Getting back to work or study after loss

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.


Work, Identity and Motherhood

It happens when your child turns a year old.  Mothers group friends start to spend more time in paid work and less  time at coffee gatherings.  People start to ask whether you are returning to work soon.  Others start to presume that you have decided to forgo your career.  And suddenly impermanent maternity leaves feels a whole lot more permanent that you had intended it to.

My career has always been important to me.  One of my anchors.  It has been a part of me, integral to my identity. The way I want to see myself and the way I would like others to view me.

A year after Isaac was born, I was back to work.  It was busy and stressful.  Our family committed itself to the hamster wheel of waking, child-care, working, sleeping.  My work was interesting and fulfilling but the lifestyle did not feel sustainable.  In fact, I kept waiting for the balls I was juggling to drop.  Invariably, the one that did related to my own self-care.  For the first time in my life I felt that what I was sacrificing for my career was too much.  Not only was it too much, no-one seemed to be acknowledging the sacrifice.  After asking myself some hard questions, I stepped down from a senior position and negotiated a two day a week role that did not involve managing people.  Did I go backwards in my career?  No doubt.  Was it the right decision for my family? Yes.  Was I incredibly lucky to work for a company that values family life, its employees and was open to this idea? A resounding and grateful yes.

It was while working within this role that I said hello and goodbye to Xavier.  I returned to work a few months later. That return was not spurred by a desire to advance my career.  There were a myriad of other reasons.  I was grasping for anything that made sense and gave me structure.  My world had blown apart, and I was picking up the tattered pieces, trying to put them together again.  But they did not easily slot back into the places they once did.  Priorities had shifted.  Perspective had changed.  Work gave me a place to go.  Things to do.  A place where my frayed self-confidence could repair itself.  But I did not think of work in the context of purpose or identity.   My life was on auto-pilot and I was in survival mode.

As Elijah turned one and I did not return to work, I felt a loss of identity.  I am due to return in January, giving me another six months with my precious boy.   I have started to take the reins of my life again.  I am no longer in auto-pilot mode but those priorities have still shifted. Yet, the prospect of not going back to work has left me at sea without an anchor I once relied on.  I think that anchor is probably more about purpose than career.  And I have yet to figure out what that purpose is.  Whilst I am sure that my career will still be a large part of it, I need to understand it within the context of a different perspective.

Contentment CompassOne of the things that I do love about my workplace is their dedication to personal development.  It is not some thing we often do outside of the structure of work or education.  But I knew I had to get down on paper what was scrambled in my head.  To that end, I created a series of steps to assess my life as it is, centred around the things that are most important to me.  I have decided to share those worksheets in the hopes that they may help others who are feeling a little lost within their own lives.

If you do decide to use these worksheets, give yourself some time and space to focus just on yourself.  I hope that you find them useful.

Step 1 – Contement Compass

Step 2 – Time and Importance Mind Map

Step 3 – what is important to me

Step 4 – Goals and Achieving Them