Returning to work after you lose someone to suicide

It can be helpful to discuss your limits and concerns with your employer, perhaps arriving at a compromise whereby you work a few hours a day when you first return to the workplace. 

If you are grieving, you may be dreading the thought of returning to the workplace for several reasons:

  • Seeing co-workers for the first time exposes you to "I'm so sorry" comments, and they remind you of your loss. As difficult as these expressions of sympathy may be to hear, they can be better than no acknowledgement at all. A simple "thank you" is all the response that is necessary. You do not owe anyone a story you do not wish to share.
  • You may have a high-pressure job with many deadlines and little room for mistakes. You have probably noticed that it is hard to concentrate and retain information in your grief. You may be easily distracted, and errors can occur. It is useful to check everything twice, or ask a co-worker or supervisor to review what you have done. Let your co-workers or supervisor know how difficult things seem at this time and where you need their help.
  • You may worry about emotionally breaking down in front of colleagues or in the middle of an important meeting. This can happen, but many people will understand if they know what has occurred in your life. If you need to excuse yourself, do so.

Before returning to work, try some of the following:

  • Be sure your workplace knows something about what has happened. Give them as much information as you are comfortable sharing. If people ask too many questions, let them know you are not comfortable going into it right now. Perhaps allow one key person to have enough information to keep speculation at a minimum. Keep him or her informed about funeral arrangements, time away from work, and how you are doing.
  • Let your office know if you want to be included in regular email correspondence so you can be kept updated on what is happening.
  • You might arrange to go into the office to meet co-workers for lunch, getting past the first encounters. It can make it easier to go back to work at a later date.
  • Consider returning for half-days for a week or so, easing your way back into the normal routine.
  • Encourage your co-workers to learn more about grief so they can better understand what you are going through. Let them know what is helpful to you when you are having a particularly hard day: allowing you to have some alone time, making you a cup of tea, or going for a short walk. The more they know what they can do for you, the more comfortable they will be with your grief and the more comfortable you will be in their presence.
  • Keep good communication going. Set up regular meetings with your supervisor, colleagues or employees to talk about what is happening. Ask for feedback. Good, clear communication will discourage unhelpful chatter.
  • You may need help with certain projects or deadlines. Identify those who you feel able to speak with and ask them for assistance when you need it.
  • Thinking ahead will make your return to work easier and less painful. Recovering from the suicide of a loved one is a slow process and getting back into a routine can be an important step in the journey.

Adapted from The American Hospice Foundation, The Bereaved Employee: Returning to Work by Helen Fitzgerald and Anglicare's Living Beyond Suicide brochure, Helping an Employee Return to Work.

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