the show speaks truth in its simple humor. Let’s be honest—we’ve all had that moment where we’ve noticed a striking and deeply unsettling parallel between our work lives and the lives of those inhabiting the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve likely thought of yourself as a Jim-figure when, in reality, you’re more of a Michael. And maybe a Dwight at times. And possibly a bit of a Kevin. But never, ever a Toby. I mean, come on….that guy?
For a long time, The Office was a show that my coworkers and I could all relate to and share a laugh over. It brought us all together because, when something frustrating would happen at work or someone would act like a complete Dwight or a Toby, we could find humor in it. I’ve shared that camaraderie with many wonderful colleagues throughout the years, and I’m amazed when I think of the time I’ve spend with all of those people who have become some of my best friends.
In normal, non-COVID-19, American society, the average person likely spends just as much time with their coworkers as they do with their family and friends—sometimes, they spend even more time with coworkers than anyone else in their immediate circle.
I’m thankful that, for many years, I got to spend those hours with Christina Grote.
During my time as an Admission Counselor at Miami University’s Regional Campuses, Christina blessed my life with her thoughtfulness, dedication, and fun-loving attitude. Christina joined our team about a year into my tenure there, and we worked closely with one another on about every project imaginable from campus visits, to coordinating tour guide efforts, and yes, those many, many visits to high schools all across the region. To this day, she is one of the most dependable, loyal coworkers that I’ve ever worked with.
And more than that, she was there for me as a dear and compassionate friend when I lost my Father to suicide. I know that I couldn’t have navigated his death without her kindness every Monday through Friday from 8:04-4:57 (I may not always be on time, but at least I’m precise).
Years removed from my Father’s death, I often find myself looking in the rearview mirror for those folks that I’ve deemed “position people.” These are people that came into my life for, at the time, unbeknownst reasons to me; but looking in the rearview mirror, I can see that God was perfectly positioning a village of caring, loving people around me to provide a hedge of protection and walk alongside me, arm in arm, as I grieved. Neither Christina nor I could see the tragedies on the horizon in either of our lives, but I believe that our Creator did and knew having one another to navigate those moments and learn from one another would be so vital to our healing.
From the moment that I met her in her interview, I could tell that Christina Grote had a heart for helping people, which I knew would be a great asset in her role as an admission counselor. I just didn’t know that the person she would help most would be me. I’m thankful that during my greatest tragedy, Christina was there for me—and I hope I’ve been able to show my appreciation for her by being there through hers.
I am elated that Christina decided to help even more people by sharing her story here at Seeya Bub because it’s one that teaches all of us how we can all do a better job of supporting our coworkers who are grieving. Unfortunately, Christina has experienced this process from both roles—that of supporter, and that of the person grieving. Because of that trial by fire, Christina has learned important lessons about literally working through your grief, which she shares with us here.
Christina: My name is Christina and I’m thankful to Tyler for inviting me to contribute to his impactful and important blog. This post has been years in the making – the timing just hasn’t been right to share my story, until now.
A brief history and context — I met Tyler in the spring of 2012 when interviewing for my first full-time job at Miami University’s regional campus in Middletown. I was excited to be interviewing for a position that combined many of my interests and talents, and was over-the-moon to be offered a role as an Admission Counselor prior to finishing my Master’s degree. Right away, I knew I had made a great decision – the campus was friendly, our work with prospective college students made a difference, and I got to be closer to home after grad school. And, frankly, it was just a lot of fun to visit high schools and talk about going to college. Tyler and I went to many of the high schools in southwestern Ohio together to give presentations about the college application process, financial aid, finding a major and career readiness. We would be at schools all day, giving the same presentation six or seven times – it got to the point where we had timed down our jokes and one-liners to the second. We made connections with students through games and made a great team in the classroom. We also became good friends in the process, enjoying many lunches at Frisch’s (seriously, so much Frisch’s…) and shared many inside jokes from the road.
Fast forward to July 24, 2013. I received a text from Tyler that was short – Family emergency, I won’t be in today. I assumed something bad had happened, but truthfully had no idea that this day would change everything. I had been in the office, and when I returned from lunch everyone was congregated in our lobby area.
Tyler’s dad passed away.
