On Going Back to Work
I think I made it three hours that first day back.
Three hours of avoiding my co-workers, of impotently staring at that same email, and — a few times — of finding the least embarrassing location to break down and sob at the sheer, aching depth of our loss contrasted with the banality of what used to be so important to me.
Then I went home.
Though my wife and I went back to work at separate times — me after 2 weeks, her after 8 — this was one of the harder transitions we experienced in our first year since Simon was stillborn late in the pregnancy. It was the first time we had to really, fully attempt some level of normalcy, and some degree of extended concentration on anything other than our grief.
This is how it was for us, and what I wish I’d done differently.
For context, I was fortunate to have an especially accommodating workplace, and to work with a small group who I view as friends (I realize that for many people reading this, that’s not the case–my heart goes out to you). Months before at work, we had all made up funny names for the baby, resulting in our favorite nickname for him: Spoonie. And, within days of Spoonie dying, they organized meals for us, listened to me babble, and understood if I just didn’t show up some days, among many other kind gestures.
My wife’s job is perhaps more typical of what others have experienced. Everyone was excited when the baby was coming. Joyful comments about her growing belly, and gifts from her team for the babyshower. But, after, almost nobody said anything when he died and she returned to work.
I emailed my boss after it happened to let him know I’d be out for awhile, and asked if I could start on a Friday (to have the weekend to rebound immediately after) and to start out with half days for a bit. I’m really glad I did it this way, as it helped with the transition.
My wife did the same thing, but we agonized over whether she should take the full number of weeks off of work she could including short-term disability and vacation days, or to go back to work sooner to stay mentally occupied (again, I realize that for many people reading this, having the luxury of that choice may not be an option–and again, my heart goes out to you). Would it be “healthier” to go back and stay occupied when the alternative is staying at home being sad? Or, would this time be best spent physically and mentally recuperating? She decided on eight, but in hindsight 6 vs. 8 vs. 12 weeks really wasn’t a big deal, as you’re likely equally devastated at any of those times after losing a child. We’ve met people that went back after a few days who are happy with their decision. For us, though, we both wish she’d taken the full amount.
When you do start back, there’s always going to be those first, hard conversations. I’m a big fan of “coaching” others about what you need after your loss. After all, most people — including me, before this happened to us — are completely unfamiliar with how to act in this situation. So the day before returning, I emailed everyone and said:
“First, from Genevieve and me, a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to everyone for the cards and food and emails. It really made a difference and I feel so fortunate to work with a great group.
I plan to come back starting tomorrow, working half days at first to ease back into things. I should be in mid-morning, heading home mid-afternoon.
Again, thank you all for the well wishes and condolences. I’d prefer to focus conversations on work topics for the first few weeks; I’ll let you know if I feel up to talking about Simon.”
The coaching did a few things. First, it set the stage for me to be able to control the conversations while (second) also letting them know that I am open to talking about what happened. Third, it hinted at my being pretty shook up, to begin setting expectations that I would not be coming back at 100% — emotionally or otherwise. Finally, it reinforced his name so they would (hopefully) use it with me, which we found very comforting.
Another way to reach a similar end, but where you’re less in the spotlight, is to communicate through someone else, as Kelly Gerken wrote about this topic in Still Standing. “Asking a trusted coworker to share with others how you are doing and what your concerns are as you return to work may be helpful if that’s an option.”
For the first few days and weeks, I typically would come in, pick one easy thing to work on, put on headphones to drown out the sound of the kids playing at recess at the school next door (thanks, Universe…), and would choose one person to tell our story to each day.
I ended up talking one-on-one with everyone in our small office. Almost every person ended up crying (even the other guys), and all were surprisingly supportive; 3 out of seventeen had a family member or close friend who had experienced stillbirth, in fact. Early on, as new employees started I made it a point to share with them what had happened, since I was still strongly affected by it (and since I didn’t want them throwing out an inadvertently callous comment at lunch–both for their sake and mine).
Half a year after Simon died we were still a hot mess, but we didn’t look it anymore. People forget about what happened. It sucks. A few times, I sat down with individuals I worked most closely with to say something to the effect of, “I know there are things slipping through the cracks, and I’m probably shorter with you than I used to be; it’s been awhile, but my wife and I are still dealing with the loss of our son and it still really affects me. Thanks for putting up with me, and I just want you to know that I wouldn’t even bring this up if I didn’t care about our relationship, so thanks for listening and understanding.” That seemed to help set expectations and, if nothing else, I got to talk about my favorite subject for just a moment–my son. Note: this would have been MUCH harder to do if we hadn’t had those initial, one-on-one conversations those first few weeks when I came back to work.
For my wife, though, this period was much harder. The lack of support when she returned to work, unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, stretched on. Even though her coworkers could hear her weeping in the adjoining cubicles week after week, shockingly few had the courage to offer even the smallest gesture of support. Little reminders of Simon at her desk, and the occasional “mental-health day” off have helped, to some degree.
Slowly, slowly, time wore on and I became somewhat reinvested in my work. A year and half later, I’m still probably only at 80% of where I was in terms of productivity or passion, but it does get better.
I’d say that the biggest takeaway I have — and this applies to work as well as the the other spheres of life after loss — is to not be too hard on yourself. It’s going to take time, and patience, and grace; it’s going to require that we allow others to help us, while at the same time demanding that we individually resolve to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I hope, someday, that you find joy and fulfillment in all spheres of life, including work, as we learn to live with this new reality. I’ll keep trying to do the same, too.