Tips to Support a Grieving Co-Worker Who Has Lost a Child
Work. It’s the last thing many of us want to do when we are immersed so deeply in our grief, but financially many don’t have a choice. For some people work provides a refuge, a needed reprieve to distract us from the haunting reality of our loss. Work allows us to catch our breath. But for others work can be a chilling reminder of the life we used to know, bringing to the surface the emotional terror of the words “moving on.”
Going back to work was the last thing I wanted to do after I lost my daughter. It’s unfortunate that most of us do not have a choice and must return long before we are ready. For bereavement leave at work, the majority of us are given between three and five days, which is hardly a drop in the bucket. It’s ridiculous to even think that a grieving person, let alone a grieving parent, would be able to return to work after just five days and actually be able to function.
It sounds weird, but thankfully I was injured in the accident that took my daughter’s life. Otherwise, my husband would not have been eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and would have been forced to return to work in a few short days. I returned to work three and a half months after the accident… after the memorial, the viewing, the burial and the end of life as I knew it. Work was always in the back of my mind haunting me.
“I know I have to go back in… 90 days, 60 days, 21 days, eight days..etc. I don’t want to go back. If I go back that will mean life is moving on. It’s not fair. The last time I worked there my daughter was alive.”
Thankfully my employer was very supportive throughout my grief and transition. They even hired a mental health counselor to help my co-workers deal with me when I was back in the office. The mounting pressure would creep upon me, making me feel a sense of guilt for not going back sooner and pushing me to go back when I wasn’t ready. But would I have ever been ready? I don’t know. Being in law enforcement I was fortunate enough to have a compassionate group of co-workers and many others from the county in which I worked. Some of them donated time to me and gave me the chance to stay home longer. It eased my financial burden by allowing me to receive a paycheck. I am very thankful for those people who gave that gift to me and my family. I was donated enough time to have six months off work, but I felt the pressure to return after three and a half. In retrospect, I wish I would have waited and spent the time with my son who was hurting without his sister (more on that story another day).
I will never forget that first day back at work. I was nervous and trembling. I had to strategically plan the “new” route I was going to take to work which added an extra 30 minutes to my drive time. I couldn’t bring myself to drive that stretch of highway where the accident occurred, knowing that my Lydia was no longer riding with me. There would be no more stops at our coffee shop drive-thru getting bagels and hot chocolate on our morning commute. The thought was excruciating.
When I got to work I opened the door and swallowed the enormous lump in my throat as I walked down the hall toward my office. Some of my co-workers met me in the hallway. Some of them hugged me and told me they were glad I was back, while others seemed to avoid me. This was the place I had spent years, and instantly I was reminded that the last time I was here, my daughter was alive. My eyes began to blur, swelling with tears as I walked down that hall and stood outside my office door.
I looked inside my office which was decorated with pictures Lydia had drawn, another reminder of the beautiful soul my baby girl had. I was so proud to display her artwork. It was overwhelming but comforting at the same time. I sat at my desk and stared at the wall and computer screen. It felt like a dream. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. It felt like I was in another world and I kept thinking to myself, “This is insane, what in the world am I doing here? I don’t belong here. My daughter just died, don’t people get it?”
As the days progressed I was met by a select few who would greet me in the mornings and check in on me during the day. That lasted for about three weeks and then suddenly stopped, making me realize then that I was alone. It reminded me of those people who came to see me at home during my leave, but when I returned to work they acted like they didn’t know me or care anymore. I am not sure if they gave a second thought to what I had to go home to — an empty house, heartbreaking silence and a room full of memories of a life lost. It was very strange and I am not going to lie, it hurt… bad.
When you are grieving you might also come across people who seem afraid to speak your lost loved one’s name, who joke around with you like nothing ever happened and those who will be your Facebook friend but will go all out to avoid you when you’re out in the community. But there are also those people will share stories and hugs with you, they are not afraid to hear about your loss. These people are very rare and such a blessing.
I found myself trying to act normal around others so as not to make them uncomfortable, and it seemed it was always me being the strong one, keeping it together for my family and friends. Soon it became a tough act to maintain. I was full of anger, resentment, bitterness, loneliness, shame, guilt (my self-prescribed daily dose of toxic medicine) and I was completely unable to function. Panic attacks and anxiety set in as triggers were all around me causing me to avoid people, places and anything that brought on a painful memory. It took me a few years to get myself back together again and even then, I still wasn’t complete.
Grief is hard to navigate for anyone. Here are a few tips I think could be helpful if you ever find yourself in the midst of a grieving co-worker.
1. Acknowledge the loss. Tell us you’re sorry. Speak the name of our lost loved one. We just need you to be there, ask how we are doing and check in with us. Those of us who are grieving are not going to tell you what we need. We are going to tell you that we are OK a lot of the time, but deep down we’re not.
2. Tell them you are glad they are back. I specifically remember one person from our local sheriff’s office who I ran into on my way to court one day. He came up and gave me a big hug, and genuinely said, “I’m so glad you’re back.” I so desperately needed that, and I will never forget it.
3. Realize that grief is unpredictable. The stages of grief go in no specific order and come and go for years. There are so many random moments, triggers and comments that can bring back those raw feelings of grief like it was yesterday. Try not to judge, instead be supportive, patient and understanding as best you can.
4. Remember, we won’t “get over it.” A co-worker once said to me, “It’s been two years.” So does that mean it’s time to get over it? No. After carrying around anger and frustration I asked God to help me forgive. I was able to let that comment go, and soon I realized that they didn’t have a clue as to my life or what life was like after losing a child. It’s something I will never “get over.”
5. Offer your help. Be patient with your grieving co-worker and if you can, offer to help out with their workload. Returning to work can be overwhelming and often makes productivity nearly impossible. Be there as much as you can to talk, listen, offer a hug, lend a smile or take them to coffee. These types of small gestures can go a long way.
6. Be thoughtful. Try to remember their loved one’s anniversary or birthday. These dates are sacred to the grieving and any acknowledgment is welcomed with great appreciation. Try to pay attention to the children and siblings affected by the loved one’s passing too. When Lydia died my son was 3. He received so many gifts including books, blankets, toys and invitations to playdates. It was a wonderful way to keep him occupied at a time when he needed it most. It was also comforting to know he was remembered too.
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