Returning to work after the death of a loved one can be an incredibly difficult and intimidating undertaking. Whether it has been weeks, or months since their passing, re-entering the workforce will often feel like starting anew. Companies are operating at the speed of light resulting in significant changes in your workplace – new employees start, someone else manages your responsibilities, teams reorganize and old processes are updated.
Additionally, grief is a challenging set of emotions you are navigating through. You often feel vulnerable, unpredictable and incapable of keeping up with the Joneses. You can feel like you have been left behind in so many ways. Just imagining it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Many grievers are having a hard enough time supporting their emotional journey and the estate paperwork, never mind work projects and expectations.
But the sad truth of it is that we have to. We need to get back to earning because the costs of burying someone and sorting out the estate are not small amounts.
So in a time when you feel like you are swirling, it makes sense to better understand how returning to a structured working environment will affect you emotionally. This can be best managed by having a few different plans articulated with your human resource manager or your leader directly. It will help you come into the workplace knowing that if things go sideways, you and your organization are prepared.
These are a few first steps to preparing yourself for your return.
Emotional Heaviness Timeframes
Grief can feel overwhelming and all-consuming. It's important to acknowledge the pain and recognize that it's okay to feel lost during this time. For some, however, we have a pattern of emotional heaviness. For some Fridays are really hard because weekends are a time for family. We end up spending the weekend shattered only to have to clean up and pack it all away for Monday which often leads to Mondays being exhausting. For others, it's every night they go to bed alone. Recognizing where you feel the heaviest when the outburst of tears typically happens, we can better plan our work days around them.
So maybe you begin by working on Tuesday through Thursday or perhaps you start midday to give yourself time to sleep in. This awareness will give your team healthy expectations of your work cycles and also give you the space to care for yourself in the times you need it the most.
Your Story Script
Often when grievers return to work co-workers have a hard time navigating conversations and so do grievers. This is why we often get people looking at us with sad eyes, others who ignore the elephant in the room and lastly, we have those that want to know all the details.
I often suggest that we articulate a script of what we say in each of those situations. These can be based on trust levels, or on our emotional tenacity in the moment - whatever suits you. Having them provides you with a talking framework that takes the pressure off the words and makes room to manage the emotional charge.
Here are some examples:
Someone you don't trust or know:
"I very recently lost someone who is close to me and it's still early days, I appreciate your need to move quickly on this however, I am in a little brain fog still, perhaps we can take these conversations to email so I can review when I am clear-headed?"
Someone you kind of trust:
""I very recently lost my mother, we were quite close and my emotions are still quite charged. Is there a way we can re-evaluate the work so I'm giving you the best of me?"
Someone you trust:
"This whole grief thing is so hard - I mean I have good days and bad days. Is it possible to rethink how we work together on this - maybe you take lead on the management and I can do all the creative?"
I have clients that build out these frameworks for each of their workdays depending on their emotional tenacity, the projects they are working on or colleagues they have to work with that day.
Support & Solitude
When you are deciding to go back to work, your support systems will have to change. While you were on leave, your number one focus was grief and your support systems reflected that. You had time alone, you napped, or maybe you had children to care for perhaps but the schedule was quite loose and your supports were on-call. When you re-enter the workforce, you have to put some of the emotions on the back burner to make it through your day.
And let's be honest, peopling is hard when all you want to do is be alone to ugly cry. So reconsidering what support systems you need and when you need them is important. I often recommend clients take two self-care breaks each day. Once before work, and once after. These self-care breaks give you a moment to acknowledge your emotions for the day and provide them with the space to be soothed.
"I decided to head out in the morning and walk my neighbourhood before most people were up. I didn't focus on the exercise as much as I did the feeling of the breath entering my lungs, and the sun on my face. Once grounded, I felt what was coming up for me knowing my work for the day. I knew, for example, one coworker would rub my back the same way my husband did and it would take everything for me not to reach back and break her arm. So I centred on a plan (I will sit further away from her) and if she did rub my back, what I would say to her ("Thank you, Sue, I know you are here for me and I really appreciate that. I am having a hard time with touch right now so would really appreciate it we could just talk or perhaps walk?").
So that day went on and literally as we walked into the boardroom, Sue got in behind me and started rubbing my back. I gently pulled her aside, hugged her and said my peace. She looked at me and said she totally understood and apologized. Then after work I would do it again, I would walk part of the way home. I was able to unravel some of the emotional baggage I packed through the day and release what wasn't mine to carry. It made me more centred on my day no matter how tired or hungry I was. Hell, I packed snacks for the walk home! Planning out my day like this saved me from crumbling at work and it gave me the evenings to mourn in my own way instead of focusing on work.."
What is a realistic goal?
It's important to remember that setting achievable expectations is the key to returning to work in a healthy way. By being compassionate with yourself and understanding that it might take some time to get back into the swing of things, we often set the bar lower than what you would expect. It's perfectly okay to start small and work your way back up to a full-time role with full responsibilities.
I really love a 30/60/90/Annual Plan. The plan for the first 30 days should feed into the plan for the next 60 and then the next 90 days. I would also suggest that, if your organization does Annual Plans, you consider changing some of the goals you have on this plan as well.
This is not to time box grief but please consider these plans more like pulse checks. If done correctly (i.e. without the pressure of powering through) we can together with our leadership team have a baseline understanding of what you can accomplish within the first year back. It can help you slow down and concentrate on one task at a time and it helps them ensure that they have other resources allocated to important projects.
A good example I have seen:
30 days - Working part-time Tuesday to Thursday, new responsibilities include social media content planning and creative.
60 days - full 3-day work schedule, new responsibilities include 2 additional blog posts per week.
90 days - full 4-day work week schedule, new responsibilities include participation on the annual conference team.
So now - what if you aren't able to hit these milestones or when we take a quick pulse check you aren't fairing as well? A) you can replan b) your organization knows they may need additional resources in 90 days. You also may want to refocus on your resources and see if you can get some additional support if you feel overwhelmed.
We do however need organizations that are willing to work with us in this way. If your organization struggles to work through this with you, please know that this isn't because you are broken or not normal. That is a system problem, not a you problem.
When we return to work there is so much uncertainty and anxiety but it doesn't have to take over. If we are able to communicate what we need, prepare for our day by creating healthy boundaries, reallocating our resources and working with our organization, and have a good simple plan as a pulse check, we can set ourselves and our organizations up for success.