Living with Grief

As you return to work, celebrate special occasions or are approaching significant dates after the loss of your loved ones, we provide some strategies that you may useful as you navigate your grief.

On this page:

Living with grief

The experience of bereavement following a suicide can be intense and overwhelming. You may experience a wide range of feelings and thoughts which are difficult to understand and to manage.

Here are some activities, which may be helpful:

  • Develop a resource list, phone numbers of people and places to contact when the going gets tough.
  • Talk to a trusted person who will listen with understanding to your thoughts and feelings
  • be with people you are comfortable spending time with in conversation or in silence.
  • Eat a healthy diet, frequent small amounts of nutritious, easily digested food
  • Light exercise can assist by using up excess adrenaline
  • Use physical nurture, massage, spa baths, early nights, and get some fresh air by going for short walks
  • Avoid increased use of alcohol, smoking, prescription medication and other drugs.
  • Avoid too much coffee and tea to help you sleep at night.
  • Collect information, read simple books about surviving suicide, or about grief and trauma, when you are ready
  • Spend time alone to think, remember, pray, meditate, mourn.
  • Keep treasures, a memory box, journal, photo album
  • Create a memory book for family and friends to write stories, memories, messages
  • Create or build a special memento for your loved one: a garden, a CD or DVD, photo album
  • Prioritise daily tasks, do only what is essential
  • Use voicemail to screen phone calls; choose who you will talk to
  • Write notes to relatives and friends when you need to tell aspects of your story, or to express feelings
  • Find distractions, to provide time out from the pain
  • Keep a journal to record your thoughts and feelings, especially if you are unable to sleep
  • Spend time with nature
  • Review photos and mementoes
  • Visit the burial site or some other special place
  • Rearrange and store the person’s belongings, when you are ready to do this
  • Spiritual searching of self
  • Gardening
  • prepare for special days and holidays with your family/friends. Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult times. Plan a visit to the cemetery, light a candle or maybe spend some time at the person’s favourite place.
  • Find ways to honour the life of the person who has died
  • make resolutions for new and renewed directions in your life and in the life of your family.
  • Individual counselling or a support group

Returning to work

The time comes when you begin to think about re-entering the routines of everyday life. Children go back to school and adults return to work.

For many, it is a financial necessity to return to work while for others it is a means of keeping occupied and creating a break from what has been an all-consuming grief. The workplace may be the only part of life that seems normal and routine.

But for others returning to work can be difficult. Some postpone returning to their job concerned about the additional stress created by work.

Returning to work can be a difficult time for a person bereaved by suicide. At first you may be in a state of shock, overwhelmed by grief. In addition to sadness, reactions can include problems with concentration and memory, fatigue and loss of confidence. These reactions vary in intensity and not everyone will experience each of them.

Grief comes in waves and is unpredictable; each person grieves at their own pace and intense grief cannot be confined to non-working hours. So grief following suicide can lead to a short-term loss of efficiency, effectiveness and performance. With time, and with support, you will recover to take your place in the workplace again.

Many employers are compassionate and offer encouragement and understanding. However, others have an unrealistic view of how long it takes to “get over” a significant bereavement and may not be tolerant of the impact of grief. Unrealistic expectations from an employer are particularly unhelpful as they create significant stress and may result in a valued employee leaving the workplace. It’s also good to keep in mind that there may be an inquest and this can take place many months or even years after the death, re-awakening the intense grief.

How can an employer help?
  • Ideally, a bereaved employee should return to work only when they feel able to cope; you may be able to discuss with them the possibility of working part-time for a period.
  • The employee may be receiving counselling; it can help to be given time away from work for these appointments.
  • You could ask the bereaved person how their grief is affecting them, what they would like their colleagues to be told in relation to the death, and how they feel they could best be supported at this time.
  • You could invite the bereaved employee to a morning tea or lunch a couple of days before they return to work. This would enable them to meet with their colleagues and share stories, photos etc and let their colleagues know what they need in terms of support. This would also benefit your team in handling their concerns about not knowing what to do or say when their colleague returns to work.
  • It is also helpful when an employer provides information to fellow employees about suicide and bereavement, and perhaps invites a counsellor to speak with them creating a greater ease about offering support.
How can work colleagues help?

