Losing your child is beyond devastating. The pain of that goodbye is unlike anything else. Your world, in an instant changed. And, you…you will never be the same.
I’ve written before about the insult to injury that occurs after the death of your child, the strange phenomenon of not feeling familiar in your own skin.
Then, there’s the bitter pill of life moving on anyway, when yours lies in smithereens…shattered…pieces flung in all directions.
How…how does the world dare to keep turning when you’re standing beside a tiny, cold, grave…and you don’t know how to walk away or think past the darkness of your broken heart for even a moment?
Six weeks later…or sometimes sooner, you are expected to return to work. To wear clothes that match when you can still barely lift your head. To carry on a coherent conversation. To focus on a task, for an entire day. To interact with other human beings…those who may avert their gaze to avoid making eye contact…those who don’t know what to say…those who say the wrong thing….and those who may want to show love and kindness, but you really aren’t sure how to respond to that either. Some moments you want to talk about your baby…to tell the world that he was here…maybe even show her picture. And, some days you just want to be left alone. To go to work and delve into the task in front of you in a desperate attempt to quiet the gnawing ache of missing that weighs on your soul, attaching itself to your every thought..to do something that feels normal.
Only nothing about this is normal. None of this was in the plan.
The anxiety grips you as you wonder what that first day will be like. Will people embrace you, go on with business as usual, or completely avoid you? What do you want them to do? How will you respond? Can you get through the day without crying? Can you give yourself grace if you cannot?
The truth is, while for some people going to back to work or the everyday social interactions of life may be a comfort in grief, something that feels safe and soothing or at least a welcome distraction of busyness, for many, the opposite is true. Many dread returning to a life that no longer feels safe and familiar to them. In the fresh throes of grief, we may not even enjoy the things we used to love. Grief can be consuming, energy-sapping, exhausting, distracting…leaving you a little stumbly and foggy brained.
1. The most important truth to remember, whether you fling yourself back into the workforce, or tiptoe tentatively to the edge, is to give yourself GRACE. Grace to stumble. Grace to make mistakes. Grace to feel a myriad of things that may not even make sense. Grace to cry. Grace to feel numb. Grace to be disgusted for a moment, and hurt when someone says something insensitive. Grace to forgive. (Incidentally, this grace thing is true for grief in general…not just in regards to returning to work. And, not just grief…but in life. We all need grace.) Grace to not be exactly like the person you were “before.” Grace for friendships to change, and for you to sometimes prefer the company of those who “get it” as opposed those who don’t or won’t. Grace to forgive those around you who do not realize that you will never be the same. Parts of you will heal, but you are changed. No one should judge your performance in grief…including you. It takes time to ease into life when you’re walking around in pieces. And, that needs to be okay.
2. Grief is exhausting. Physically, emotionally, and mentally. Rest often and try to build strength through proper nutrition and exercise. This will help you prepare for returning to work. Ease in if you can. Maybe doing part time at first and easing back into longer days. This isn’t possible for everyone. But, I think as a culture, we rush ourselves and others through grief way too quickly, not allowing time for proper healing before we expect someone to be fully functioning.
3. One of the things people are most unsure about is being uncomfortable around their co-workers. The co-workers are concerned about this, as well. While that prompts many to say nothing or to say the wrong thing, some will wisely take cues from you. If you are comfortable talking about the baby, that may set others and ease. They may follow your lead. And, if you’re feeling quiet, hopefully they can respect that you need space. If possible, communicating can help alleviate the uncomfortableness.
4. Telling the news. Another fear is…will I have to repeat this story again and again, reliving the reactions of others over and over? A good idea would be to send out an email or even a memo through a trusted co-worker or supervisor telling others that your baby has passed away. 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 instance, I had a teacher friend who asked me to speak to her students about the loss so she would not have to tell them the story. She also asked me to share with her co-workers and to kindly request that they allow her to return to work without speaking of her loss. She wanted the “business as usual” environment. To others, it may be hurtful to have no one acknowledge their baby or their loss. Everyone is so unique in their responses in grief. That’s one reason it is difficult for others to know how best to support grieving parents. And very important to communicate, if possible…even if through someone else, if you’re feeling too fragile to speak up for yourself in those moments of brokenness.
5. Make sure you have a safe zone or a safe person or place to vent emotions when needed. Even if just briefly.
So much has changed for you, and your work life may be just another thing to adjust to. You may find changes are needed in that area of your life as well. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself, and to explore the person you are now. She is worth getting to know, and even in this sorrow, she has adventures to pursue still. The courage and grace will come with each overcoming breath as you put one foot in front of the other and do the next thing.
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly’s journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here: www.sufficientgraceministries.org.