Returning to Work After Losing a Child
By Lara Gillham, Jackson’s Mom
Returning to work after losing a child seems like a simple concept. Most people probably think you just need to figure out when or if you are coming back. Unfortunately, there are usually quite a few more factors to take into consideration.
Length of Your Leave
I feel that the choice of when/if you should return to work is a personal decision and is also impacted by your employer’s policies. Jackson went into the hospital on November 21st and died on December 3rd. I did not work during his hospital stay and after he died, my firm was kind enough to not put a limit on how long I could have before returning to work. My husband was fortunate enough to have the same generosity from his office. We ultimately took about a month off, returning the week after the new year started (we thought it would be easier to return after the novelty of everyone’s holidays had worn off so we didn’t have to talk about Christmas or New Years). We truly needed the time we took off as we were in a complete haze during that time. A month was a pretty arbitrary time frame, but towards the end of it, we felt like we needed something to focus on, so for us, work seemed like a good option. We didn’t have any other living children and we felt we could only sit around an empty and quiet house for so long.
I know several parents who returned to work, some who only returned part-time, some who returned but changed roles or companies, and others who did not return to work at all. A few things to consider when making your decision might be:
- What is your employer’s policy?
- Can you use FMLA, if needed?
- How long can you afford to be off without pay? If you have a spouse, can they support you both?
If you have a spouse, what would they like to do about returning to work?
- Do you feel like you could do your current job? (obviously you are not going to be operating at 100%, but if you find you can’t even get through one transaction or phone call without breaking down, it might be something to consider).
- Do you want to be at home with your other living children?
- Are there constant triggers in your job? (Do you see children regularly? Are you in a setting where you can’t escape illness and death, etc…?)
- How supportive is your employer? Do you feel like they will be understanding of your situation, possible triggers, and inability to work at full capacity?
- Do you feel like it will be more helpful for you to be at home or at work?
- Do you have somewhere at work you can go to be alone if you need a few minutes? (a closed office, your car, etc…)
While I did return to work in my normal role about a month after Jackson died, I ultimately decided to change roles within my firm after a few months. At first I found that it was surprisingly easy to throw myself into work. I honestly think I was numb at the time and just going through the motions. But as time went on, I realized that I was struggling a little. This probably started about 5 months after Jackson died, as his first birthday was approaching. I was practicing as a litigation attorney, and I was finding it hard to focus my energy on hearings and depositions and other people’s suffering when I was going through my own heartbreak at the time. We were also trying to get pregnant again and suffered a miscarriage, which just added to the stress of trying to keep my head above water. My firm was again wonderful and allowed me to change roles to my intake department, screening cases that came into the firm. While I was very hesitant to embrace change and felt like I was giving up my career dreams, it was ultimately the best decision I made during that time. It allowed me to focus on Jackson, my grief, getting pregnant and eventually my little girl who is now 14 months old. In my current role, I work 9-5 and don’t have to worry about the high stress of preparing for court dates and answering urgent emails late at night. While I loved what I was doing, starting a new, less stressful, role is where I needed to be at that time.
After my daughter was born, 16 months after Jackson died, I decided to only return part-time, still in my role in the intake department. Once again, my firm was generous enough to allow this. I felt drawn to being with my child as much as possible, given that I knew first-hand how limited that time could be. I never pictured myself a stay-at-home mom, but here we are. My plan at this point is to cherish time with my kids while they are young and to eventually go back full-time once they are in school. I love my firm and my job, so I didn’t want to leave completely, but I needed to prioritize my family for this season of my life.
Navigating the Return to Work
I do think there are several things that both you and your employer and/or co-workers can do to make your return a little more gentle. The most impactful thing that my employer did was to let me know they didn’t expect me to be operating at 100%, and they didn’t have a timeline for when I should be either. That took so much pressure off of me feeling like I needed to act as if nothing had happened and hide my grief or the impact of my triggers.
I also decided when I returned to do two things that I think helped the transition. First, while I already had photos in my office of Jackson, I added more. I wanted to feel surrounded by him and just as proud as any other parent. Second, I sent an email my first day back at the firm thanking everyone for their support during my time off, but most importantly, letting them know that it was ok to say Jackson’s name and to talk about him. In fact, I told them I preferred it. I had several coworkers tell me that email helped them feel comfortable knowing how to act around me and gave them permission to talk about Jackson. Some of my coworkers still have Jackson’s funeral card hanging in their cubicles, which always puts a smile on my face. One of the most meaningful things my coworkers did was to take a picture for Jackson’s (Jax’s) 1st birthday wearing orange – Jackson’s favorite color (pictured above). It was organized by two other bereaved moms and brought me to tears as I was so anxious about how the day would make me feel.
If I could change one thing about my return to work, I would have given myself more grace (and possibly more time) and would have asked my employer to touch base with me more frequently in the first few months of my return. I put pressure on myself to be a good employee even if my bosses didn’t. I think I could have asked for a reduced caseload or to be taken off of some cases that were triggering. I didn’t want to seem imcompetent, but in fairness, they couldn’t know I was struggling if I didn’t tell them. Early on, there wasn’t as much checking in, and I think if we had made time to do so, I would have realized they didn’t expect so much of me and might have been less inclined to try to take on so much.
Regardless of what a bereaved parent decides to do in returning to work, it’s helpful for all involved to be supportive and take cues from the parents on how to make it easier for them.