Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 04/14/2015

Returning to work after the death of your child

live after lossBefore 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.


  1. Jodi, It would be wonderful if a parent were able to articulate what they need so soon after the loss of their child, but I know for myself that I just did not know what I needed. I didn’t know what was “normal,” I was still in shock, trying to be brave but crumbling unexpectedly or freezing up unexpectedly or any of these, somewhere in between.

    Perhaps there are some pamphlets or smallish booklets that someone knows about that they can share with the rest of us. It might be easier than having to create your own. Or it might help someone think about what they need (which changes hourly). It’s just a thought.

    Some people do work that doesn’t require much interaction with others and some have work that does. Each situation is so unique. My husband’s workplace, a small company, had the employees gather when my husband returned to work and he told everyone what happened. He works pretty much on his own doing hard thinking (computer work and design work) so he didn’t have to interact much with others a lot and was able to work slowly as he tried to manage his grief while at work. I, on the other hand, work one-on-one with people and was able to adapt my schedule. I needed a lot of time in-between the interactions with others. In social situations I had a much more difficult time as I could not handle too much noise and cheerful interactions. It took all my energy just to get through those encounters and when I would leave I’d cry in the car all the way home.

    These are just my thoughts. I’m sure others will have something to add. I hope they do as this is a very important topic.

  2. Thank you Jody for another helpful and important post. Returning to work was excruciating for me 4 years ago. I worked in the hospital where my son died and where all his post-surgical complications occurred. I cried all the way in to work, during work many times and all the way home…for months. One of the worst things for me, besides the constant barrage of reminders, was the constant small talk that nearly sent me running for my life over and over again. Often I hid in the bathroom or an empty patient room to cry until I could get myself back together. I guess if my co-workers were aware that my emotions would run from A-Z all day long. That one minute, a hug and caring comment would help me and the next minute, the same would send me to my knees. That there was no controlling it some times and absolutely no way to avoid the pain and tears that were just below the surface. Overall it is much better for them to mention what happened, offer their sorrow and say that if there is anything I may have needed to let them know. I work with nurses who by nature are compassionate and that saved me from quitting before I did. I am happy to say I no longer work there and no longer work as a nurse. And that has been OK for me and my family. A grieving parent needs something akin to FMLA for up to a year or more upon returning to work. They need to be able to leave early, work half a day, work part time temporarily…whatever it takes to successfully make the horrifically painful transition back to the “real” world without our child. Thank you!

    • Mary,

      I completely agree with your comments about a grieving parent needing something akin to FMLA, or being offered part-time, half day options returning from the trauma and life altering shock of losing a child. It would be beneficial to both the parent and the company in numerous ways. Most employers want their employees to be functional, and want to see the grieving parent improve. However most employers simply do not understand how injured and dysfunctional the grieving parent really is! Businesses and society in general believe no matter what you face, you are expected to be strong and move on. Unfortunately compassion has it’s own time table in everyone’s mind formed from society’s conditioning or individuals experiences with loss.

      I am a Network Architect for a large retail company. My 21 year old daughter was killed in a car accident almost 2 years ago, a half a mile from our home and where I work. I went back to work 3 weeks after, well I showed up anyway. Actually working was basically impossible for months and months. Even now I’m no where near as capable as I was prior. My job entailed planning for the future of the business’s network and keeping it operational, something I was unable to even do for myself or my family. I am fortunate that I work with some really great people and my boss and his boss have been very flexible and kind in helping me to continue finding my way back.

      I didn’t have the courage to ask to go part-time; feeling it could possibly jeopardize my job. My husband was self-employed contractor and basically lost his ability to motivate himself to sell himself or his services, so our financial survival depended on me to keep us going.

      One way, I believe others could help bereaved parents and themselves is to educate businesses and society. Sometimes I think that bereaved parents serve as a reminder to others what really matters in life, an open heart reflecting Love and Compassion. Unfortunately way too many people are of the mindset that things should go on as they always did; business as usual.

  3. Here is the thing! What if your job is the reason your child is dead?

  4. […] given to your friend so you don’t have to accept them and risk a breakdown at work. You also can take control of the transition by visiting your workplace ahead of your first day back and letting your […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: