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.
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.
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.
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:
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.