Returning to work after a bereavement

The last two years has seen a huge amount of bereavement. How should workplaces best deal with grieving employees when everyone’s experience of grief is different?

Sad, Depressed woman


How should we deal with bereavement in the workplace? Having to return to work after a bereavement can be difficult to negotiate.

Part of the problem is other people’s reactions or non-reactions. They may not know what to say and simply avoid talking about what has happened or even avoid the grieving person involved altogether. They may make comments without thinking that are deeply hurtful. They may give the impression that they expect the person to ‘move on’ fairly quickly without understanding that grief is something that doesn’t diminish with time. People just learn how to deal with it.

Amber Jeffrey started up her blog, The Grief Gang, when her mother died suddenly from a heart attack in 2016.

She says returning to work can be one of the hardest and yet, in some cases, easiest things to do after losing a loved one in that it can be a distraction from the rollercoaster of grief. “We all cope differently in our journeys,” she says.

When she returned to work a week after her mum died – she was on probation at the time – she said she could ‘get away’ with being the new girl as few people knew her.

Although she was told by managers that she didn’t need to be there, Amber says she needed an escape. “My job was my escape,” she says. “For those eight hours of the day I just got to be Amber.” If used right, she says, it can be a healthy getaway, but it can rebound on you later down the road. She describes ‘griefy days’ later on when she didn’t want to get up.

Management was very supportive, however, although one manager was a bit difficult on one occasion. Amber had found a person to do her work when she had to be off to see her mum’s body in the chapel of rest at a time when no annual leave was allowed. The manager had queried it and when told the reason said it was fine, but ‘only on this occasion’.

She says when she had her ‘griefy days’ she would tell managers and says this was mostly met with respect and care. She advises keeping lines of communication open with work and letting them know of major things that are going on in your personal life that will affect your work. “If you are having a bit of a wobbly at least they know why,” she says, and they can provide support if necessary. “You have to be honest with them,” she adds. For instance, if you want to take time off or reduce your hours or work alone if you find teamwork difficult at first or if there are particularly difficult days.

She says she had a fairly good experience of returning to work, but agrees it can be difficult for many. They may be expected to slot back into their lives, she says, but the workplace itself may be full of triggers. People may have heard the news of the bereavement at work, for instance. 

Amber, who works in the airline industry, has since changed jobs and says she has let her new colleagues know what has happened and asked if they have any support available. Her experience was very positive. Her manager not only gave her some resources, but told Amber to come back to her the following week to tell her what she could do to help her. “Good management can help a grieving person so much,” she says.

*Amber is recording and releasing another episode on bereavement and the workplace on her podcast that will include stories and accounts from her audience.

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