Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Going Back to Work After Loss

I got an email last week from a mama who lost her baby on Mother's Day this year--a 40 week, healthy pregnancy that suddenly ended with a stillborn baby boy.

When she emailed me, she was seven weeks out from her loss, still completely wrecked with grief, and getting ready to go back to work.

Many of us find ourselves in this same position--having spent the weeks that should have been maternity leave coping with the unbearable agony of not holding our baby in our arms, we finally have to maneuver our way back into a weak imitation of our former selves, at least sufficiently enough to make it through a day of work.

As I wrote her back, I thought about my own return to work, and the methods I used to cope. I decided to consult a few other people to see what advice they would offer, and I put together this list of suggestions for those of you who are heartbroken and going back to work. Obviously, every workplace is different, and specific advice would vary hugely depending on what kind of work you do, but I've tried to be general here so that you can hopefully find something that would help you, no matter what kind of job you have.

* Ask for what you need.
In a perfect world, everyone would have a boss and coworkers who were compassionate, intuitive, and understanding. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. I had to insist that my boss at the learning center where I used to work send a letter home so that all the parents would know what happened--he hadn't explained my absence at all, so people assumed that I'd had the baby and that everything was fine. My first day back I left early because I had two parents enthusiastically congratulate me on my new baby and I couldn't handle having to tell them what happened. I was so angry that my boss had dropped the ball. Getting the word out and using the language that you want to use is really important.

Even if everyone has already been informed, you may want to go ahead and e-mail your coworkers before you return. People will be concerned and most likely they won't know what to do, so let them know what would be most helpful for you. The go-to reaction is probably avoidance because people don't want to upset you, so you might want to say something like, "Although my grief is very intense, I find it helpful and healing to talk about my baby, so please don't be afraid to ask about him/her." Alternatively, if you don't want to discuss it, you might say, "I appreciate your sympathy and concern, and I thank you for respecting my family's privacy at this time."

* Take a memento with you.
I wore a bracelet with Eliza's name on it every single day. I still wear one piece of jewelry every day that represents her in some way, though it may or may not be apparent to people who don't me. If you have your own desk area, you can displaying a photo of your child, or a print like this to represent him or her, which can also be a conversation-starter (if you want it to be). You could carry photos in your bag and just share them with people when you feel comfortable. One mama I know carried her baby's tiny hat in her pocket as a secret link to him. Similarly, wearing a piece of memorial jewelry that you can tuck inside your shirt is a way of keeping your baby close to your heart in a private way (Etsy has tons of options at every price point).

* Start slow, if you can.
If you can go back to work part-time at first, do it. Start back on a Wednesday or Thursday so you don't have to face a full week. I was lucky to go back very part-time at first--I taught from 10-12 on MWF, and then worked at the learning center on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings for a few months (until I couldn't take it anymore--for some reason that place was such a grief trigger for me and leaving was an enormous relief). Talk to your boss about shortening your days and leaving early for doctor appointments. Things that qualify as a "doctor's appointment" when you are grieving: therapy, massage, acupuncture, restorative yoga classes, and actual doctor appointments--my therapist or OB would have written me a note for any of those, had my workplace required it.

* Practice your speech.
Even if you are able to communicate via e-mail before you get back, conversations are inevitable. And this can be good or bad. Some people want to go back and talk about what they've been through because the loss is so enormous it needs to be acknowledged. Other people want to simply focus on work and then get the hell out of there and cry later (I was in that camp). There's no right or wrong way to approach, it but no matter how you feel, you should be prepared to bump into someone who knew you were pregnant but doesn't know what happened. So prepare in advance what you will say to make that encounter slightly less stressful for you.

Don't feel like you have to apologize for sharing your tragedy, and don't feel like you have to make it sound like you're doing just fine now. I found that I had a total breakdown when I tried to say the word "stillborn," so I would say, "Actually, we lost the baby just before she was due." Depending on the person and the conversation, I might elaborate on that and share her name, but often that sentence was all I could choke out without dissolving into tears. Usually that person would say, "Oh, I'm so sorry." Then I would nod and say, "Thanks. It's been really hard." And then change the subject (or excuse myself to run to the bathroom and cry.)

