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Going Back to Work After a Death

Going Back to Work After a Death

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

After the death of her father, Mary said that she dreaded going back to work. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “My co-workers are supportive and really wonderful. I just don’t look forward to repeating myself all day long about what happened to dad, or all the many ‘I’m sorries’ they will say, or the struggle I feel to be present to my work when my heart and mind aren’t fully here. Yet, I know I need to get back to work and begin doing something ‘normal’ again.”

How Grief Affects Work

Janet talked about how hard it was to go back to work after the death of her husband. “We both worked for the same company. I did payroll and he was a supervisor. It was a small company so we would cross paths sometimes during the workday. After he died, I didn’t know if I could ever go back, not only did everyone know him, but they also knew me. When John died, not only was I grieving, but so were all our co-workers, who I needed for support. I didn’t think I could ever go back to work or function again.” 


Rachel Kodanaz decided that, after her spouse died suddenly, what she needed most was a routine. She says that work “gave me a place to go and a function.” Rachel is a motivational speaker, author, grief consultant, trainer and facilitator. At 31 years old, Rachel was a supervisor at an IT company when her husband died suddenly. When she returned to work, her co-workers never looked at her the same way. According to Rachel, returning to work is difficult not only for the worker, but also the employer, co-workers and human resources,because unless they have walked in similar shoes, “they don’t know what to do with you.” Employers offer 3 days leave for the death of a close family member and after all, “that should be enough to resolve our grief, right?”

Grief At Work After a Death

Sadness is a natural reaction to grief, yet if we are sad at work, how are we perceived? In Rachel’s experience, “a sad employee is often perceived as a bad employee.” She says that grief is not a mental health event but rather a temporary set back to a life changing event. She offers that some characteristics of a grieving employee include that we: “Fake-it” well, take two steps forward and one step back, feel like “Nothing’s going right”, experience loss of logic and a lack of confidence. We feel distant from their co-workers and endure uncontrollable tears at our jobs.

Although we have these reactions to our grief at work, there are also benefits to going back to work. It gives the bereaved a “place to go”, offers a routine, provides a temporary distraction from the grief, gives us a sense of accomplishment, gives us interaction with others, allows for some sense of self-control, is often a financial necessity, can serve as a role model for other family and is empowering.

A Model to Consider

For the bereaved and workplaces, Rachel proposes a model to return to work after a death. For both the employee and employer, consider easing the return to work. If you are the bereaved, be aware of your benefits and meet with manager before the first day back. Before meeting with the manager, prepare your list of needs and ask for them. Also brace yourself to “interact” with others which allows you to both break the ice of returning and squelching the rumor mill. For workplaces, who have a significant investment in their employees, Rachel proposes what she calls “Creating Compassionate Workplaces” which includes things like, defining and creating procedures, trainings, reviewing current policies, management input and HR programs, Employee Assistance Programs(EAP) among other things. 



TAPS(Tragedy Assistance . for Survivors) Returning to Work After a Death webinar, June 11, 2019, Rachel Kodanaz, Author, Speaker, Consultant


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