Often when people are experiencing the aftermath of a devastating loss, they find solace in returning to their jobs or careers. Some even attribute a large part of their ability to cope and rejoin the world to their work. Having a routine and a distraction from the pain, combined with feeling needed and capable, can make work healing and grounding.
Being at work while experiencing grief and loss is not without its challenges, however. Here are a few common difficulties you may find yourself facing:
1. You Are More Tender
Living with loss and the tornado it can send through your life shakes everything up, including your internal world. Being exposed to misfortune and the inherent sadness in life can make you feel like you have lost your outer skin, leaving you exposed and sensitive. You may find yourself more easily moved by emotional encounters or by life’s simple joys. You may also find yourself more sensitive to interactions and the people around you, recognizing how vulnerable and fragile we all are.
While there are certainly benefits to being in this softer place, it may make it difficult to handle the initial professional challenges and daily pressures you were once accustomed to. You may also find it is not as easy to dive back in, as you may question your sense of purpose or the frazzled activity that in the past felt fine and perhaps now feels off.
2. Your Insides Do Not Match Others’ Outsides
Whatever new truth or realization is surfacing from your loss, it is not always easy to reconcile with the business-as-usual aspect of your workplace. Even in a business culture sensitive to your grief, you may find yourself having a hard time getting into the swing of things.
On one hand, connecting with your colleagues and clients/customers in your typical manner may feel comforting and relieving. On the other, you may notice a tension between looking like you are fitting in at work and everything is “normal,” while on the inside you are experiencing very difficult things which you may feel no one at your workplace truly understands. You may feel somewhat alone or isolated, especially if yours is not a workplace that gives space for your full self to show up.
3. Your Emotions and Preferences Are Fluid
To make matters more complicated, grief tends to come in waves, so there may be times you feel very connected and steady about your job, and other times you feel like a stranger in foreign territory. These can both be true, even minutes apart. The process of grief requires a lot of weaving—weaving your past life with your new life, weaving the world of bereavement with the world of tasks of daily living, and weaving the hurt and tenderness you find in the deep places within you with the part of you that enjoys detaching from your grief and living at the surface.
This means you will likely encounter many divergent and seemingly conflicting experiences—which is OK and perfectly healthy. One moment of our life and experience does not make something the next second less true. In learning to face and live with grief, you are learning to hold life and death—two opposing yet interconnected things—in balance. Your grief process and the many incompatible experiences, beliefs, and opinions which are simultaneously true will mirror this.
Living with loss is hard. Returning to work can add a container to the grief process, creating a little more room to breathe and experience other parts of life. However, in doing so, you may feel like your experience of grief is stretched and sometimes conflicted.
Living with loss is hard. Returning to work can add a container to the grief process, creating a little more room to breathe and experience other parts of life. However, in doing so, you may feel like your experience of grief is stretched and sometimes conflicted. The key to navigating both worlds is to allow them to be what they need to be and to practice heaps of self-care in between.
Try to set up boundaries so you are not overly immersed in the workplace, perhaps by working from home a day or two at the start or working reduced hours. As work relationships may change in ways that are tricky, seek out additional support from grief groups or with individuals who have experienced loss. If appropriate, reach out to someone at your organization who went through bereavement as well. Notice when you are feeling flooded and take a walk or phone someone in your support system who gets it. Give yourself permission to not be the person you used to be, and give yourself space to find the new person you are becoming, both at work and in life. As death is a great leveler, when the pain begins to subside just a bit you may find pockets of self-discovery and a richness in reevaluating your life.
Finally, give yourself time to grieve, however it feels right. Just because you have gone back to work does not mean your grieving process is over. Notice if you feel guilty for going back to work; if the feelings persist, seek out professional support. There is no set path for navigating the loss you encountered, or for returning to your job or career. The best thing you can do is follow what feels good in each changing moment, give yourself permission to keep trying, and love yourself through the bumps and hurdles. You can find your way into a life woven together by the fabric of your grief and your desire to be alive and well in the world.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.