* Remember it's okay to cry.
It's great if you have an office where you can close the door for privacy. Hopefully there's at least a conveniently located restroom where you can go when you can't hold back tears, but it's completely okay for you to cry--even if people can see you. You are a bereaved mother whose baby has just died. No one should expect you not to be upset. Be gentle with yourself. I cried in front of my boss (twice), various co-workers, and I almost cried in front of a well-meaning student. It happens. We are all human. Every tear you cry now is one less tear you'll have to cry tomorrow.

* Drink hot beverages.
I carried a hot drink with me everywhere. The warm liquid helped to relax my throat when it was choking up with sobs, but it also gave me something to look at and something to do with my hands.

* Wear waterproof mascara.
See "it's okay to cry" above. Putting on make up helped me feel like I was putting on a disguise so I could fake my way through the day. I was teaching students who didn't know my baby had died, and I didn't want them to know. It was important to me to look like I had my shit together even though I was completely falling apart inside. Waterproof mascara was absolutely essential to make that happen for me.

* Bribe yourself.
Going back to work is HARD. Promise yourself something small to look forward to. My friend Melissa suggested buying lots of chocolate--the really good stuff. Keep it in your desk drawer. Treat yourself to a soft cardigan that can keep you warm in winter or keep off the chill of air conditioning. Wrap up in a new scarf and let it feel like a layer of protection. Promise yourself that when you get home, you'll watch another episode of Friday Night Lights (Coach Taylor won't let you down, although there is a pregnancy storyline one season). Order a cute new planner from Bando. Pick up take out Chinese food. Buy a pint of gelato. Get yourself a new pair of running shoes. Give yourself a little reward for making it through the day.

* Phone a friend and check in with online support groups.
It's always helpful if you can check in with people who are on a timeline similar to yours, but it's awesome if you can connect with someone who can function as your "grief sponsor." Whenever you feel like you are backsliding, send a text. This person doesn't have to be a loss parent, although it often helps to talk to someone who really understands what you're feeling, and then you can serve this role for each other. But whether it's your best friend from childhood, your mom, your spouse, or another parent who has lost a child, put that number in your phone and text them whenever you need moral support. Create a thread at Glow in the Woods and check in with people there. E-mail people who write blogs you connect to, or who have stories like yours posted on Faces of Loss. It's always nice to have someone say, "I'm sorry" but it is enormously helpful to hear someone say, "Me, too."

* Remember that it's normal to feel like work doesn't matter.
It's hard to care about anything at all when the center of your world just died. Focus on your priorities at work, and don't worry too much about not being invested in what you're doing. I personally found that eventually teaching came to feel like a bit of a respite from grief, and it was helpful for me to feel competent at something again. I ended up starting a new teaching job nine months after Eliza died, and it was a great move for me (though I still cried in my office every day). Other people discover that they are eventually ready for a new job and a fresh start, or a complete career change that allows them to pursue a different kind of work they find meaningful. Give yourself plenty of time.

* Don't feel like you have to educate everyone.
When people say the wrong thing, sometime it feels like you need to sit them down and explain how you're actually feeling and why it's NOT helpful for them to say things like, "At least you never got to know your baby." And if it does help you to have that conversation, then by all means do it. But when you first go back to work in those early months after your loss, you are just in survival mode. All you need to do is keep breathing. It is not your job to coach or educate other people. It's too exhausting. So maybe you just need to nod and back out of that conversation as quickly as possible. That's okay. It sucks, but it's okay to just get yourself out of there. Self-preservation is the goal.

* Expect the unexpected. 
No matter how thoroughly you prepare, or how many carefully worded emails you send out, or how well you practice your "My baby died" speech, something will catch you off guard. Someone will gleefully announce a pregnancy and their good news will feel like a kick in the teeth. Someone will say something unintentionally hurtful. Someone will try to make conversation at the salad bar. You will buy a new lipstick and then discover that you look like a grieving hooker. These things happen. Know they are going to happen, and that you'll still be okay.

