If you’ve recently lost a loved one, then your grief is likely to still be 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 really ready.

Returning to work can be hard. Expect to be surprised. Some of your colleagues may rise to the challenge, others might not.

Support, or lack of it, can come from unexpected sources. Death and grieving are difficult topics and the experience is unique for each person. You’ll see a range of reactions from your colleagues – from acting as though nothing has happened, to offering condolences in private, to publicly offering help or asking morbidly curious questions.

Knowing that you’ll experience a variety of reactions can help you prepare for your return to work.

How will I cope?

You may not be able to control what your co-workers say and do, but you can make your reactions work for your benefit. From answering difficult questions in a way that you’re comfortable with to staying focused on being productive, 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. You might want to talk through the details of what happened – but, if not, think of some short answers to probing questions. You might provide some brief facts or simply 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 inclination may be to shut down and do nothing, but being productive helps with healing. By focusing on performing constructive tasks, you’ll move your mind away from your grief for set periods of time. But make sure you don’t confuse doing with ignoring. Pushing emotions away and staying busy so you don’t experience grief is something altogether different. Balancing your grief with familiar tasks that are unrelated to the death of your loved one can help you avoid being overcome 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 in the wake of a loved one’s death. People want to help. Instead of closing yourself off and saying “everything’s fine”, be honest with your employer and co-workers. By opening up, they’ll be able to better understand what you’re going through and offer the support you need.
  • Create pauses. 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 to care for yourself by going for a walk, doing breathing exercises or meditating. Taking these short breaks will help you to pace yourself, so you can last through the day.
  • Have a sanctuary. Grief tends to come in waves. You can be fine one minute, then a tiny trigger can set off a flow of deep emotion the next. The last place you want to break down is in the middle of a crowded office or in a meeting, so have a place where you can go if necessary. Your retreat 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 solace 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 be spared 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 normally 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 deliverables, 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 a variety of 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.

How can employers help?

For many employers, it can be difficult 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. Speak their loved one’s name. Make sure 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 hard. 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 still remain productive at work.
  • Help with 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 on hand if they’re 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 sacred to them and any acknowledgement will be welcomed with appreciation.
  • 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 emotion and anguish. Don’t judge. Just be supportive.

Be kind to yourself

Grief is a natural part of healing after the death of a loved one. But because grief can last for weeks, months or even years, most people have to return to work while they’re still in the process of grieving.

When you return to work, make sure you’re honest with both yourself and others. Recognise where you are emotionally and don’t fight the natural process of mourning. The sooner you’re able to confront and process your grief, the sooner you’ll start to heal.


Want to know more?

For more information about returning to work after the loss of the loved one, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing [email protected].