When our worst nightmare has happened, how can we be useful and valuable in the workplace again?

When our son or daughter dies our world falls to pieces and we can find it virtually impossible to function with any kind of normality.

But if we’re employed there comes a point where we need to re-enter our workplace – and that can be really difficult. With no statutory legislation relating to leave following a close bereavement, how a bereaved parent is treated by their employer actually varies widely. This is illustrated by the following two very different personal experiences.

David tells us what happened to him

“I thought I could cope with stress! After 27 years in the Navy and having seen action in several conflicts, I had been the Bursar at a busy prep school for nine years when Will, our only son, aged 12, died suddenly in June playing the so-called ‘Choking Game’.*

I took some time off during the summer but I had to get back to work to finish a re-building project and start the new academic year in September. Our first inquest was also in September, which recorded an ‘open verdict’. The appearance of new evidence and some intense legal wrangling, meant that we were granted a second inquest in November that recorded a verdict of ‘misadventure’.

As a result of all this stress I needed additional time off work. After four weeks my doctor strongly recommended a further four weeks away. I was invited to a ‘return to work’ interview and agreed to resume full-time duties following a short period of part-time hours. But just before the end of that interview I was asked if I had considered other options. “What other options?” I asked. “Early retirement!” was the reply. I was already low, but this took me further down and I more or less had to agree to leave work under a compromise agreement.

As it happens, time has shown this to be a blessing in disguise. In hindsight, I now realise how stressful my role was and stepping out of it has been particularly helpful in regard to my health and recovery from the trauma of losing Will. In my experience, grieving and the workplace do not mix well. If, after a short time you cannot perform your role as you did before, then your use in the workplace is reduced and the clock can start ticking with your employer.”

Janet tells a very different story

“When our son Peter died suddenly aged 15 from an undiagnosed brain tumour, my employer – a special school where I worked as a Speech and Language Therapist – was very supportive. After three weeks off work I went into school for one day. It was really important just to meet my colleagues face to face and for them to discover that they could talk to me. Some of them had come to Peter’s funeral, which meant a lot, but it was very different going into work. When I told my head teacher that I couldn’t afford to lose wages and asked how long I would be able to take off, he told me that “they weren’t counting”. I found that amazingly supportive.

The next two weeks I went into work part-time. I had meetings with staff and sat-in with some classes, but didn’t fully do my job. Fortunately after that I was off for six weeks for the school summer holidays.

In September I went back to working my full hours. I’d been told it was fine to do as much as I could, but if I needed to leave then I could just go and not even have to ask or explain. I found it completely exhausting for the first six months and couldn’t stay long after the children had gone home. But I did the best I could, so the children on my caseload didn’t suffer.

My husband Ian went back to work after three weeks, but again his engineering firm was very understanding and supportive. They let him work short days over the summer and left him to decide when he was ready to increase his hours again.

People often ask how long they should take off, but I think it’s a very personal decision and it depends on how supportive your employer is. I found that working was a good way of taking my mind off my grief and loss, although trying to push it out of my mind was, I’m sure, what was so exhausting.”

Ensure a safe and understanding atmosphere in the workplace

These two stories serve to illustrate the way that different employers can approach how they deal with someone who has, after all, experienced severe trauma. And whilst the employer has to ensure that their business continues to operate, not handling their employee with sufficient empathy and understanding can be a short-sighted approach. The bereaved parent will undoubtedly have changed, so it is important to ensure that the workload is eased in line with their ability to perform their role. Taking whatever steps are practicable to ensure a safe and understanding atmosphere in the workplace is likely to result in the employee returning to a more productive and useful state in a shorter period of time. And that, in the long run, will be of far more benefit to both the employer and the employee.

Resources for Employers

ACAS, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, has produced an extremely useful good practice guide for employers called ‘Managing Bereavement in the Workplace’.

The National Council for Palliative Care has launched a Compassionate Employers scheme to support employers in responding to the needs of bereaved people in the workplace.

* A dangerous activity amongst teenagers, who cut off the flow of blood to the brain through purposefully strangling themselves, in exchange for a few seconds of feeling lightheaded.

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