The first few months following the death of our son were spent in daze. I was sleeping whenever I could and incapable to function properly when I was awake. Indeed, extreme tiredness is a common symptom of grief in the early stages. Despite this, there is currently no legal obligation for UK employers to provide bereavement leave as standard, paid or otherwise. Even though some people will welcome going back to the office and the distraction that work provides, for many it is simply impossible. It took my husband weeks before he could resume his business. Luckily his clients were understanding but our finances were not as forgiving. I still had half a year left of maternity leave and my surviving twin son to look after.
I can still remember how nervous I felt when I walked in the office. I was terrified I would not be able to hold back the tears and that I would look unprofessional. And indeed I did burst into tears quite a few times and even had to take refuge in meeting rooms. But it was only ever met by the unfortunate witnesses with kindness and understanding.
I was also worried that my relationship with my colleagues would be changed. I was conscious that lots of people feel awkward when speaking to a bereaved person, probably because the loss of a loved one is something that terrifies us all and, even though it is an inevitable part of life and touches everyone; somehow grief is a most embarrassing topic in our western cultures, it seems almost taboo. And there is no guidebook to handle loss, and no perfect words to make a grieving person feel better. They simply do not exist. Some might even fear they would utter the wrong words and clumsily decide to avoid the subject entirely.
But on the contrary I was made to feel welcome back. It could just be silent hugs, or kind words from colleagues who bravely came to tell me how sorry they were for my loss. An incredibly busy partner even spent over an hour listening to my story. I suspect the HR department played a big part in making my return to work as smooth as possible and making sure everyone was informed of my situation. It would have been difficult for me to let people know and very upsetting to face their reaction.
I think it is important that employees are contacted by their employer after a loss, first to be offered condolences and then, when they are ready, to discuss how much they want their colleagues to know and what would help them on their return to work. Some will want it to remain private, their absence referred to as “for personal reasons” and stay focused on work matters; others will find it easier if their circumstances are shared with the team and will welcome kind gestures and support.
Another way an employer might be able to help is by offering an Employee Assistance Programme that focuses on their employees’ mental health. Through this programme I could get counselling sessions which helped me enormously.
On the whole, I welcomed going back to work. My fantastic colleagues, supportive managers and a very helpful flexible working arrangement made it much easier than I thought it would be. But soon I started dreading the approaching first anniversary of my son’s death. It fell on a non-working day. Yet I did not expect the days leading to it to affect me that much. The day before, I had to leave the office around lunch time because my arms felt as heavy as lead and I was unable to concentrate on work. After that, I decided to book the anniversary of his burial too, knowing full well that I would not be able to work on that day. The second anniversary was not much easier but I was more prepared for it and made sure I had enough time off.
There are times that can be extremely sensitive for mourning employees and require them to stay away from the office. The anniversary of death is an obvious one, so is the birthday of the departed. There might also be cultural or religious rituals to perform or an inquest to attend if the death was unexpected.
These are the ones you can expect and prepare for. But the nature of grief is that it is unpredictable. The tiniest trigger can cause an uncontrollable outburst of tears. Those who seem to be coping with their loss one minute may find themselves howling the next. For some, it is their body that takes the toll and they end up sick much more often that they usually are.
Co-workers and employers need to acknowledge that grief is a long journey and that their bereaved colleague might never be as they used to be before their loss. It does not mean they can’t be hard working and pleasant people to be around. Even though I can’t get over my grief, I am learning to live with it and I am moving forward, while keeping my baby angel forever tucked in my heart.”