If you’ve recently lost a loved one, then your grief is likely still fresh. But at some point, you have to pick up the pieces and return to work.
While many companies provide bereavement leave, it’s often only a few days. Some are fortunate to be able to reduce their hours for a while. Others may have a manager who gives them extra time off. But most of us need to go back to work before we’re ready.
Returning to work can be tricky. Expect to be surprised. Some of your colleagues may be helpful; others may not.
Support, or lack of it, can come from unexpected sources. Death and grieving are complicated topics, and the experience is unique to each person. You’ll see a range of reactions from your colleagues – from acting like nothing has happened to offering condolences in private to publicly offering a helping hand or asking inappropriate questions.
Knowing that you’ll experience a variety of reactions can help you prepare for your return to work.
You may not control what your co-workers say and do, but you can make your reactions work for you. From answering tricky questions in a way that you’re comfortable with staying focused on the task at hand, here are some tips to consider when returning to work after a loss.
Control what you share. Don’t force yourself to share if you’re not ready. Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it. If you don’t want to talk about it, think of some short answers to probing questions. You might provide some brief facts or say, “Thanks for your questions, but I’m not comfortable answering them right now.” You could also direct the conversation to something you’d rather talk about – for example, “I’d rather talk about what my mum meant to me than go into the specifics of what happened.”
Focus on doing. Your natural response may be to shut down and do nothing but being productive helps with healing. By focusing on performing productive tasks, you’ll move your mind away from your grief for set periods. But make sure you don’t confuse doing with ignoring [link to ‘Self-care in grief’]. Pushing emotions away and staying busy, so you don’t experience grief is very different. Balancing your grief with familiar tasks that are unrelated to the death of your loved one can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by your feelings.
Let others help. If there’s ever a moment in your life when you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help, it’s after the death of a loved one. People want to help. Instead of closing yourself off and saying, ‘everything’s fine’, be honest with your employer and co-workers. By opening, they’ll be able to understand better what you’re going through and offer the support you need.
Create breaks. Grief saps your energy. There are days when you might feel capable of performing any task that comes your way, but it may not last long. If possible, give yourself space between meetings and interactions with others. Use these times to catch up if you’re feeling productive or caring for yourself by going for a walk, doing breathing exercises or meditating. Taking these short breaks will help you to pace yourself so that you can last through the day.
Have a sanctuary. Grief often comes in waves. You can be fine one minute; then, a tiny trigger can set you off the next. The last place you want to break down is in the middle of a crowded office or a meeting, so have a place where you can go if necessary. It may be as simple as closing your office door. Or maybe a nearby meeting room or a rarely used stairwell. When you feel tears coming on, excuse yourself and find comfort in your sanctuary. You’ll feel better knowing that you’re not breaking down in front of everyone, and your co-workers will understand.
Carry tissues. You may tear up when you least expect it, so keep tissues handy. People will understand because they know you’re grieving. At least with tissues on hand, you’ll avoid the potential embarrassment of sniffles and a runny nose during a meeting.
Have checklists. A common side effect of grief is feeling ‘spacey’. You may forget things and make more mistakes than you usually would. Starting each day with a to-do list and numbering what you need to accomplish in order of priority can be a good roadmap for your day. For important tasks, create a detailed checklist and ask a co-worker to review your work for you.
Understand your benefits. In addition to bereavement leave, many companies offer various benefits for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, such as grief counselling and therapy sessions. Make sure you understand your employer’s bereavement policy and take advantage of any benefits. If you’re not sure what’s available, don’t be afraid to ask.
For many employers, it can be challenging to know how to respond when an employee returns to work after the loss of a loved one. But it’s important to remember that employers can make a significant difference in a grieving employee’s life at this critical time.
Acknowledge the loss. Tell them that you’re sorry for their loss. Say their loved one’s name. Ensure they know that you’re available and allow them to talk openly about their loss if that’s what they feel comfortable with.
Offer flexibility. Grief is tiring and returning to work after the loss of a loved one is tricky. If possible, allow them to work from home on certain days or offer shorter working hours. This flexibility will give them the space to deal with their grief and remain productive at work.
Help with the workload. Go through their workload and identify the areas where you can help. This may mean moving deadlines or reassigning tasks to other team members. Let them know that help is nearby if they are feeling swamped. Check-in regularly to see how things are going.
Be sensitive. Try to remember important dates, like birthdays and anniversaries. When someone has lost a loved one, these dates are special to them, and an acknowledgement will be appreciated.
Be patient. Don’t expect them to ‘get over their grief within a specific time frame. Grief doesn’t work to a schedule. It may take months or even years for them to feel at peace with the loss. And understand that there will likely be ups and downs. Grief can be unpredictable, and they may experience moments of deep and complex feelings. Don’t judge. Just be supportive.
The information on this website is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it used for diagnosis and treatment. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional advice and treatment from General Practitioners and/or qualified practitioners and providers in specific cases of need.
If you are in crisis or think you may have an emergency, immediately call Emergency 000. If you’re having thoughts of self-harm or harm to others call Lifeline on 13 11 23 to talk to a skilled, trained counsellor. If you are located outside Australia, contact your local emergency line directly.