man with head in hands at work desk

Returning to work after a bereavement

Posted by AK Lander | On September 21, 2018 12:42

Grief writers Debbie Augenthaler, Daphne Greer and Glen Lord share their advice and experiences with going back to work after a bereavement.

After the loss of a loved one, your world stops turning. In between looking at funeral flowers and picking a headstone, your life is put on pause while you process the loss. But after a while, the initial bereavement period comes to an end, and you have to put your grief to one side and return to the real world, which usually starts with going back to work.

But it’s not an easy feat. Although some people find it a good distraction from their grief, some people dread the thought of going back to work and facing their colleagues. We spoke to three grief writers Debbie Augenthaler, Daphne Greer and Glen Lord to talk about their experiences and advice for returning to work after a bereavement.

Prepare to feel overwhelmed and foggy

“Many grievers return to work still in shock, enveloped in an invisible fog that makes it challenging to be productive and focus,” says Debbie Augenthaler, grief speaker, psychotherapist and author of You Are Not Alone. Debbie lost her husband very suddenly at just 36 years old and found herself going back to work after just 12 days.

“My job was the only place where I felt a part of my old identity still existed, even though my compassionate employer suggested I take more time to heal. I got up every day on time, even when it felt I was in slow motion and did things that seemed impossible - like showering and dressing and taking the subway. I felt robotic and uncertain. I went to the ladies’ room when I felt overwhelmed to cry in the first months.”

After losing her 5-year-old daughter in a car accident, writer, blogger and business owner Daphne Greer found being back at work came with a wealth of emotions. “I sat at my desk and stared at the wall, the computer screen, and was complete in the moment. It felt like a dream.

“So much had happened in such a short amount of time. I was in another world and I kept thinking: This is insane. What in the world am I doing here? I don’t belong here, my daughter just died, don’t people get it? It was the first of the many years the feelings of guilt would emerge. I was ashamed, guilt-ridden, saddened, remorseful, and not myself. I couldn’t remember anything, as forgetfulness became my best friend.”

Glen Lord, who runs his own grief education institute for employers, says it’s hard to come to terms with this new ‘normal’ at first. “Normal is an odd word in reference to grief. How can life ever be what it was when your loved one is no longer here? Initially, even breathing is an accomplishment, it is not uncommon to have a Swiss cheese brain for quite a while and it is not uncommon for what once came easily to now be a challenge.

“Be compassionate with yourself, give yourself the gift of love and forgiveness and be honest with those around you when you can.”

Your colleagues are bound to say the wrong thing

“Many colleagues will be kind and gentle with you when you first return to work, but you will find some avoiding you or saying nothing,” says Debbie. “Others will say inappropriate comments that might leave you stunned or hurt. One of my clients was devastated when a colleague asked if she was ‘ready to move on’ four months after losing her mother. Remember the silence or inappropriate comments are not about you – it’s because they don’t know what to say.”

Daphne agrees that some of your colleagues likely won’t know how to act around you. “There will be the co-workers who check in on you daily from the moment you return for months who demonstrate a genuine love and concern, then you will have the ones that talk with you briefly and then go back to their own lives, those who are afraid to make eye contact and don’t know what to say.

“You’ll have those that tend to your every need during your time off and when you return, won’t give you the time of day, those who are afraid to speak your loved one’s name, those who joke around with you like nothing ever happened, those who will share stories and hugs, not afraid to hear about your loss (those are very rare and such a blessing), those who will be your friends on Facebook yet go all out to avoid you when you’re out in the community. Yes, grief and loss do crazy things to people.”

Glen says it’s important to be honest with your colleagues if it’s too much. “For the most part, your colleagues will initially reach out and be very supportive when your loved one first dies, but if you do not want a lot of flowers, let them know a charity that they can support in your loved one’s name instead. Remember, this is your personal grief journey and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is ok to say, ‘thank you for reaching out, but I cannot talk today’. Do what is right for you.”

Although your colleagues may say and do things out of the norm, Debbie has one important takeaway: “Don’t let anyone tell you how you should grieve. We are not born knowing how to cope with the death of someone we love. It’s something that must be learned and developed.”

Advice for moving forwards and staying focused

Debbie says it’s hard to say how long it might be before you will feel ‘normal’ again because you’ll be discovering a new ‘normal’ - one where you live your life alongside your grief. “We’re all different and it depends on your relationship to the person who has died. Many of us grieve the person we love all our lives - but our grief softens and changes over time. At your own pace, you will adjust and begin to live fully again. It may be helpful to seek professional help to aid in the recovery - my own therapist was crucial to my healing.”

Although work can be a good distraction, Daphne recommends being honest with how you’re feeling and refrain from pretending you’re fine in front of others. “I found myself trying to act normal around others so as not to make them uncomfortable, and it seemed it was always me being the strong one, keeping it together for my family and friends. Soon, it became a tough act to maintain.”

Debbie recommends communicating your needs, whether that’s asking for a quiet space, extra help with your workload or just understanding. “It’s helpful to prepare your employer by asking for understanding if more breaks are needed and to request additional days off when feeling overwhelmed,” she says. She also suggests preparing for inevitable brain fog. “I suggest writing down everything you need to remember. So many times I walked into an office to do something and forgot the reason why. Making lists helped me function.”

Glen also recommends creating a checklist, particularly at first. “Write down what you need to do that day. This can even include the obvious things like eat lunch or clean your work area. Don’t use the list to punish yourself if you can’t accomplish it, but just use it to help you keep on top of things”.

If you find yourself struggling in the moment, Debbie has something that can help. “It may be challenging to stay focused, especially if you’re in the midst of a task at work. I developed a free Toolbox series with four videos demonstrating simple techniques to help alleviate emotional overwhelm.

“These short exercises have been so helpful to my clients, and I’m certain they will help you recalibrate when you are feeling anxiety. You can do them anywhere, anytime. At the very least, take a few deep slow inhales and exhales and remember, you are not alone.”

“Eventually you will find a new normal,” says Glen. “Joy and hope will return to the worker you were. You lost your loved one, not your skill set. There is no timeline for grief - reach out and find support.”