Work colleagues react to bereavement in different ways. Some feel awkward and avoid the bereaved person or make no reference to the death. The circumstances of some deaths are particularly difficult and for many, suicide presents a particular challenge for some people about what to say.

It makes it easier if colleagues can mention the death, however uncomfortable they may feel. Just a few words, such as “I was so sorry to hear about your daughter”, will be helpful. Not everyone will want to talk about their situation in depth, especially when first returning to work. Later, they may appreciate some acknowledgement of the anniversary of the death as the year comes round.

Line managers may be able to consider various options for easing an employee back into work. It helps if colleagues can be sympathetic towards their needs for time off, for example, to go to counselling. Colleagues need to be aware that grief can be erratic and unpredictable, and that its impact lasts far longer than a few weeks.

Face to face with the public

There are added strains when bereaved people work with others who are physically or mentally ill, or when they support people with emotional difficulties. A newly bereaved person is emotionally vulnerable and the problems of others weigh heavily on them, accentuating their grief and perhaps having an impact on their work for a time. Alternatively, the concerns articulated by a patient or client can sometimes seem unimportant in relation to the bereaved person’s loss.

What you can do

It can be helpful to discuss your limits and concerns with your employer, perhaps arriving at a compromise whereby you work a few hours a day when you first return to the workplace. If you are grieving, you may be dreading the thought of returning to the workplace for several reasons:

  • Seeing co-workers for the first time exposes you to “I’m so sorry” comments, and they remind you of your loss. As difficult as these expressions of sympathy may be to hear, they can be better than no acknowledgement at all. A simple “thank you” is all the response that is necessary. You do not owe anyone a story you do not wish to share.
  • You may have a high-pressure job with many deadlines and little room for mistakes. You have probably noticed that it is hard to concentrate and retain information in your grief. You may be easily distracted, and errors can occur. It is useful to check everything twice, or ask a co-worker or supervisor to review what you have done. Let your co-workers or supervisor know how difficult things seem at this time and where you need their help.
  • You may worry about emotionally breaking down in front of colleagues or in the middle of an important meeting. This can happen, but many people will understand if they know what has occurred in your life. If you need to excuse yourself, do so.
Before returning to work, try some of the following:
  • Be sure your workplace knows something about what has happened. Give them as much information as you are comfortable sharing. If people ask too many questions, let them know you are not comfortable going into it right now. Perhaps allow one key person to have enough information to keep speculation at a minimum. Keep him or her informed about funeral arrangements, time away from work, and how you are doing.
  • Let your office know if you want to be included in regular e-mail correspondence so you can be kept updated on what is happening.
  • You might arrange to go into the office to meet co-workers for lunch, getting past the first encounters. It can make it easier to go back to work at a later date.
  • Consider returning for half-days for a week or so, easing your way back into the normal routine.
  • Encourage your co-workers to learn more about grief so they can better understand what you are going through. Let them know what is helpful to you when you are having a particularly hard day: allowing you to have some alone time, making you a cup of coffee, or going for a short walk. The more they know what they can do for you, the more comfortable they will be with your grief and the more comfortable you will be in their presence.
  • Keep good communication going. Set up regular meetings with your supervisor, colleagues or employees to talk about what is happening. Ask for feedback. Good, clear communication will discourage unhelpful chatter.
  • You may need help with certain projects or deadlines. Identify those who you feel able to speak with and ask them for assistance when you need it.

Thinking ahead will make your return to work easier and less painful. Recovering from the suicide of a loved one is a slow process and getting back into a routine can be an important step in the journey.

Adapted from The American Hospice Foundation, The Bereaved Employee: Returning to Work by Helen Fitzgerald and Anglicare’s Living Beyond Suicide brochure, Helping an Employee Return to Work.

Managing special occasions

Birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other religious celebrations and special occasions can all be particularly difficult times after a loved one has died.