* Be gentle with yourself.
Cut yourself some slack. I'm serious when I say the goals of your first week back at work are simply survival and self-preservation. Everything else can come later. If you get caught up in a project at work and don't think about your baby for several minutes at a time, don't feel guilty about that. At the same time, if you can't focus on anything because you just keep thinking about your baby, don't feel guilty about that, either. Take some deep breaths and just take it one day at a time.

Anything I've overlooked? What advice would you add to this list? If you've had this experience, how easy or hard was going back to work? What helped you make it through the day?


  1. Big hugs to all the new moms and dads filled with grief and returning to work. Be kind to yourselves.

  2. Bah. The going back to work conversation. This is one piece of losing a baby that riles me the hell up. It infuriates me that parents have to go back to work after losing a child - or basically do ANYTHING they don't want to do. A pregnancy resulting in death should warrant a free pass for a year off work - go back earlier if you wish, but don't if you don't.

    I often say (and I think our group talked about this at one time) that we should have t-shirts for going out in public that say something along the lines of "My Baby Died" along with "Approach me at your own peril" or "Handle With Care" or "If you must talk to me, ask me (his/her) name". Something that warns and gives people the chance to flee if that's their nature or gives them a teeny bit of instruction on how to behave.

    I think you did a lovely and thorough job giving going-back-to-work advice, Brooke.
    I arranged a lunch with my co-workers a couple of weeks prior to my scheduled return so that I could get the initial 'seeing them again' over with. Seeing people for the first time was always the absolute hardest.

    The other thing I would just have to ask anyone considering going back to work is..."Do you REALLY have to?" or, do you feel you should because 'I don't have a baby to take care of so I really have no reason to be stay home' or 'People expect me to be getting back to normal' or some other such thing we tell ourselves? I ask only because looking back, I wish I wouldn't have put so much pressure on myself to return to what I thought was some level of function. Because 1) I think you get more leeway from the general public in the first year than anytime after. So take advantage; and 2) most of the things I tried to do that were reminiscent of the 'old me' did more to prove I WASN'T ready than anything else, which left me feeling a little like an alien unto myself. Who was this person who couldn't navigate an hour-long continuing education course? Who arrived to the wrong location but still ended up an hour early to the right one? Who couldn't get coordinate parking her car and going in to get coffee with a friend because first she forgot to lock the car and then a block later realized she forgot her purse too?

    It's just...if there's a time to be gentle with ourselves and give ourselves space and time, it's those first months, that first year. I was pleasantly surprised to find my employer agreed. Now, I worked for a school district, my planned substitute could continue without a problem and summer was approaching, so...I'm very sure I was luckier than most. But that breathing space was So Important.

    I'm so sorry for this new mama. And wish her gentleness and compassion from everyone around her as she heads into the fray.

  3. All of these are fabulous. I've had multiple occasions where taking ongoing drinks from a water bottle is enough to keep my shit together. And dear god, the one time I go to the doctor without my sunglasses and waterproof mascara?! Ridiculous.

    The speech the speech the speech. I'm at loss for this one, I never did get it down. And now that it's changing? Ugh. G is in school and other moms are naturally curious about her only child status. I have yet to utter; "We have unexplained secondary infertility. So G will be an only child." But I'm going to have to. In the near future, to people who only mean the best, and who are sensitive mamas. *sigh* It's enough to make a girl day drink.

  4. Agree with all of the above! Would just echo the comment that if going back to work is too much, don't feel that you need to keep showing up every day. Be kind to yourself. I went back to work for a few months and it just was not helpful for me. I ended up taking short term disability benefits to take additional time off. It may be helpful to find out what your options are (short term disability, bereavement, working part time, working from home, etc.), even if you don't end up using them in the end.

  5. Thanks Brooke. I keep re-reading this advice even going into the 2nd week back now.