Returning to work after a bereavement
Cruse Project Manager Lucy Dennis looks at the challenges faced when returning to work after a bereavement.
In June 2020 my life changed forever when my dad died. I was 24 and had been working for 18 months at a charity close to my heart, and although I knew dad was going to die because he had been terminally ill for those 18 months, I had no idea how his death would impact my working life.
There is no handbook for returning to work following the death of a loved one (although I strongly believe all organisations should have such a tool) therefore a lot of those first few months I had to learn the hard way and figure it out on my own.
If you have been bereaved, or know someone who has, hopefully this blog will help you navigate returning to work, so you can adapt to this ‘new normal’ and get the best support possible from your employer.
Communicate with your employer
I cannot express how important communication is whilst you try to navigate grief. First thing you need to do is speak to your employer, let them know your situation and find out what leave you are entitled to. A lot of organisations don’t have a bereavement policy in place, and if you are unsure of your employee rights then you can seek support through the ACAS helpline.
When you are ready to return to work, speak to your manager about any reasonable adjustments you might need. In the early days, grief can feel completely all-encompassing and it can be hard to focus on work or perform in high pressured roles.
Some questions you might like to discuss with your employer or line manager before returning include the following.
- Is there an opportunity for phased return to work? Could you do part-time or reduced hours for the first few weeks?
- How could they support you to manage your workload? Where is it possible to reprioritise work or could some be passed on to other team members?
If they aren’t sure how best to support you, give them a nudge in our direction for some guidance for employers who are supporting an employee returning to work.
Let them know how things have changed
You have experienced a huge loss and life looks different now. Perhaps you are having to manage ‘death admin’, or maybe you are experiencing mental or physical side effects of grief. Whatever it is, try and keep your manager in the loop – it will help them support you.
Things you might like to share could include the following.
- Tell them about any outstanding commitments or administration you have which might mean taking time out in working hours – for example: managing your loved one’s estate, sorting or clearing their home, taking on care responsibilities for loved ones or pets.
- You might want to share important dates or trigger dates – for example birthdays, anniversaries, fathers/mothers days.
- I would highly recommend sharing any physical or mental side effects of grief. For me this one was really important to allow my manager to support me to the best of their ability – some examples may include anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia. Physical side effects are very normal in grief, you can read more about them on our website.
- Lastly, but certainly not least, you might want to share how you would like to be supported on bad days. Are you someone who wants to power through them with little interaction? Or perhaps you’re like me and you appreciate someone holding space for you to be vulnerable in.
Top tip – If you know how you best respond to support, let your manager and team know.
Be gentle with yourself
It is so easy for us to default to survival mode. This might be throwing yourself back into work full force and picking up all the responsibilities you had before your loss. For some, this might work and it might never catch up with them. For others, returning to ‘normal’ might feel completely impossible.
Be gentle with yourself. Grief takes everything we know about the world, shakes it around and leaves things upside down, sideways and backwards. Over time, things will begin to look and feel as familiar again but in the beginning make sure you are giving yourself time to adjust to this ‘new normal’ and find your feet.
Remember, you are not going crazy
Navigating those early days of grief can feel relentless, you can feel like you are losing your mind trying to manage all these new emotions. Take a moment to step back and breathe. You are not going crazy, the brain fog you feel is absolutely real and this new level of exhaustion you feel at the end of the working day? That is your body processing all the change and the loss.
Find ways to manage those overwhelming moments. Take a step away from your laptop, grab some fresh air, listen to some music or maybe call a friend. Grief doesn’t shut off in working hours, the best way to manage and grow with your grief is to learn how to make space for it at all times of the day.
Accept that sometimes, going back isn’t the best thing for you
I speak to a lot of people that try for months, sometimes years, to return to their roles with just as much gusto and energy as before their incredible loss. The reality is, sometimes things change so much and the ‘new normal’ is so far from the old that actually it is best to accept the change.
If you have taken extended periods of time off work following a bereavement, this might be the case for you. It might not mean a complete career change, but perhaps a new role with less responsibility. Or maybe you need to have a completely new career, somewhere that you can exist in this ‘new normal’ without constant reminders of your old life.
Top tip – if you have extended time off from work, returning to routine can be incredibly difficult. Try and get into the habit of having a routine that centres around working hours, this will make returning much easier when the time comes – you could perhaps ease yourself back in with volunteering for a few hours a week.
Ask for help
You are never alone in grief, and there is always support out there for you. Returning to work can feel like one of the most difficult moments following a death, it’s often the first sign of your ‘new normal’ following the funeral. Feeling overwhelmed and lost is completely normal.
Lucy Dennis is Project Manager for Cruse’s new Connecting Communities project. Previously she worked at Cancer Research UK where she set up a Grief and Bereavement Network for employees. Lucy also co-hosts a podcast called The Grief Sofa, interviewing people who have been bereaved. The Grief Sofa episode on grief in the workplace