Before your child died, you probably knew someone in the workplace who suffered a traumatic loss – a home fire, cancer diagnosis, messy divorce, public bankruptcy, or even a spousal death. You likely expressed sympathy for them, imagining how you’d feel in their shoes, and that empathy cushion guided your response. However, the trauma experienced after the death of a child is unimaginable. Any parent employed by the firm may try to imagine what it would be like if it had happened to them, but it didn’t happen to them; it happened to you. And you can’t expect anyone at work to understand how disemboweled you feel or to fathom how hard it was to return, or to realize how impossible it is to believe things will ever be “normal” again.
Agnes, a newly bereaved parent, explained her workplace re-entry this way: “I’ve always loved working in a small, close-knit office, but now it is the absolute pits. If I cry, my supervisor questions if I’m really ready to come back, but if I act normal, does that mean I’m ‘over it’? How do I ever get over losing my daughter? Everybody here knew Ellen, but since I came back to work, nobody has mentioned her name or even talked about their own kids, either. Suddenly it’s like we live in a ghost town where none of us has kids anymore.
“But what I hate most is how people suddenly stop laughing whenever I enter a room. And maybe I would resent it – them finding something funny when my child was put in the ground last week. But them trying to make me feel like things are normal makes me feel like crying because I know it’s my fault everyone is so miserable. That’s how I feel – like now I’m a workplace pollutant.”
Statistically, bereaved parents are many times more likely to consider suicide, to have marriages crumble, to self-medicate, and to suffer from clinical depression. But no two outcomes are the same, and some people work through their grief and find grace more readily than others — not because they loved their child less, but because they biologically are wired to handle things differently. Likewise, some will dread returning to work while others may relish the idea of finding a sanctuary – the single place where perhaps they might find respite, for a brief moment even, from the mountain of grief awaiting their return to the home (and/or life) that their child no longer occupies.
Everyone expresses and experiences grief in their own unique way. If you could write a memo to your co-workers before returning to work, stating how you’d like to be treated once you get there, what would you write? On re-entry, do you think you might need a shoulder now and then, or some schedule flexibility, or do you think you’d prefer minimal interaction with others the first couple days? Would you be more comfortable if people acknowledged your loss or if they simply patted you on the back or gave a meaningful wave and went on with their jobs?
After you have an idea how you’d like to be treated, can you convey that to your colleagues? If not, is there a co-worker you might enlist as an advocate – to say to others what you want said?
Everyone will want to help, but no one will know how or what to say. The more you can control your own re-entry, the more you can signal to others what you really would find helpful and what would ambush you. You owe that to yourself as well as to your friends and co-workers.