Agnes is a newly bereaved parent. She says, “I’ve always loved working in a small, close-knit office, but now it is the absolute pits. If I cry, my supervisor questions if I’m really ready to come back, but if I act normal, does that mean I’m ‘over it’? How do I ever get over losing my daughter? Everybody here knew Lindsay, but since I came back to work, nobody has mentioned her name or even talked about their own kids, either. Suddenly it’s like none of us have kids anymore. But what I hate most is how people suddenly stop laughing whenever I enter a room. And maybe I would resent it – them finding something funny when my child was put in the ground last week. But their trying to make me feel like things are normal makes me feel like crying because I know it’s my fault everyone is so miserable. That’s how I feel – like now I’m a workplace pollutant.”
There are times when we might express empathy to a colleague who has suffered a great loss due to a home fire, a cancer diagnosis, a messy divorce, public bankruptcy, or even a spousal death. We can imagine how we’d feel, coming back to work after such a catastrophe, and that helps us form an appropriate response. However, the trauma experienced after the death of a child is unimaginable. Any parent employed by the company may try to imagine what it would be like if it happened to them, but it didn’t – and that’s what the returning worker is most aware of, too. It didn’t happen to someone else, it happened to THEM, and they do not expect anyone at work to understand how empty they feel or to understand how hard it was for them to return, or how impossible it is to believe things will ever be “normal” again.
As an accredited grief counselor, I have served as a university hotline crisis center director, as manager of the Chicago Ronald McDonald House, and as a police crisis interventionist. Throughout a subsequent business and publishing career, I have remained devoted to the mission of caring for bereaved parents. I, too, hold a membership in the club nobody wants to join, having lost a 16-year old son to a car accident. That provided the impetus to create Bereaved Parents Watering Hole, where grieving parents gather online to help other bereaved parents (and the people who love them) through the obstacle course that suddenly awaits them “after” – after they lose that which is most central and precious to their own sense of self.
One of the major hurdles grieving parents face is the return to work. Statistically, these parents are many times more likely to consider suicide, to have their marriages crumble, to self-medicate, and to suffer from depression. Conversely, many will “lose themselves” in work and become highly productive, turning to it as a comfort and a sanctuary. It may be the one place where they can forget, for a brief moment even, all of the grief awaiting their return to the home their child no longer occupies.
You can help support a grieving parent. Just saying the obvious – “I’m so sorry for your loss” – is a good way to begin, and usually it’s best to stop there, too. Ideally, a supervisor can visit with the parent before they return to work to ask very directly how they would like to be treated upon re-entry. Would they prefer to have the death acknowledged, and the open invitation of a shoulder to lean on, or would they like a little space (and a door to close) and for all to go on with business as usual? Do they need a flexible schedule the early weeks, and permission to abruptly leave if they are suddenly overwhelmed or a family member needs their support? (This often happens, and can’t be anticipated in advance). What accommodation – if any — would be most helpful? Asking these questions conveys your honest intention to help, and that means a lot.
For more information on coping with the loss of a child of any age, or helping those who have experienced the death of their child, you’re invited to join us at the site. Meanwhile, thanks for reading at least this much, because the more you know and become aware of the challenges these co-workers face, the better you can help a parent bridge the distance from their life “before” to the one awaiting them “after”.