Laughing Through Tears: How a Supportive Workplace Helps with Grief

Editor’s Note: Over the past three years, many of us have grieved. While grief is extremely personal, there is often strength in collectively grieving and experiencing a healing process together.

Today, The Workforce Institute at UKG takes a break from our usual prescriptive approach to navigating workplace challenges. Below, we present two personal stories from guest contributors on how work, the workplace, and a little bit of laughter can help us cope with loss.

If you are grieving, we hope these stories will demonstrate that you are not alone, and that work — from your manager to employee benefits to the physical workplace itself — can be a useful resource throughout this difficult process.

The following passage comes from Holly Reynolds, director of customer marketing at UKG, and it is about the loss of her father.

It was August 2021, and I was in a regular 1:1 meeting with a colleague when I got the call from my sister to go to the hospital. My dad was dying. Often, people don’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones at the end. I was fortunate enough to, and the last words we exchanged were ones of love.

My dad was a big fan of comedy. “Seinfeld” was one of his favorites. Looking back, I now know he watched comedy to help offset the stressful nature of running a business — often jumping onto his stationary bike after work to watch an episode or two before dinner with our family. He taught me that, as a leader, no matter how stressful your day is, you can exercise, laugh, and enjoy a vodka soda with some takeout or a dinner out with loved ones to help de-stress.

A critical piece of holding it together while simultaneously falling apart? Laughing. It is an essential piece to a successful life.

Processing grief is not a linear line. As much I wish it could be, it wasn’t until I returned from my last work trip that it hit me like a ton of bricks, even over a year after my dad passed. In any other year, I would be excited to let him know how well it went, but he is no longer “here.” Even if I didn’t advertise the success, he would always ask my husband and it was always the same question: “How is Holly doing?” No matter if it was at his own company’s holiday party, on vacation, or during a family gathering. He always wanted to understand how I was doing and how work was going.

It’s funny how you think you are fine, and then our emotions take over.

I was sitting at the airport with my good friend and coworker, and we were recalling our success of the conference while catching up personally. Like me, this colleague lost her dad “young,” so we have commonalities to share, and we lean on each other.

We boarded the plane and settled into our respective rows. It was a few hours later when — boom — like the turbulence I felt on that flight, it hit me again that my dad is gone. I remember vividly going to the bathroom to collect myself and then settle back in my seat. I knew I could go to my coworker, who was just a few aisles up, and she would talk me through it. I also could lean on the other familiar face on the plane — another colleague who was working away on her laptop (even after a long week of presenting and meeting with customers). I took solace in that moment that I had not one but two coworkers on the plane for support, if needed.

I would be remiss in this piece on grief in the workplace not to mention my manager. She has been instrumental in helping me process my grief. During my dad’s illness, she offered me support, whether it was a flexible work schedule to go see him, offering opportunities to stretch myself on highly visible projects, or hugging me as I broke into tears at his wake.

Coming out of this grief cycle I have been in for the past few years, she knows when she can push me out of my comfort zone, but also is able to adjust our 1:1s when she knows I have had a week working too much (she often says I boil the ocean instead of a cup of tea on some projects). So we, at times, will segue into talking about the latest shows we are watching, shoes or bags we want to buy, our travel plans, and what our favorite Boston-based home designer Erin Gates is crafting next.

It’s my manager’s years of experience that have helped me. She has walked in similar shoes and has taught me that, while our work is important, it is not life or death. Taking time for yourself and being with our families and friends matters more than work. It is what allows us to show up as the best versions of ourselves in all aspects of our lives.

Lastly, I’ve learned, it is essential to put the seriousness of work on the backburner (from time to time) and laugh with the people who are most important to you.

The following passage comes from Dave Gilbertson, vice president at UKG, and it is about the loss of his close friend and colleague, comedian Louie Anderson.

I stood in front of the theater entrance at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip in mid-January 2022. It was 7:00 a.m., and I had tears streaming down my face.

Louie Anderson was one of the greatest comedians of all time, a headliner in Vegas for over 30 years, and one of my closest friends. I had performed stand-up comedy, opening for Louie in that very theater, in front of friends, family, and coworkers — a highlight I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Now, Louie was dying, and I was in Vegas to say goodbye.

Later that day, I would head to Louie’s house for the last time. Before doing that, however, I wanted to relive that memory of performing with my friend by visiting this theater. A security guard walked by and shook his head, seeing my tears. I looked up and noticed that the theater was now home to “Australia’s Thunder From Down Under,” a decidedly different show than the one Louie and I had put on those nights. I started laughing out loud, and I couldn’t stop.

Louie passed away a few days later. The next few weeks were a blur of preparing a short eulogy to encapsulate one of the defining friendships of my life. For the next 10 months, grief would come in unexpected waves. My son saw a bus and asked if there was a lion inside powering the whole thing, which Louie convinced him to believe when he was younger. The Golden State Warriors beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA (National Basketball Association) Finals and I started to dial Louie up. I went through some struggles at work and wanted nothing more than to commiserate and laugh with my friend.

Eventually, a work trip brought me back to Vegas for the first time since that day at the Excalibur. I asked one of my closest friends and colleagues at UKG to join me for an evening. Over dinner, we talked about the flood of memories from my friendship with Louie. Before arriving in Vegas, I reached out to another one of Louie’s close friends, fellow comedian Carrot Top. He is one of the funniest comedians in Vegas and likely the nicest. After the show, Carrot Top invited us backstage, and we were able to share some of our favorite memories and lessons from Louie.

That time and laughter with Carrot Top provided a catharsis that proved to be a breakthrough in my grief. Through it all, I was so grateful to have a close friend from UKG right there by my side. The laughter and nostalgia shared with a coworker that night created a memory we’ll always share and helped me in ways I will forever appreciate.

Closing Comments

We recognize the above stories are just two of (likely) billions of stories about people losing their sense of normal over the past three years. The unique part we hope to have presented here is the advice. That, in times of incredible grief, laughter and a supportive network — especially at work — are vital to keeping it all together.

In the coming weeks, The Workforce Institute at UKG will address grief from a clinical perspective, including an article by advisory board member Nanne Finis, RN MS, chief nurse executive at UKG. In addition, listed below are several supporting resources recommended by Holly and Dave.

Related Works by the Authors

Supporting Resources