Returning to work or study after losing your child is a terrifying experience. I found the whole idea of returning to my workplace overwhelming and quite frankly, impossible, after losing Xavier at two weeks old to SIDS. How could I go back to the place where I happily shared my pregnancy? Where the last things I received where baby gifts and cards and the last thing I gave was a heart-wrenching email about Xavier’s death? Where I had intended to bring Xavier to share with my friends and colleagues? There were a number of things that helped me that I want to share with you.
I work in an office and was able to negotiate part time work, so the things that helped me may not apply in all situations, but hopefully some will resonate:
- If your circumstances allow, try to ease yourself back into work by going in and catching up with people over morning tea or lunch before returning to your employment. I found this incredibly helpful and it meant that the initial contact, with the accompanying condolences and embraces, occurred outside of an actual working day. If I needed to leave, I could. If I need to break down, it didn’t feel as unprofessional. I also think it helped everyone else’s comfort levels. I returned for a few hours every week for about two months. This meant that by the time I was back into my actual job, I circumvented the uncomfortable silences, the awkward conversations and the occasional but inevitable person who would avoid me altogether.
- The first time I stepped inside my building I was filled with fear – I was returning to known territory as a completely unknown person. But that apprehension lessened each time I returned – with every first, know that it will be the hardest and easier times lie ahead.
- It helped me to know the “lay of the land”. I wanted to ensure that everyone I could potentially come into contact with knew about Xavier. So I asked one of my colleagues to inform those I worked with outside the firm about what had happened. This helped me avoid painful questions about how the baby was doing.
- People really don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a child. Be open about what you want and need. If you have someone you trust and respect at work, ask them to be your spokesperson so that they can inform others of your needs. I had my boss do this and it made a large difference.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself. I had expected that I would be able to work at the pace I did before leaving. That was an unrealistic expectation. My concentration span was much shorter. It took me longer to achieve seemingly basic tasks. My addiction to social media, which I used to access a group of parents who also had experienced a similar loss, did not suddenly disappear because I was in the work place. All of this did improve, and after several months I was much closer to the productivity I used to achieve.
- Don’t expect work to provide an immediate distraction. One of my reasons for returning to employment was to think about something other than Xavier. But no matter how complex the problem on my desk, it was never as difficult to fathom as why Xavier died. Eventually, work has become a distraction but that has also been tied to the natural ebbs and flows of grief. I had to get to the point where work was able to be a distraction.
- Be aware that there will be triggers at work. Emails and other documents written prior to when Xavier died seemed almost mocking. Inevitably, co-workers will fall pregnant. And you will no doubt be surprised, as I was, to hear about others who have experienced the loss of a baby or child within their own families who will now tell you their stories.
- Work did help me feel purposeful and useful again. When Xavier died I felt that I had failed him as a mother – failed him in my simple job as protector. My self esteem took a very large blow and work helped restore that, within time.
- Don’t expect that your return to work will look the same as your partners. My husband returned to work a fortnight after Xavier died. It took me a few months before I could manage it. He seemed to crave work as an escape – not just from his grief, but from the house and everything in it that served as a reminder. For me, those reminders were hard but comforting. The house was were I felt safe and being outside of it was harder.
- If your role includes managing other people, see if that part of your role can be lifted for a little while if you think you need it. Dealing with the complaints and minutiae of working day life is difficult and draining enough without constantly screaming to yourself “what on earth are you complaining about?” and wondering why people don’t understand their blessings.
- In the months before returning to work, I had time to devote to Xavier. Whether it was writing or crafting or just going for a walk. After I returned to work, that time diminished significantly. Be aware of this and think about how you might handle it. You will still need time to devote to your child.
Above all be gentle with yourself and realistic with your expectations.