Making plans in advance and discussing with others who may also be anticipating an approaching event can make it easier to get through what can be a tough time.

Sometimes the lead up to and anticipation of approaching events can be more difficult than the actual date or occasion itself.

It can also be helpful to remember that others around you may feel differently as occasions and events are approaching. Allowing space and time for each person to mark occasions in their way can be important.

Read through these suggestions and think about what you need to do in preparation. Not all of these ideas will be appropriate for you or your situation. You may decide that you do not want to do anything at these times. It is not so important whether or not you do something, but it can be important that you have made a decision.

Birthday of the person who has died

It is possible that this will always be a significant day for you, but approaching the first birthday after the death can be daunting. You might like to talk about the date either with other family members or friends. Remind those who may not know the date, so they may support you more at this time.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Hold a gathering
  • You may not feel like a party, but ask a group of friends around who knew the person who died. Ask them all to bring something that reminds them of that person – it may be something physical or perhaps a story or poem
  • Make a birthday card
  • Ask others to join in and create something that reflects what that person meant to each of you. Imagine what you want to tell that person right now and reflect this in the card.

As you approach your own birthday

The focus of your own birthday may have changed significantly since the person in your life died. You may have mixed emotions, a feeling of dread, not wishing for the day to happen.

Tell others what you would like to happen on this day. If you don’t want people to acknowledge the day, let them know. However, there are some things you might like to plan ahead and do.

  • You might like to go a favourite spot you shared with your person who died, either alone or with someone who will support you.
  • You might like to buy yourself a gift similar to what the person who died may have given to you in the past.

Because it is your choice you might like to just light a candle and play gentle music all day. It is more important that you have made some preparations and planned it, rather than what you specifically do.

As you approach Christmas

Not all families and cultures mark this time of year, but for those who do, it can help to plan ahead.

The Christmas tree

Will you have one or not? Discuss your thoughts with family members and friends if you wish. If you do decide to have a tree, perhaps you could decorate it in a way which remembers your loved one. You could place symbols or mementos on it.

Where will you celebrate Christmas?

Will it be the same place as usual or do you want to make it different this year? It might be a good opportunity to try something different; a picnic on the beach, a BBQ in the hills or a meal at a restaurant.

Christmas dinner

Perhaps you could place a favourite flower, plant, or a candle or another object on the dinner table. Make a toast to the person who has died.

Christmas cards

If you don’t feel like writing cards an alternative might be to write one letter, have it copied and send it out. Also, it’s OK not to send cards if you decide not to.


This could be done differently this year. Work out what feels comfortable for you. You might still want to buy a gift for the person who has died – consider making a donation to their favourite charity.

As you approach the first anniversary

Don’t expect too much of yourself or other family members. Remember that there is no right or wrong way of doing things. Get rid of all the ‘shoulds’. Do what is most important for you and your friends and immediate family.

You may like to:

  • visit the cemetery or a special place you shared together
  • hold a gathering of special people to celebrate the life of the person who died. Bring photos and mementos
  • light a candle for the day
  • play music which was special to the person who died.
  • attach a card or message to a helium balloon and release it
  • plant a garden or some special flowers or shrubs in a special place
  • make or buy a new frame for your favourite photograph
  • write a letter, a poem or a song
  • create a special CD of music or video
  • at a special meal, prepare and eat your loved one’s favourite meal
  • begin to make a memory box in which to keep things that remind you of the person–photos, shells, jewellery etc.

Whatever the plans that you make, it is important to let family and friends know that everything may have to be changed at the last minute. If you have chosen to be with others you may suddenly decide that you would like to be alone, or vice versa.

There is no right or wrong way to do it; it can be helpful to build in flexibility so that people do not take it personally and become offended.

It is also good to listen to yourself and your body. If you become tired, then rest. If you need to go home from an event, then that’s OK.

In summary, a good approach is to listen to yourself, be flexible, accept what you need, and also the needs of others, and communicate as openly and straightforwardly as you can with those closest to you. Also, remember that many people say that the day itself is often not as difficult as the leadup to it.