When you work in an office as small as ours (around 10-15 people in total), and spend as much time together as Tyler and I had, it’s impossible not to be impacted by this news. It wasn’t until later that I had learned that Scott had lost his life from suicide. This information only compounded my feelings – I felt sadness for Tyler’s loss, and also felt helpless in the situation for my friend and coworker and unsure of what I could do to make this unbearable situation better.
Had I written this blog two years ago (you know, around the first or second time Tyler asked me to…), I would have jumped right into my reflection of how to successfully support your coworker when they return to work after a significant loss. But instead, on February 25, 2018, my own personal hell became reality — my dad had died, just one month after I lost my aunt to a short battle with cancer.
My mom came to my apartment and told me the news early that morning. She and I had been out the night before to see a live performance of The Price is Right downtown, and we both stayed out later than usual. I drove home to my apartment in Fairfield, and my mom went home. We believe my dad died from a health event, like a heart attack, but to this day we’re not sure. The next few weeks were a blur. The visitation was a long blur. The funeral was an emotional, somber blur. In the same church where I had married my husband, Brian, just 14 months earlier, we were now saying our final goodbyes to my dad. I went back to work after the first week, just to go through the motions of what I thought I needed to be doing, but I was a shell of a person for a long time.
Everything I was doing felt wrong — being at home felt wrong, shopping for dresses to wear to the funeral felt wrong, crying felt wrong, sleeping felt wrong, eating felt wrong. Going to work felt wrong, but also felt kind of right – my dad was a hard-worker and would have probably gone back the following Monday too. So I went through the motions and drove to work, 8 days after my world shattered. I think it was an unexpected gift to be at work — sure, there were still a lot of crying episodes and emotional moments, but there was also this fake sense of normalcy that I was clinging to. It also helped, too, that I worked with incredibly supportive folks who let me just be that day (and many other days since then). Was I productive that day? Absolutely not. Was it what I needed? Yes.
Which brings me to the whole point of this blog post — what can you do when your coworker is experiencing grief? These are just a few thoughts and suggestions that I hope have helped others and that certainly helped me during my grief journey.
Say something – even if it’s not perfect. There are definitely some things that are not ideal to say to someone who is dealing with loss or grief — that’s not really what this blog post is about (if you’re really unsure, a quick Google search will enlighten some cringe-worthy things to avoid). The worst thing that you can do is to pretend that nothing has happened and say nothing to your coworker. Even just a simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” goes a long way to show empathy and caring.
I’ll never forget when Tyler came back to work after taking time following Scott’s passing. I’ll admit I was nervous and certainly walking on eggshells for the first few days, uncertain of how Tyler would do and being extra cautious to check in but give him space. A few days had passed, and we were talking about some upcoming meeting or event that we weren’t necessarily looking forward to. Without thinking, I said a phrase that was part of my everyday vernacular and normally wouldn’t have thought twice about — “ugh, kill me now.” How many times have we said this in the past about something without thinking twice? As soon as the words were travelling out of my mouth, I wanted to hurriedly smoosh them right back in but couldn’t. Tyler didn’t even realize I had said this, but I felt all the blood rush out of my face and found some fake excuse to end the conversation and close my office door. I lost it right there – how could I be so insensitive? How could I have said something so stupid in front of my coworker and friend who just lost his dad to suicide?
It took some time for me to share this with Tyler (again, he didn’t even realize that I had even said this! It was weighing on my heart and he had no idea.). In that moment, an ordinary conversation turned into a moment of panic and anxiety. But that’s what it was, an ordinary conversation with a coworker. You can’t ignore that life has changed for the person grieving, but sometimes when you’re grieving, mindless ordinary conversations can help break up the overwhelming emotions that you are experiencing. When you ask “Hey, how are you?” to your coworker, they might just say, “Fine,” or they might let you know exactly how they’re feeling. Both are okay, and checking in is so important for the person grieving and for you as the supportive co-worker.
