Losing someone close to you is the most difficult life event you’re ever likely to endure. The pain of bereavement and unpredictable nature of death means that it is impossible to ever fully prepare for the loss of a loved one.
Grief can leave you feeling as though your world has fallen off its axis, while for everyone else, it just keeps on spinning. In our society, the need to return to work after a bereavement can make this feeling even more exaggerated. Certainly, most people can’t afford to wait the years it takes to adjust to the loss they have experienced in their lives.
Yet it’s a common reality: most people spend almost 50 years of their life in work, so there is a high chance that almost everyone will have to face bereavement at some point during their careers.
Although you have little control over how you feel after losing someone, over time, you’ll get better at coping your grief and ways to deal with it at work. It can be helpful to try and understand what to expect during your return and identify ways you can make the transition less stressful.
It is very common for people who are grieving to be worried about returning to work. Part of the reason for this is that the sense of grief which comes with the loss of a loved one is often so intense, that it can feel divorced from reality.
As a result, returning to work can feel jarring and overwhelming to someone already in a state of emotional turmoil, and some people may even feel guilty for ‘carrying on as normal’ despite their massive loss.
Added to that, the workplace is where most people try to be the most ‘professional’ or ‘put-together’ version of themselves. This might not be possible while grieving, which only adds an extra layer of intimidation to the prospect of returning.
The best thing you can do to help yourself with these feelings is to recognise that they are all normal. Grief is a complex and very intense emotional response to loss. No two people grieve in exactly the same way, and you cannot hurry the process. While some people seem to recover from their loss relatively quickly, others may take years to adjust to the change in their life.
Either way, the process is entirely natural, cannot be forced and shouldn’t be suppressed. It is important to try and reconcile with this as you return to work and try to cope with your daily routine.
Deciding when to go back to work is its challenge. While some people welcome the idea of getting back to work ASAP to distract them from their grief, other dread facing colleagues and responsibilities while they are in the midst of mourning.
If the latter sounds like you, you might want to think of ways to make getting back to work seem less intimidating. A staggered return to work could be a gentle way to try and reintegrate back into your job, for example, if you’re a 9-5 worker, starting with shorter shifts from 9 am-1 pm and slowly building back up to a full day’s work.
Only you know when you feel capable of handling a day at work, but remember that leaving things for too long might only make it seem harder and scarier than it actually is.
If you’re really dreading that first day back, see whether a friendly colleague might be willing to meet you for a coffee in the days before, or pop into the office on your own terms to say hello. This might help break the mental barrier of walking back through that door and having to socialise before you’re officially back on the rota.
When you go back to work, be prepared for some awkward silences. Not everyone will know how to respond and out of a fear of saying the wrong thing to you, may try to avoid the subject entirely.
This can feel hurtful, but it’s probably not intended that way. If you do feel bruised by a colleague’s silence or careless comments, it’s OK to let them know. It’s not your responsibility to bear the brunt of uncomfortable silences or conversation and often, by bringing this up, you’ll be able to have more honest and open conversations in future.
In all likelihood, most of your colleagues will sincerely want to help you and offer you the support you need.
Even if you are someone whose tends to bury emotions and deal with them later; you’re likely to need to think about your coping mechanisms for when things get tough at work.
Grief can interfere with people’s tolerance for stress and coping abilities for day-to-day responsibilities. On top of this, you are likely to be dealing with your own emotions about the loss of your loved one. This can lead to situations where you might unexpectedly feel overwhelmed or distressed.
This is totally normal, but can nonetheless be hard to try and deal with at work. By thinking of ways to help yourself cope before you return, you may find it easier to deal with these episodes when they happen.
It can be helpful to have a quiet place in mind in case you need to cry or just collect your thoughts. Practising breathing exercises and other tools used by people who have anxiety disorders can also help to ‘ground’ you if a wave of grief is triggered or you suddenly feel overwhelmed.
There are probably people all around you at work who want to try and make your life easier. Sometimes people’s efforts to help may be clumsy or intrusive, in which case it’s OK to turn them down. However, you should not feel ashamed to ask for help from people who can make things feel more bearable.
This could include colleagues with whom you are able to talk freely, or it could mean speaking with your boss or HR department about how your return to work is going.
If you are struggling with certain aspects of being back at work, you should try to share this with colleagues and superiors who have the power to make things easier for you- you don’t need to fight it alone.
Depression, anxiety, insomnia and feeling distant are all common reactions to bereavement. In a work environment, the physical and emotional toll of grieving can leave you feeling foggy, forgetful and a shadow of your former self. This can make it difficult to accomplish tasks that would have seemed routine before.
There is no way to fast-forward the grieving process, so you may need to find new coping mechanisms to help you manage your work responsibilities. Try to treat yourself as you would somebody who is taking their very first steps in the job: write lists, set reminders and take extra time to plan at the start of each day.
All of these things can help you muddle through the brain fog and numbness that many people feel as they begin to process their loss. Most importantly, don’t forget to cut yourself some slack if you do slip up; you’re going through something terrible, and nobody in their right mind would expect you to be on your best performance.
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