When Your Co-Worker Returns After the Death of a Baby or Child
The sudden and unexpected death of a baby or child is like no other death – it has been described as the ‘ultimate loss’, a loss of hopes and dreams, a loss of part of oneself as a parent, the loss of a role and purpose in society, a loss of a future without their child. This grief is not only painful, but profoundly disorienting – children are not supposed to die. Such a death usually causes immense personal distress and can interfere with their normal every day functioning, family and broader social relationships.
Initially it may be difficult for the bereaved parent to resume their normal work duties as they did prior to the death of their child. Having a compassionate and understanding workplace is often the difference between being able to resume work duties and struggling to balance returning to work, supporting their family and dealing with their unimaginable grief.
“My boss was understanding and suggested that I make a gradual transition back to work”.1
While some bereaved parents need to have more time at home, others may wish to return earlier as it may provide them with some reprieve and distraction from their grieving.
Returning to work may become an important first step in regaining control over their lives and moving along in the healing process.
“…when I get home from work I’m exhausted, I don’t remember being this tired before his death happened…for me when I’m at work it’s not actually bad I felt like that was the one part of my life where he wasn’t, so it was the one part that hadn’t changed, whereas everything else was just completely shot to pieces…work was the one sort of constant, it’s still there, it’s still the same…I’d escape to work and I could be at work and didn’t have to be reminded of, that all this horrible stuff that had happened, not that you ever forget…it wasn’t until I got on the train I would get all sad and teary…but now more so now I would just get home and be absolutely knackered…”1
“My workmates seemed to understand what I was experiencing and were patient with me. I felt supported and encouraged.”1
Feelings you may have
Death is a difficult subject, one which is frightening and unfamiliar to many people, especially when the death involves a baby or child.
Sometimes it is hard to know what to do or say to someone who is bereaved.
You may feel awkward, uncomfortable or even afraid. But don’t let your own sense of helplessness keep you away.
Silence and distance can be so hurtful, not only to the parents but also to you and your relationship with them. As you cared about your friend and colleague before the death of their child, show them, in some way, that you still do. Your understanding and support will make a difference.
Three Important Things to Know:
- People do recover from such tragic loss eventually but they will be changed by it and they will never forget.
- The greatest help for parents on the long road to self healing is the understanding and support of those around them.
- It is easy to make a mistake or say the wrong thing in trying to support a grieving parent. But it is never too late to say you are sorry.
The Bereaved Parent’s Reaction at Work
“…I found that my resilience at work was shot to pieces and I don’t think I ever recovered in that area…after your child has died you find everything, all these trivial things that people would go on about in the office it just seemed meaningless…I had no resilience as in coping with the stress with work issues and the office politics. It just takes away all your energy…What is especially hard is now three years on, some of my colleagues have moved on in their own lives…they don’t mention it any more or there are new people who have begun at work, or new bosses and so forth and they don’t know what happened to me…I wouldn’t want to discuss it with them either…its difficult”.1
Often bereaved parents will try to hide most of their feelings from workmates or colleagues. This may be because they feel that their grief should not interfere with their work, that discussing the death will makes others uncomfortable or their relationships will be affected. In many cases the bereaved parent has not been in this situation before either and coming back to work after such devastation is frightening as expectations are unknown.
For many parents though, the workplace and the concentration on their work provide a focus for their thoughts away from their loss. It provides a little breathing space where bereaved parents can temporarily think about something else besides their loss. They may come to work apprehensive but ready to return to some form of “normal”.
How comfortable bereaved parents will be in letting down their guard and discussing their loss with workmates is very dependent on the nature of the loss, the work environment and the individual.
However the most important aspect is the attitude and understandings of co-workers and management that will either make the bereaved parent feel comfortable or under pressure.
How can we help the parents?
1. Don’t behave as if nothing has happened!
Even if the bereaved parent has taken time off and returns to work sometime after the death, don’t pretend as if nothing has happened.
While it can be difficult to make the first step, acknowledge the bereaved parent and their loss and allow them to feel comfortable in knowing you are able to talk about this traumatic event with them if they want to.
Do not whisper and talk about the parent when they are not in the room, if you have a question then ask them.
2. Express your Sympathy through Actions
Let the parent know that you are able to relieve work pressures in whatever way you can. If you are unsure, ask bereaved parents how they would like you to help them.
Many parents temporarily lose confidence and interest in themselves and familiar things after the death of their child. It takes some time to regain confidence and enthusiasm—be patient.
Always ask a bereaved parent before you decide to reduce their workload or delegate some of their role. Don’t take decisions away from them because you think they might need it.
3. Be Guided By the Parent
Express your concern and sadness about the loss honestly to the parent. They may become sad but you have not caused that sadness—that occurred when their baby or child died and you have not made it worse.
Do not make comments that you think will make them feel better—nothing can replace their child or fix their sadness. If you are unsure of what to say then think simple….”I’m sorry for your loss” is often enough of an acknowledgement.
What is the expected reaction of the parent on return to work?
Grief is different for each individual and the loss. Grief however can affect the whole person. Bereaved parents may experience physical symptoms such as :
Heart Palpitations, Indigestion, Lack of appetite, Sleep disturbances, aches and pains.
They may also experience strong feelings of emotions such as:
Anger, Sadness, Powerlessness, Fear and Anxiety.
The death of a child changes the individual’s behaviour, whether alone or in a social setting such as:
Preoccupied, Restless, Tense, Irritable, Withdrawn, Hyper-active, and reduced attention span
These reactions may change over time and the bereaved parent may function well on one day and the next be the opposite. It surprises many people that it often takes more than a year before parents begin to rebuild their life after the death of a baby or child.
Do you have a child or baby the same age as the one that died?
If you have a baby or child around the same age, or you are pregnant then ask the bereaved parent how they feel about seeing you and your child. Some may want to cuddle and hold your child and others may not want to see the child at all, however understand that this may change over time. Never assume you know what is best for this parent.
If this was a first child then parents often suddenly lose their identity as a family. This can be very painful. While their parenting role is gone, they will never stop being a parent. Their child will always be part of their family….dates will be commemorated and remembered.
Last reviewed: 4/12/21
- Quote from participants of a series of workshops and interviews with bereaved fathers held in 2015 at Red Nose Grief and Loss, Malvern, Victoria, and Red Nose Grief and Loss offices, Australia.