Today I’m writing on a subject that seems to be rearing its ugly head more and more, so I thought it was time to share about my experience. It’s a topic that affects us all at some point and one that we (the grieving) meet with much trepidation.
I see it daily and fretfully hear the angst and dread when another grieving soul must return to work. I feel their pain and understand their sadness. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Work. The last thing most of us want to do as we are immersed so deeply in our grief, yet financially many have no choice. However, for some work provides a refuge, a needed reprieve to distract from the haunting reality of our loss allowing us to catch our breath. And for others, it’s a chilling reminder of the life that once was bringing to the surface the emotional terror of the words “moving on.”
In my circumstance, after losing a child, returning to work was the last thing I wanted to do. It’s very unfortunate that most of us do not have a choice and must return long before we are ready.
For bereavement leave at work, the majority of us are given 3-5 days, which is hardly a drop in the bucket. It’s ridiculous to even think that a grieving person, let alone a grieving parent, would be able to return to work after just five days and actually be able to function. It sounds weird, but thankfully, I was injured in the accident that took my daughter’s life, otherwise, my husband would not have been eligible for the FMLA, forcing him to return to work in a few short days. Bizarre, yet unfortunately it’s the ugly truth.
I returned to work three and a half months after the accident…after the memorial, the viewing, the burial, and the end of life as I knew it. And then there was WORK. It was always in the back of my mind haunting me.
I know I have to go back… in 90 days, 60 days, 21 days, 8 days..etc.
I don’t want to go back.
If I go back that will mean life is moving on.
It’s not fair.
The last time I worked there my daughter was alive. And so it kept going……it haunted me…for three months…..until that dreaded day.
Thankfully, my employer was very supportive throughout my grief and transition, yet still the mounting pressure would creep upon me, making me feel a sense of guilt for not going back sooner and pushing me to go back when I wasn’t ready. But would I have ever been ready? I don’t know.
God however, had blessed me enormously with generous people to work with, many kind-hearted people donating their hard-earned vacation and sick leave to me, easing the financial burden during this time. For this, I am forever grateful. Being in law enforcement, I was fortunate enough to have a compassionate group of co-workers and many others from the county in which I worked, donate time to me, allowing me to stay home longer and receive a paycheck. I am very thankful for these people who opened their hearts and gave this gift to me and my family. I was donated enough time to have six months off of work, however, I felt the pressure to return after 3 ½ months. In retrospect, I wish I would have waited and spent the time with my son who was hurting without his sister. (story for another day.)
And then suddenly, the day had come. The countdown was over.
I will never forget that first day back. I had dreaded it for some time, often interfering with my day on many occasions, haunting my mind, as I counted down the days until my return. I was nervous and trembling. Strategically, I had to plan the “new” route I was going to take to work and allow for extra drive time due to the detour. I couldn’t bring myself to drive that stretch of highway where the accident occurred, knowing that my Lydia was no longer riding with me. No more stops at our coffee drive thru getting bagels and hot chocolate on our morning commutes. The thought was excruciating.
I mapped out two different routes to take, one nearly doubling my 30 minute commute, and the alternative, added an extra 15 minutes on a gravel road. I weighed my options. The extra 30 minutes it was.
As I opened the door, I swallowed the enormous lump in my throat and walked down the hall towards my office. Some of my co-workers met me in the hallway, giving me hugs, telling me they were glad I was back while some purposefully didn’t make eye contact and avoided me. This was the place I had spent years, and instantly I was reminded that the last time I was here, my daughter was alive. My eyes began to blur, swelling with tears as I walked down that hall and stood outside my office door. Looking inside, my office was decorated in pictures Lydia had drawn, a reminder of the beautiful soul my baby girl had and the proud mother who happily displayed her art work. It was over whelming but comforting at the same time.
I sat at my desk and stared at the wall, the computer screen, and was complete in the moment. It felt like a dream. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. I was in another world and I kept thinking….
This is insane. What in the world am I doing here? I don’t belong here, my daughter just died, don’t people get it?
It was the first of the many years the feelings of guilt would emerge. I was ashamed, guilt ridden, saddened, remorseful, and not myself. I couldn’t remember anything as forgetfulness became my best friend.
Returning to work has both positives and negatives. It poses a great distraction for a while, until that moment sneaks up on you and you are boldly reminded of what used to be, and someone says the wrong thing causing you to burst into tears.
Just before I returned to work, my employer and co-workers had a special training by mental health counselors regarding how to deal with me when I returned, something I learned several months later. (I’m still not sure what they were taught or if it worked but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.)
