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Going Back to Work After a Death of a Loved One: 7 Steps to Coping With Your Loss

Picture If you are reading this, chances are you have lost a loved one. If so, please accept my deepest condolences. I know it must be hard to get back into the swing of things and your emotions may be on a roller coaster of not knowing what to expect. Guess what? You’re not the only one. There are thousands of us (yes, me too) out there deliberating if we are doing the right thing wanting (versus needing) to go back to work. But the bills need to be paid and food needs to be put on the table so we must make that essential decision, especially if there is absolutely no income being generated.

My husband passed away February 24, 2012 and three weeks prior I was given notice. My last day of work was one week before he passed.  I was relieved yet, saddened. I didn’t inform my husband until about a week after I was notified because he was in enough (physical) pain. But during that final week with him it was a worry-free week for me because I could care for him full-time and looking for a job was not my priority. Then on February 24 he passed away. I’ve been unemployed since but for me, it couldn’t have come at a better time. At this time I'm focusing my efforts on finding the right employer. Let me tell you why.

I’ve learned a lot since that fateful day and I want to share my story with you in hopes that you could use this as a foundation before, during and after your loss.

  1. If your loved one is currently sick and you are still working, do not feel guilty that you have to work. Think of it this way, you must work in order to continue your health insurance (if applicable) so that your loved one can continue attending his/her appointments, provide food on the table, gas, prescription, etc. Get the point?
  2. Don’t expect concerns from your peers. Although it’s nice to want to hear, “So how is your XXX doing?” don’t expect it.  There are deadlines to meet, expectations from the boss and emotional distress. They simply may have forgotten.
  3. If your loved one passes away, don’t expect condolences from everyone in the workplace through in-person visits, cards or flowers. Some offer their condolences to others and expect them to pass it along (I know, not cool, but it happens). I’m sure the intention is there. If not, you may think of finding another company to work for.
  4. If you can afford it, don’t be in a hurry to get back to work. You have lost a loved one and grief can linger although you may feel you are OK. However in some cases, others felt the need to go back to work soon so as to keep them busy.
  5. If you can afford it, take your time when searching for employment. If you feel that your previous employer was insensitive to your situation, it’s time to find a company that is more “employee friendly.” It may take some time but it will be worth it in the long run. Consider this quote by Tyler Perry, “Sometimes you have to go deeper to get what you are after no matter the cost.” This quote comes after he was tired of high water bills so he had a company dig wells in his back yard. There were several holes made until he made a decision to stick to one hole. He had the company to dig deeper than normal (beyond 1,200 feet). Then, voila, they hit a river of water!
  6. Seek guidance. You are not alone so don’t challenge it (grief) alone! Contact grief counselors, spiritual leaders or others who have been through the ordeal.  
  7. Pray. Praying was an absolute must for me and it channeled me away from some of the worst emotions I’ve ever felt (and  people!). Mulling over other people’s actions (or in-actions) will get you nowhere. Think of your family.

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Comment by Solita on November 28, 2015 at 6:28pm

Your article helped me a lot.  I went back to work 2 weeks after my husband died.  At first I did a great job staying distracted...but I had been placed in a  brand new position at my job.  I couldn't learn it.  It took me awhile to realize how my cognition was affected from the shock of the loss.  I kept asking for help and telling people I needed training, support, etc. ---but they only saw the competent employee of 15 one could see my limitations.  Finally my body just exploded.  I had my first gall bladder attack ever and stress induced pancrititis.  I've been a wreck.  I'm using up all my sick time right now...fretting over my return.  This article helped.  Thank you.  Ps. Also enjoying your Facebook page I checked out tonight.  Great stuff.

Comment by dublin53 on January 29, 2013 at 2:00pm

Sabra- thank you for this - I had to go back to work 5 days after my husband died. I was on leave taking care of him and thought I had 4 more weeks but my  principal called and told me my district ends leave when the person dies and only offers 5 days from then. I couldn't afford not to go back. Your words are so helpful and so true for us all. - I found I could expect very little from most co-workers- life  and work goes on  and also from some former friends who pretty much left me alone for whatever reasons. I hope I have been a better friend  to  all of you here and to any co-workers who have experienced any loss.  

Comment by Sabra on January 9, 2013 at 4:09pm

I found this great article of a combination of compassionate hearts in the workplace: (Trayvon Martin's Mother Receives 8 Months Vacation Time)

Comment by Sabra on January 7, 2013 at 6:30pm

You are correct, I'm sorry, I misread. I thought you were not comfortable with it. But we all have our preference. Thanks for commenting, Dianne. Stay encouraged.

Comment by Joyce on January 7, 2013 at 6:13pm

I went back to work after one week, had no choice and I felt it was what was best for me, I was able to compartmentalize and I think it really helped me in the beginning.  Everyone is different and every situation is different it's good for everyone to do what they are comfortable with.

Comment by Sabra on January 7, 2013 at 6:01pm

Hi Dianne, Just DAYS after? OMG. Noooo. How was your health after that? I understand the need to keep yourself busy but going back to work so soon ... well, I don't think I could have done that. People at work, to me, are not going to be focused on you and your emotions. They will be focusing on your work. Sure they will ask here and there are you ok, but is it genuine? I think emotionally, we need more time to stay away from work because it's our 2nd home, right? So if it's our 2nd home then we will set expectations there too (emotionally). I think we need to focus on an outlet that helps others during our grief before going back to work. IMO. But Dianne, my long as it been?

Comment by Dianne in Nevada on January 5, 2013 at 5:50pm

This is good, Sabra - thank you very much for sharing it with us.  I wish I could have lived #2 and #3 ... but those expectations were there and I was hurt. Worked my way through those feelings, however, and learned a very good lesson. I returned to work just days after my husband's passing. Huge project I was responsible for, so I just immersed myself in it working very long days and bringing work home. Wasn't the healthiest thing to do, but it got me through those first weeks when I wasn't sleeping anyway. Just so important to be kind to ourselves. To do whatever works best for us without feeling we HAVE to do something because someone told us to do it.

Comment by Sabra on January 4, 2013 at 3:14pm

Hi Janet, I'm glad it helps!! Of course, do what you need to do. I do hope it helps your friend. June is so fresh. I really hope it helps.

Comment by Morgana (Janet) on January 4, 2013 at 1:37pm

Sabra, thank you for this.  It offers some very good advice.  I am going to save it and If you don't mind I would like to e-mail to a friend who lost her husband in June of 2012.

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