Coping with the loss of a loved one when you return to work

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For many, bereavement is the most painful life event we will experience. Since the dawn of time, cultures have created structured mourning time, during which those closest to the deceased are given the breathing space they need to regain control.

All good businesses try to soften the impact of a loss by offering compassionate leave. This ‘quiet time’ is necessary so mourners can absorb the pain of their loss, and hopefully, regain a sense of direction. But, there are no official guidelines on contemporary leave. In cultures across the world, there comes a time when the mourner is expected to return to normal life.

When you lose someone especially close, the raw pain can be difficult to shift, and the prospect of returning to work can seem unbearable. Approaching the situation with honesty and practicality can make this transition easier to manage.

Be honest with your employer

The transition back to work can be complicated by cultural taboos surrounding death. Your employer may be concerned for your wellbeing, but reluctant to broach the subject.

To overcome this, it is a good idea to start communicating before you return to the office. The trick is to be honest without oversharing – if you aren’t coping well, it can be beneficial to say so. Since people react differently to loss, simple communication can give your manager a sense of what to expect. You may be pleasantly surprised by the additional support they can offer.

Put your emotional health first

Not only is the death of a loved one among the most difficult experiences we will deal with, it can also be expensive. With rising funeral costs and complex affairs to arrange, money worries are unfortunately common after the death of a loved one. Financial woes can feel like fuel being stacked onto the fire, leading to panicked decisions.

When you are mourning, it is important to put your emotional health first. Take some time to clear your head, research your financial options and prioritise your wellbeing. From funeral savings to understanding how to minimise solicitors fees for probate, there are ways to limit financial stresses.

Rushing back to work is rarely a good idea, so try to avoid feeling pressured by mounting costs. Take some time to research your options and you may benefit in the long term.

Remind yourself of the normality of grief

Though intense grief can make you feel isolated, it is important to remind yourself how normal this process is. Mourning is not an illness, but a normal response to loss. We may experience grief after any kind of loss, but the emotional response to losing a relative, close friend or life partner is the most intense of them all.

In the words of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, “death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Though grief can feel debilitating, it is actually an integral part of living.

Grief is as personal as it is universal, and there is no formula for overcoming it. If your loss came in particularly sudden or traumatic circumstances, you may benefit from bereavement counselling. Witness your grief with honesty for the best chances of recovery.

Find solace in the daily routine

Since grief can cause symptoms like exhaustion and memory loss, work can feel like the last place you want to be. But, the focus and structure inherent in working routines can help to shift your mind away from distress, helping you to regain a sense of balance.

Though there are many benefits to returning to work, your workload may need tweaking to help you adjust. If you usually take part in meetings or other people-facing activities, it may be beneficial to request desk-based work for the first few days. This way, you won’t need to keep up a sociable front and can find solace in the tasks at hand.

Be prepared to discuss the event

Death and grieving can be difficult to discuss – for mourners and their colleagues. People often feel uneasy raising the subject, leading to awkward silences which can exacerbate stress.

On the flipside, the pressure of being caught off guard can cause problems when “how are you” is a very painful question. It is worth rehearsing a few lines so you know how to introduce the subject and answer questions about yourself, family or the even the circumstances of the death.

Keep it brief, honest and matter-of-fact. It is a good idea to be selective about who you discuss your grief with. Understand that most people feel overwhelmed by the topic, and that lengthy emotional discussions may alienate some listeners. Communicate honestly with your line manager and perhaps a close workplace friend.

Avoid withdrawing completely

The grieving process is a difficult and at times isolating journey. When you are suddenly hit with extreme pain, it can feel like you no longer have anything in common with casual acquaintances. But, it is best to resist the tendency to withdraw.

Research shows withdrawal can be counterproductive, since social isolation is bad for mental health. Take time out to socialise, and you may be surprised how much easier the transition back to work can be.

While friends or colleagues may not be able to offer an answer to your grief, they may be able to soften your transition back to normal life. Though it seems a long way off, there is a future after loss, and returning to work may be your first step on a long but positive onward journey.