Returning to Work

Man at Work | Hansen-Spear Funeral Home - Quincy, Illinois

My father died in early September 2003. His death was unexpected – in fact, at the time we never could have imagined it would be so sudden. He’d not been ill. He’d played golf just a few days before he died. My mom, sisters and I were stunned as were his friends.

We moved through the initial days and then weeks in a haze of disbelief, uncertainty about the future and difficult decisions.

At the same time, my sisters and I returned to work and tried to return to “normal.”

I recall my first day back at the office – everyone there knew I’d been away because my father had died. As a staff, they had arranged for flowers. And yet, upon my return only one person spoke to me about my loss.

To a person, everyone else acted as if nothing had happened. They acted as if my life hadn’t been turned upside down when I completely felt that way myself. In fact, it seemed as if everyone just wanted me to slide smoothly back into the usual office routines.

I felt pressured internally and externally to “catch up” on all the tasks that were pending due to my absence. Expectations were the same as before I my father’s death – I needed to perform at the same level too. I pushed myself. And I felt others scrutinizing my performance, too.

I remember that it was hard. Very hard to find my stride again – and feeling I needed to keep my personal life separate from my work. Of course, I was also putting pressure on myself to perform at the same level too.

Here’s what I wish I’d known about my own mourning needs:

  • While my expectation (and that of others) was that work and personal life should be separate, I brought my grief to work with me every day.
  • Mourning is a demanding process; physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. For a time it was part of every breath.
  • Even if people were uncomfortable speaking to me about my dad, I wish they had. It would have been easier to manage emotionally than the feeling of isolation because no one spoke about my loss.
  • My concentration and energy levels were not what they were before my father’s death. I needed room to work within the temporary limitations of my loss.
  • I wish my direct supervisor would have been open to renegotiating assignment expectations to ease my stress about returning to work in a state of loss.

According to The Grief Index: The Hidden Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace (2003) the lack of understanding of grief is a challenge to businesses. While grief is a normal and natural response to a major loss, it is generally not resolved by the time an employee returns to work from bereavement leave. Actually, by the time one returns to work the initial shock of the loss is only just beginning to wear off. The returning employee is really starting the larger grief journey and so is mourning while resuming their work responsibilities.

Deb Buehler is a certified funeral celebrant, certified creative grief practitioner and professional writer. She works virtually and in-person with individuals and families as they tell their stories of grief and loss. Deb co-authored The Hollowed Heart; Inspiration for Women Awakening from Grief and Loss. You can learn more about Deb and her services at www.growingbeyondgrief.com or contact her directly at deb@growingbeyondgrief.com

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