Show up when your coworker cannot. Some days, the person grieving just cannot — cannot get out of bed, cannot show up to work, cannot even try to do the normal things with their former level of enthusiasm or dedication or productivity. That’s the reality. If you’re lucky, you work somewhere that allows and encourages mental health days for this very reason to allow the person to be away from work to experience their emotions and process them in their own time and way. When I say to “show up when your coworker cannot,” I don’t mean to give permission to just “take over” work responsibilities for your grieving colleague without input or notice — respect that the person grieving is trying as hard as they can to return to or create some sense of this “new normal.” However, there are some days when it is just too much to deal with and your colleague might just need some help, whether they ask for it or not.
Check in with your coworker and let them know that you are there for them. Give specific ways that you can help (i.e. returning a phone call to someone, leading a group meeting that week, or other ways that are relevant to your workplace). This is also good advice for connecting with friends who are grieving – specific ways to help are often met with warmer welcomes than just the generic “Let me know what I can do’s” — it shows thoughtfulness and doesn’t place the burden on the grieving person to tell you what they need.
Don’t ignore the grief your coworker is experiencing. Grief is uncomfortable — it’s not a desired human emotion, especially in our American “Do anything to be happy” culture. There’s no rulebook for grief, the “5 stages” are not often linear, and even as time passes there are triggers that set off a grieving person. A person grieving can rarely plan for these unexpected moments of emotions — they happen sometimes when you expect them like holidays, birthdays and the anniversary of their passing; but sometimes it happens when they hear a song on the radio, smell a familiar scent that reminds them of a memory, or just hearing a phrase spoken their loved one used to say. Prior to losing my dad, I didn’t realize just how unpredictable grief can be — I assumed there was this time frame that everyone gave themselves, then moved on. This misconception was challenging for me to work through in the first year after my dad passed because I was striving to be happy and not be in pain, when the reality was that things were permanently different now and I needed to be uncomfortable to adjust.
Your coworker (or friend, or workout buddy — really, this is relevant to anyone) is trying to make sense of this new reality, while trying to appear that they are making their way “back to normal.” There is no time limit or timeline for grief and there will be days of inexplicable emotions. Just a few months ago, my coworker (who also lost her dad several years ago) came to my office visibly upset. She had just met with a student who lost her dad and was trying to figure out what her academic options were. In that moment, she allowed herself to be vulnerable and provide caring support to the student, to share emotions together, and also give genuine support through the avenues and resources available through the university. When she came to tell me about this meeting afterward, we both took some time to grieve together and recognize that regardless of how much time had passed, we both missed our dads and both could empathize with this student’s circumstances.
You don’t have to have first-hand experience to be supportive. When Tyler’s dad passed away, I had been very fortunate to not know grief very well — I think at that point I had only lost distant relatives and their losses, although tragic, brought brief and temporary sadness but not life-altering grief. I didn’t have the perspective to fully understand what Tyler was going through in those days and months after Scott passed, but that didn’t keep me from trying my best to be a supportive coworker and friend by listening, being there and stepping up where I could. It shouldn’t take experience to be a better supporter of grieving friends and coworkers, but I know I owe apologies to friends and coworkers who I wasn’t as great of a supporter to before I experienced such profound grief and loss myself. Since my dad passed, I’ve been able to show up for coworkers and friends who are also dealing with loss, this time with the unfortunate but inevitable lesson of having gone through it myself. Ultimately, there’s no right way to do any of this, so give yourself some grace and just try to do the best you can in each moment of supporting your coworker through their grief journey.
I’ve worked with some pretty incredible people in my career so far and for that I’m very blessed. This has been evident in how we’ve been able to support each other during happy times in life, but also in those times of loss and sadness. We often know how to be supportive in our families and close friendships, but our work lives are grounded in relationships with colleagues that are incredibly valuable and important. I hope this reflection is a helpful perspective for anyone who is struggling with loss and grief, whether your own or for a friend or someone in your work life. Anything you can do to show up and be there will make a positive impact for someone in their darkest hour.
Tyler: A few months after losing my Dad, Christina and I found ourselves immersed, yet again, in our seemingly never-ending world tour of high school presentations, going into classrooms and talking about college readiness topics. On this particular day, the day after an Election Day in November, I found myself driving the hour-or-so trek to Oakwood High School near Dayton. As I did most mornings, I was listening to the talk radio news reports about the election results and the endless, partisan, back-and-forth bickering and fear-mongering between two political sides of the coin—neither concerned with actually solving challenging problems but more concerned with protecting their own power and getting re-elected the next time.
