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Going back to work after bereavement

Returning to work after a bereavement

After the death of a loved one, returning to work may feel like the last thing you want to do. Though some people prefer to return quickly to get back into a routine, a lot of grieving people struggle to get back into their professional lives.

In an ideal world, all employers, managers and co-workers would be educated about grief, through initiatives like Compassionate Employers. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case, and you may come up against comments and attitudes that you find hurtful or ignorant. You might struggle with your workload or be distracted by upsetting thoughts of your loved one. It’s likely that going back to work after bereavement will not be easy, but there are some ways you may be able to make it slightly better.

Make sure your co-workers are prepared

You will probably have been in contact with your boss or HR department after the death of your loved one. Before you return to work, you may want to discuss whether or not to inform your co-workers about what has happened.

Making sure they know can help you avoid any awkward questions that might be upsetting. You could also ask your manager to ask your co-workers to not mention the death of your loved one, if that is want you want. Or, you could tell your manager that you would prefer if people didn’t ignore the issue. They can then pass along this information and make the process less uncomfortable for you.

Plan for small talk

The workplace is full of small talk. Questions like, “How are you?” or “What have you been up to?” might seem normal to everyone else, but for you they might feel impossible to answer.

Think up or even jot down a few standard replies that will deflect the conversation away from anything too painful. Think about conversation topics that might be hard for you and think about how you could steer the conversation away from them. Asking people questions about their own lives is an easy way to turn focus away from you if you don’t want to discuss personal matters.

Develop strategies for staying focused

Grief often has a huge impact on your ability to concentrate. Even the smallest project may feel like an impossible task. Your attention span may be shorter and you may find yourself easily distracted and forgetful.

Even if you’ve never needed things like to-do lists and personal organisers, now might be the time to start. Classic time management tricks like breaking jobs down into smaller tasks and having a short break every hour can help you feel less distracted during the working day.

Find a quiet place to be alone

Prepare yourself for the fact that you may get overwhelmed and start to cry or panic. When this happens, it can be really helpful to have a place to go where you can be alone.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a private work space, you could go to the bathroom, find an empty meeting room, or go outside for some fresh air. If none of these are an option, talk to your manager to work out where you can go for a break if you need to.

Forgive yourself for your mistakes

Juggling work with the demands of grief is difficult at the best of times. Between your emotions, lack of concentration, and work-related stress, you may make mistakes. Your work might not be as of high a standard as before your loved one died.

Neither you nor your manager should expect you to be back to peak performance straight away. You could double-check your work or ask a co-worker to check it for you, but don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. It will take time for you to return to the routine of working life.

Keep talking to your manager or employer

Communicating with HR, your manager or employer is vital in the days and weeks after you return to work. If they are good at managing their employees, they will want to check in with you and make sure you are coping.

Even if they don’t set up a meeting to see how you are doing, make sure you let them know if anything could be improved. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for extra help if you need it.

For more information on coping with grief, visit our bereavement support page, and read more about the importance of workplace bereavement support.