Returning to Work After a Loss, by Rachel Kodanez

Hands clasped together as for prayer

Returning to the workplace may be beneficial to a bereaved employee, as it can provide a goal and a purpose in a new world that is confusing and chaotic. But after the death of an employee's loved one, the return to work also can be an intimidating experience. Often the anticipation of the return to work is harder than the return itself. For most people, the return to work will prove to be beneficial over time, especially if some easy and compassionate steps are taken on the part of co-workers and management.

If the return to work follows an extended absence, it is recommended that the manager meet with the employee outside of the workplace prior to the return. This will give the grieving employee a chance to be briefed on the status of the work group's projects, any new policies that may have been implemented, and/or any personnel changes. Meeting prior to the return to work will allow the grieving employee to digest some of the changes without feeling so overwhelmed.

In the early days of the return, the grieving employee sees many co-workers for the first time since the death and may face a workload that has fallen behind. The grieving employee may attempt to maintain a strong emotional front. Most grieving people "pretend" well and may try to not seem as though they are grieving when they really are.

Often there is a tendency for co-workers and managers to feel at a loss about what to do or say around a bereaved employee, resulting in awkward and unnatural behaviors. Co-workers may have a tendency to "hover" or unconsciously either follow or ignore the grieving employee. Co-workers need to be aware of, but not ignore, the bereaved. It will soften the awkwardness if co-workers have felt comfortable in stopping by the grieving employee's house during the bereavement leave or recognizing the loss in other ways such as a card, flowers, a bereavement gift, or other support gestures.

If a Human Resources person has been assisting during the employee's bereavement leave, s/he should visit the work site or otherwise contact the grieving employee to evaluate how the transition is going. If the Human Resources person was in contact with the family while the employee was away, this relationship can especially ease the transition back to work.

In an employee staff meeting, if it is the manager who is bereaved, subordinates may come into the room and stare without speaking. They do not want to burden the manager with what they may consider trivial topics. That situation can be eased by providing a subset of information to the manager before entering the meeting, and prioritizing the most important points. If the manager shows enthusiasm and remains focused, additional information can be provided. This will also occur if the bereaved employee is a member of a project team. The co-workers should be cognizant of the bereavement, and not ignore it.

The recovery process depends on successes and accomplishments. If a lighter work load can be provided for a brief time, it will allow the employee to feel as though s/he is contributing again. Offering shorter days to help with additional death-related issues relieves some of the stress, as well. For instance, a newly widowed, single parent may need a break to pick up children from daycare, or an employee whose parent has died may need extra time to sell the parent's home.

A grieving employee often carries to work strong emotional feelings that can reflect negative thoughts. In some cases, a dysfunctional family may be adding stress, a family member may be contesting the will, an uncle didn't attend the funeral, in-laws are not being supportive, or a child is suddenly wetting the bed and won't sleep. The returning bereaved employee may feel unpleasant, unwanted, lonely, betrayed, unsure, frustrated, angry and resentful. The employer's role is to be understanding about what the employee is feeling in an effort to not increase the hardships.

Be cautious about creating "labels" for the bereaved employee or the death. A grieving employee may be forever remembered as "the one whose child was hit by a car." The workplace needs to learn to be sensitive about "gossip." Even weeks, months or years later, a story may be told about an employee who died, and there may be a close family member or friend of the deceased in the audience. An example is a thirty-two-year-old employee who died of a heart attack in the office parking lot. Several years later the story was told in a meeting that the employee had worked too hard. Current employees were cautioned to be careful as "they could be next." Such examples are not productive or necessary.

The bereaved will generally continue to move forward with only an occasional setback, and with a little well-placed help, they will move forward again. The more supportive management and co-workers are, the sooner the employee will be able to adjust to the new situation. If co-workers and managers observe and encourage progress, it can help the bereaved tremendously.