How to Return to Work After the Loss of a Loved One

Experiencing the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult situations you may ever have to deal with. Each company has its own specific bereavement policy to support their employees’ non-work life. After you have been with your family during your bereavement leave, it can be extremely difficult to return to work. Not only are you dealing with the pain of your loss, but you also have to find a way to survive getting through the workday without falling apart. Simple things like even having a friendly conversation with a coworker can nearly bring you to tears. Trying to get through a phone call with a client can also be difficult and your emotions can easily come to the surface. This article will address how to return to your job after a time of bereavement.


1. Dealing with Coworkers' Questions

When you first return to the workplace, your coworkers may not know how to behave around you. They’ll probably feel uncomfortable because it’s difficult to gauge how you’re feeling and it’s an awkward situation for everyone. Figuring out the best way for you to respond to your colleagues’ questions and awkward attempts at conversation will be the main hurdle when you first return to the office. For example, you probably won’t even want to talk to anyone about your feelings because you’d most likely break down into tears. Even though those feelings are so raw and genuine, you want to try to remain professional in your behavior.

Consider the best way for you to respond by simply saying you’re fine and ready to get back to work. Obviously, you’re not either of those things. However, you should reserve your true feelings and raw emotional sharing for only close colleagues and friends. Additionally, become an expert at redirecting the conversation so that your colleague feels more comfortable. You’ll have a way out and can hurry back to your office, close the door and cry if you need to. For example, after saying you’re fine, ask a work-related question or tell them that you need to get back to your office to finish preparing an important report.

2. Simply Trying to Survive the Day

Once your initial return to the office turns into one, then two, and then three days, people will stop asking you how you’re doing. Not altogether, of course, but the awkwardness stage will dissipate. People will get busy with work again and you will be left to continue to do your job. However, simply trying to survive each day will be a trial in itself. Your emotional state will still be in upheaval. You’ll be trying to progress through the five stages of griefdenialangerbargainingdepression, and acceptance. Work is the last thing that will be on your mind. However, you need to find a way to step outside of your grief to keep moving forward in your work, even when you can’t think anymore and are clearly unfocused.

You must find some ways to survive the day. For example, writing notes for yourself will become a big part of your daily job. Not only creating task lists but also writing inspirational notes to yourself will help remind you to stay focused on what’s important in your life. You need to keep surviving for your family and friends, and that means trying to survive at work during this difficult time of loss. Don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed when you forget things because that will happen. You need to be patient with yourself while you’re moving toward the acceptance stage when your focus will become clearer. The loss will always be with you, but you’ll be able to operate like a normal functioning adult who is not going through a fresh loss.

Give yourself credit for making it back to the workplace. Consider using a to-do app to keep track of your daily work tasks. This will help you stay on course with what you need to accomplish each day, when you feel like going home to hide under the covers and cry until you have no more tears left.

3. Removing Negative Emotional Sparks

As you are moving through the stages of grief and trying to assimilate back into your job after a time of bereavement, you need to remove any negative emotional sparks. There are certain things that were part of your life before the loss that can cause you to go down a negative emotional spiral and that won’t help you try to survive your workday. You will never be able to avoid all types of situations that could trigger these emotions of grief. However, if you try to remove as many as possible from your daily work life, you will be in a better position to stay focused on work and not break down every minute. Of course, you need to actually feel all your emotions in order to properly heal and come to acceptance of your loss, but you can’t allow your emotions to rule your behavior in the workplace.

Consider some of the following possible emotional sparks that can send your positive progress into flames. If keeping a framed photograph of your loved one in the office helps you to process your grief in a healthy manner, then keep it on your desk where you can see it every day. However, if that becomes a negative spark for you, hide the photograph in your desk until you are able to look at it again when you’ve reached the acceptance stage. If you have any communications from this person, such as texts, phone messages or emails, you don’t need to delete them since you’ll most likely want to read them or replay them again in the future. However, avoid viewing or playing them during your grief-processing period.

If your loved one died in a tragic car accident, you might want to avoid listening to the news during your workday, in the event that you hear other tragic accident stories that can become an emotional spark. If some aspect of your job is an emotional spark, like working on a team advertising project for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, consider speaking to your supervisor to ask if you can be removed from working on that assignment.

4. Creating an Emotional Action Plan

Returning to work after a time of bereavement is nothing but difficult. You must therefore create an emotional action plan to help you make it through all five stages of your grief and expect that you’ll experience emotional breakdowns while you’re at work. However, this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, if you can lessen the negative effects by having an emotional action plan in place before any breakdowns occur.

For example, speak with your supervisor before you return to work or on your first day back. This will be an emotional and difficult conversation to have. However, you’ll need to speak with this person so that you lay everything on the table. You must share that you’re experiencing emotional difficulty but have every intention of trying to remain professional while performing your daily tasks. Part of your emotional action plan should include finding a work buddy who can become a support partner to turn to if you begin to feel a breakdown coming on. Make sure this colleague is someone that you trust and who can keep everything you share in confidence.

Finally, focus on the physical environment aspect of this action plan. For example, know where you’re going when a breakdown is occurring. Will you stay in your office and close the door? How will you ensure that no one bothers you during this time? If you work in a cubicle workstation, where will you go to cry and decompress emotionally? You can use the restroom facilities, your work buddy’s office, or ask your supervisor to have the conference room made available to you if necessary.

Dealing with a loss is such a difficult situation to deal with and having to return to work after that time of bereavement can be more than you think you can bear. If you’ve gone through a loss, how did you assimilate back into your job and deal with the factors discussed in this article? Let us know in the comments section below.