How Soon is Too Soon to Return to Work after a Loss?
Losing a loved one is a difficult, emotional process that most people never truly “get over.” It does not matter whether you have lost a parent, child, spouse, sibling, grandparent or friend—the death of someone important in your life is going to affect you both emotionally and physically (in some cases, it will also affect you financially).
The modern-day workplace does not always have built in guidelines in the event of a death. Even though everyone will experience a loss at some point, you could work for an employer who offers no bereavement time, limited sick time options, or the more common three days of bereavement following the loss of an immediate family member. For most people, this is not nearly enough time to plan the funeral, let alone start the recovery process, so it is understandable that you will need more time to get everything in order.
Employer Rules and Regulations
The most common reason people return to work after a death is because, well, they have to. When you are out of sick days, have no vacation saved up, or work for an employer that does not offer much flexibility, you might not have any other choice but to return to work. This is especially true when there is a financial burden associated with your loss.
If, however, you do not feel up to the task of sitting at your desk for eight hours every day, it is important to start a dialogue with your boss and/or human resources department. Even if you still need to log your hours, they might have options for working from home, working after hours (when you won’t need to be around so many people), or taking partial leave.
Legal rules about what your employer is required to offer vary by state and by the specific employer, so do not be afraid to learn about what may be available in your area.
Work as Distraction
You might have a great employer who gives you a three-month sabbatical, or you could have a flexible job that allows you to create your own hours. If this is the case, that is good news for your grief process…maybe.
For some people, returning to work and a regular routine is actually a big part of the healing process. By forcing yourself to get up and out in the world, and to focus your attention on a task unrelated to your loss, you may find yourself healing faster. However, there are some caveats to this:
- Take at least three days to reflect, plan the funeral, and organize your affairs.
- Ask HR or your boss to “prep” your coworkers before you arrive regarding whether or not you want condolences, flowers, or simply space to return to work at your own pace.
- Set realistic expectations about what you can accomplish, and make changes as needed.
- Do not be afraid of taking extra breaks.
- Expect to be hit with grief and grief triggers at inopportune moments. It is good to have a plan of action for when, not if, this happens.
- Leave the heavy decision-making for later. Making any huge life decisions (including things like quitting or transferring) is unwise when you are newly bereaved. Give yourself some time to settle and reflect before you act.