And like grief unexpectedly does, it hit me. Just as Christina wrote about, out of nowhere, a wave of emotion washed over me because I had once been so consumed by national politics but now, in light of loss, it all felt so meaningless. In that moment, I could think only one thought:
Dad couldn’t have cared less about any of this. And in the end, it wasn’t all that important. And I’m a horrible person for thinking it was ever important.
And there, the spiral began.
It probably wasn’t logical to extrapolate the results of a national election into the pain I was feeling after losing my Dad, but as Christina reminded us, grief isn’t all that logical. I cried for the last few minutes of that drive, and when I pulled into the parking lot, I dashed off a quick message on social media about how I was feeling. I tried to compose myself—to pull it together—before Christina arrived because we had a full day of presentations ahead of us and I knew I’d need to be on my game—“stage ready.”
Christina pulled up into the parking lot and as we got out of our cars to start unloading our materials, she could tell I was upset. Without saying a word, she just tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a hug and said she was sorry that I was hurting.
I’ll never, ever forget that moment as long as I live.
I tried to explain why I was feeling what I was feeling to Christina; but the beauty was I didn’t have to. She wasn’t expecting me to reason through my feelings. She just told me that she was there, and if I couldn’t present my part of the presentation that day, she was ready to jump right in and help (I’m sure she was hoping we weren’t giving the presentation where I used to sing a small stanza from a Sesame Street song…).
She was there. More than anything, Christina was there.
I’d like to think it’s qualities like these that Christina exhibited—trusting your intuition and showing an unyielding sense of care for your fellow human—that are those intangible qualities required for the “other duties as assigned” bullets I see in so many job descriptions.
It’s easy to take good colleagues who become friends for granted. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all that. Yes, there’s the grace that God has provided for us to socially distance ourselves from the “Dwights” we don’t like (yes, we all have them); but on the flip side of the coin, I’m sure that many of us have grown to miss those coworkers whom we laugh with, share coffee or (Frisch’s) lunch with, and genuinely enjoy being around.
Christina’s post reminded me how fortunate I was to have to her in my life at a time when God desperately knew I was going to need her friendship. It also reminds me that, when it comes to supporting my coworkers and colleagues in their own emotional struggles, I still have a lot to learn. It reminds me that even an imperfect attempt to help someone who is hurting and healing is better than no attempt at all. And it reminds me of the bravery it takes (which Christina showed on so many occasions) to take that step to help, even when you don’t quite know what to do. We have to help others who are grieving, but we can’t help them if we don’t first try.
Because, in the words of Wayne Gretzky in the words of Michael Scott, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Dad, Although it’s been so difficult to live life here without you, I know that you’ve been watching over me—over all of us. I also find peace knowing that God positioned people in my life, like Christina Grote, to help me grieve in a way that was healthy. There have been days when I’ve been so unexpectedly sad since your death, but it always seems that there have been loving people who know exactly what to say in just the right moment. I know that’s no coincidence. I know that it’s all part of a perfect plan to heal an imperfect world. Dad, I’m thankful that you were always such a blessing to your coworkers. I think of the countless people who loved spending time with you at work. I know that you enjoyed your job because you liked working with machines and getting your hands dirty, but I also know that you really loved your job because of the people who brought a smile to your face. Dad, I hope you know that you brought that smile to the faces of so many people during your all-too-short life here on Earth. You were a constant source of encouragement and joy for those who called you a friend or colleague, and we miss that brightness in our lives because you aren’t here. You were gone too soon, but I’m thankful that you made the most of the time you got to spend with people. It’s an important reminder to me when things get busy, and I’m grateful that your life lessons are still teaching me. You were the best Father a boy could ask for, and I can’t wait to remind you of that face to face. Until that day, seeya Bub.
“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed, Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.” Galatians 6:2 (MSG)
Christina is a higher education professional who has worked at Miami University’s Regional Campuses for almost 8 years. She’s a Cincinnati native & alumna of The Ohio State University (Go Buckeyes!) and Wright State University. She is currently working on her doctorate in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors & golfing with her husband Brian, cooking new recipes, and seeing the world through the eyes of her cat, Sophia.