Uncomfortable Connection

We spend more of our lives with our co-workers than we do with our own family. I realized this uncomfortable truth long before I was a lawyer working 80-hour weeks. Even at a modest 40 hours a week it holds true for all practical purposes, and the reality of that lived experience takes its toll on us and our personal lives. It also results in personal relationships springing up in our professional lives….

I recently had lunch with two, soon-to-be former colleagues. One of them, a woman we’ll call Sandra, was leaving the institution they work for, and the other was her dotted-line manager, mentor, and friend. Our usual catch-up chat quickly got teary as Sandra shared news of her impending departure, the difficulty of the decision, and the strain it had put on her relationship with her mentor, let’s call him Michael, who was sitting right across from her and clearly feeling emotional about it in his own right. And there it was: the reality that in the midst of a decade-long working relationship, these two people had developed an undeniably personal and deeply touching connection. We realized in the course of a somewhat uncomfortable conversation about a very uncomfortable topic, that there are precious few models for how to navigate personal relationships in the workplace, let alone how to understand what happens to those relationships when the context that gave rise to the relationship (the workplace) disappears–whether because the company goes under or, more commonly, when one of the co-workers “moves on” to another “opportunity.”

I love real conversations like this so naturally I dove right in. But I found myself doing more sighing and “Oof-ing” because there’s not a lot to say, and that in itself is uncomfortable. The workplace, and relationships with colleagues, are supposed to be professional, which is another way of saying “rational” or “heady.” We talk about work things: numbers, trends, even sociological studies if you’re an HR-wonk. We don’t talk about feelings. But when confronted with the reality of a personal relationship that’s precisely what’s on the table: feelings. Feelings of closeness, of intimacy. Feelings of discomfort (and awkwardness) at acknowledging those feelings of intimacy. Feelings of betrayal that the other person would leave “us.” Anxiety about what will happen to the relationship–and the workplace–when the other person leaves. Or, as Michael put it, “What do you do with a Sandra-sized hole in your life?”

(more feelings)

That’s exactly the right way to describe it. So let’s name it: when a colleague who has become a friend leaves the job we’ve worked together it leaves a kind of hole in our lives, a kind of death. And death gives rise to–absolutely requires–grief. Grief is the only appropriate response to loss. But heck if that doesn’t catch us off guard when it arises in the workplace.

For most of us, work is where we run from grief. I remember when my wife and I were seemingly as close to the edge as a marriage can get, a partner at the law firm I worked for at the time consoled me with the fact that at least I could come into work and forget about the marital strife for a while each day–it was the only thing that had gotten him through his divorce. Huh??? Regardless of how whack that sounded to me, he was unintentionally revealing a truth about the modern workplace. For many of us its a refuge from our feelings. We seek to perform in the workplace in order to compensate for deeply rooted feelings of unworthiness. We work those extra hours in order to avoid going home to domestic strife. Whatever the case may be, consciously or unconsciously, we expect the workplace to be a refuge from feeling.

But if the psychologists, philosophers, priests, and spiritual leaders are right, then our feelings are an essential aspect of our humanity. Which, in turn, means that characterizing the workplace as a refuge from feelings belies another uncomfortable truth: that the modern workplace is expected to be devoid of a certain aspect of our humanity.

And that is precisely why it’s so god-awfully bewildering, difficult, and generally uncomfortable when we are confronted with feelings related to the loss of a colleague/friend. An essential aspect of our humanity has refused to remain cloistered and is calling for another entirely human act: grieving. My friend asked me if I had any advice for him about navigating this (painful) process, as he, too, was confronted with his own tears. At first, I have to confess, I laughed because here was a man many years my senior implying I might have some experience he didn’t. But he assured me he was quite serious, at which point I simultaneously felt like an asshole AND tried to recover and get real, really quickly.

TBH, I can’t remember exactly what I said because, let’s face it, I was uncomfortable, too. But here’s what I hope I conveyed:

Just jump into it. Or rather, just open your eyes to the fact that you’re in the midst of it–swimming in a sea of sh*t feelings. You’re experiencing a loss in the most unexpected of places, the workplace, and of the most unexpected of people, your colleague. But make no mistake, you’re absolutely right, you’re about to have a Sandra-sized hole in your life. And what’s already starting to fill that hole are feelings. Big, big feelings, the biggest one being grief.

No one likes grieving. It’s painful, awkward, snotty work. But it is undeniably human. And as it turns out you’re human, which means you’re hard-wired to undergo this process quite gracefully. Just let it be what it is. Don’t fight it. Don’t deny it. And for god’s sake, don’t hide it away. As more than one wise person has said, grief has always been a community-based activity. We’re not meant to grieve alone, if only we would let ourselves be seen as someone who is grieving.

The wonderful thing about feelings, I’ve learned, is that they truly are like waves. We ride them up one side and down the other, and those ups and downs are the only way to through them. There’s no emotional ‘duck-dive’ like in surfing. Dodging feelings just puts them off for another day. So embrace them. Embrace the feelings of loss related to your colleague’s departure. Grieve. Because, congratulations, it means you’ve gained a friend. And if you let it, that friendship will be with you long after this workplace and the next have ceased to be a part of your life.