Returning to work after the death of a loved one

Returning to work after the death of a loved one can feel like the last thing on your mind. However, at some point, daily routines must return. That does not mean that it is easy though, and many people find this a difficult first step.

There is no right or wrong way to feel, and everybody must do as they see fit. Return to work when you feel ready. You may need some more time to come to terms with what has happened, or you may want to get straight back to work as a distraction. However, there are some things that you can do to help get back to professional life.

  1. Find out what you can do. To avoid any difficult situations, find out what the bereavement policy is. Some employers have an official policy, whilst others may be more flexible. In either case, it’s important to know what is expected of you so that you don’t feel guilty and rush back too soon or cause more stress by taking more time off without talking it through. You might also find that your employer offers additional support such as counselling or additional leave. Your employer might consider a phased return or reduced hours to begin with. Remember it is in their interests to be caring and compassionate.
  2. Decide how you want to handle your first day in advance. Whilst you might prefer not to think about it until you arrive at work, a little planning can be useful. Talk to your manager or supervisor. In the world of email and messenger, this doesn’t even have to be face to face. You will no doubt have spoken to them previously, whether the death was sudden or following a long illness, and they will be aware of your situation, but your co-workers might not be. If you would like them to know, rather than ask awkward questions about your absence, ask someone to inform them. If you’d rather not talk about it, feel free to say so in advance.
  3. Take the lead. Walking into work for the first time after an absence can be daunting. Many people don’t know what to say, particularly if they don’t know you very well. They want to be supportive but are terrified of saying the wrong thing or upsetting you. Think of some ways to initiate conversations with people. Also think about answers to questions such as “How was your weekend?” which can take you by surprise.

    There will inevitably be some people who get it wrong, or are just plain insensitive, but try not to take it to heart – the chances are they are being clumsy rather than mean.
  4. Ask for specific tasks. After a bereavement, even simple things can be difficult to focus on. Complicated projects or new information can be almost impossible and concentrating for extended periods a challenge. Rather than struggle, plan to do some things which you know can be completed in short bursts and don’t require too much complex thought or organisation. Once again, talk to your Manager about something to keep you occupied but not too demanding.

    You might also find you are more forgetful than usual. Write lists, confirm things by email and keep a note of what needs to be done.

  5. Make time for yourself. More than ever, it’s vital to take regular breaks. Try to find somewhere to get some fresh air or some peace and quiet if you need to. In the first few days you might become emotional or simply need a change of scenery. Try to work out where you will go in advance.
  6. Be easy on yourself. No matter how good you are at your job, grief is incredibly stressful and demands an awful lot your energy. You may be tired, lack concentration, be emotional or simply distracted. Therefore, don’t expect to be on top of your game from day one. Your manager and colleagues won’t expect it either so go easy on yourself if you make small mistakes or something isn’t as perfect as you would like.
  7. Don’t give yourself time limits. One of the most difficult things about grief is that everyone is affected in different ways and there is no one way to deal with it. You may return to work very quickly and throw yourself into a new project. You may have even recently started a new job. However, grief does not occur in neat stages. You may also find that you are affected by bereavement many weeks or months later. Keep talking to your manager and tell them if you are struggling.
  8. Make sure you have enough support your co-workers and employers will hopefully be incredibly supportive and compassionate but make sure you have enough support, both practical and emotional, outside of work too. Continue to take offers of food, friendly visits or phone calls or other offers of help. Most importantly, give yourself the time and space to come to terms with what has happened.