As the days progressed, I was met by a select few who would greet me in the mornings and check in on me during the day, which lasted for about 3 weeks and then suddenly stopped, making me realized then, that I was alone. It reminded me of those that came to see me at home during my leave, and when I returned to work, acted like they didn’t know me or care anymore. It was very strange and not going to lie, it hurt…bad. These were the people who would go home after work to their normal lives, not giving a second thought to what I had to go home to: an empty house, heartbreaking silence and a room full of memories and a life lost.
I found myself trying to act normal around others so as not to make them uncomfortable, and it seemed it was always me being the strong one, keeping it together for my family and friends. Soon, it became a tough act to maintain. Why do we the grieving feel so compelled to do this? Because it’s easier to play the game and avoid reality, while we try to make everyone else not act like a deer in the headlights when it comes to knowing what to say.
How do co-workers and friends handle the awkwardness? At times, it feels like you are an alien or an outcast of sorts. The stares, looks, avoidance, are tough to swallow.
There will be the co-workers who check in on you daily from the moment you return for months who demonstrate a genuine love and concern, then you will have the ones that talk with you briefly and then go back to their own life, those that are afraid to make eye contact and don’t know what to say, those that tend to your every need during your time off and when you return, won’t give you the time of day, those who are afraid to speak your loved ones name, those who joke around with you like nothing ever happened, those who will share stories and hugs, not afraid to hear about your loss (those are very rare and such a blessing), those who will be your friends on Facebook yet go all out to avoid you when you’re out in the community. Yes, grief and loss does crazy things to people.
Grief is painful and oh so frightening, for the grieving and also for the co-worker.
I was full of anger, resentment, bitterness, loneliness, shame, guilt (my self-prescribed daily dose of toxic medicine) And I was completely unable to function. Panic attacks and anxiety set in as triggers were all around me causing me to avoid people, places and anything that brought on a painful memory. It took me a few years to get myself back together again…and even then, I still wasn’t complete.
Here are my tips for when a grieving co-worker returns…..
- Acknowledge the loss…so important. Tell us you’re sorry. Speak their name. We just need you to be there, ask how we are doing, check in with us. We the grieving are not going to tell you what we need. We are going to tell you that we are okay lots of times, but deep down we’re not.
- Tell them you are glad they are back. I remember specifically, one person from our local sheriff’s office who I ran into on my way to Court one day. He came up, gave me a big hug and said genuinely, “I’m so glad you’re back.” This was a prominent memory and welcoming feeling that I so desperately needed and I will never forget this small yet very impactful gesture.
- Realize that the grief will go up and down and is very unpredictable-As a co-worker, you must understand that grief is not predictable. The stages of grief go in no specific order and come and go for years. Random moments, triggers, comments can bring back those raw feelings of grief like it was yesterday. Again, please don’t judge. Try to be supportive, patient and understanding as best you can.
- Don’t expect them to get over it in a month, year or five years. I was told by a coworker that, “it’s been two years.” Time to get over it…I carried around much anger and frustration after this for quite some time. After much prayer and asking God to help me forgive, I was able to let it go. I soon realized that they didn’t have a clue as to my life or what life was like after losing a child. Something I will never get “over.”
- Be patient with them-offer to assist with workload. Returning to work can be overwhelming making productivity nearly impossible.
- Be available to talk- and listen, offer a hug, smile, or take them to coffee. Small gestures can go a long way.
- Try to remember the loved ones anniversary or birthday-These dates are sacred to the grieving and any acknowledgment is welcomed with great appreciation and anticipation.
- Be aware that grieving people most likely feel alone and singled out- I was embarrassed, ashamed and alone. No one had been down the road I was on. No one could provide comfort, guidance, or tell me it was going to be alright. Do not say you know how they feel or it will get better-or stare at them.
- Try to pay attention to the children and siblings affected by the loved one passing. After Lydia died, my son who was 3 at the time, received so many gifts from books, blankets, playdates, toys etc. which were so wonderful. Something to keep him occupied was needed and most importantly it was so comforting he was remembered.
- Realize that being around other families, events, functions and children is very difficult, understanding their life will never be the same. And, yet on the flip side, please don’t complain about them smiling or laughing- when a grieving parent or person forgets their burden just long enough so smile or speak a laugh momentarily, a milestone has been reached. They are leaving their reality for a brief time, please don’t judge or complain thinking they have no reason to smile.