“I can’t imagine going back and telling all of my clients what happened.”
“I was supposed to be on my maternity leave right now, how can I focus on work?”
“Two of my coworkers are pregnant- I don’t know how I can stand to be in the same office with them.”
Work can represent so many things to us: part of our identity, part of our social world, and how we pay for our home and food. After a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death, we may feel like we are in a new world and the idea of returning to work in this changed landscape can be quite daunting.
Facing our professional lives after such a personal loss can certainly pose a number of practical and emotional challenges. And, as weird as it may sound, returning to work may also have some benefits that help us in our healing.
If you have recently had a perinatal loss, you might be looking at the return to work date on your calendar and thinking, “What if I burst into tears at the office?”, “What if my coworkers ask me stupid questions?” or “How am I going to be able to concentrate?”
Different work situations- such as small or large office environment, culture (close and flexible vs. distant and rule-bound) and the population with which one works (e.g. teacher of young children vs. attorney working with other litigators and clients)- pose different challenges. For instance, if you work in a big office or interact with a large number of coworkers or clients remotely, there may be a very long period of having others ask about your pregnancy or baby. This can feel like an endless cycle of being emotionally triggered.
If your workplace culture is rather competitive, you may feel especially vulnerable or just “not seen” in your time of grief. One example of this type of situation was an attorney who returned to work at a busy law firm after her child was stillborn. On her first day back, she encountered many coworkers expressing awkward, brief words of condolences and then a rush to move on to business. As evening rolled around, a male custodian came in, looked her in the eye and told her how sorry he was that she had lost her baby. She suddenly experienced an intense rush of feelings. It was only then that she felt she had had a caring, human interaction in her work day.
A small, intimate office place can pose challenges as well. You may feel that everyone in the office has been so involved in the pregnancy and excitement of a baby coming that it will be especially difficult to return with no living baby at home to talk about. Privacy or boundary issues may also be a concern in a small office. Or maybe a co-worker is pregnant or has a new baby at home and the ongoing exposure to seeing her and hearing about her experience may feel overwhelming.
The role you play at work can also be an issue. If you are in a “helping profession” such as medicine, teaching or ministry, you may be more comfortable doing the care-taking and quite uncomfortable being the one experiencing a high needs time. If you are in a position of authority, or your work involves public performances, it may also feel like you have to be “on” with no room to be emotionally vulnerable. These situations may leave you feeling that you can’t return to work in your changed and less than perfect (but perfectly normal for a grieving person) way.
Just the association of remembering your time being pregnant in the workplace, or that you planned to be on maternity leave at this time can make it upsetting to return to the work environment. If the expectation was that you would be happily pregnant or home with a new baby and instead you’re spending your time at work, this may feel like another injurious reminder of what you are living without.
After such an enormous event, your perspective and values may also be shaken up and work may not feel as meaningful as it once did. It is not at all uncommon to feel like a perinatal crisis coincides with ambivalence about your current job or profession. This may be transient or it may be a crossroads where you decide to move in another direction.
Although generating income is a need and not a choice for most of us, you may underestimate how helpful it can feel to do so. Not the money itself, probably, but the idea that you can put in the effort and some payoff will be there. After a perinatal crisis where so much has been outside of your control, doing something familiar and with a predictable return can be reassuring. Self-esteem also tends to take a big hit after a reproductive loss, and doing something tangible and productive may help you to feel better about yourself.
If work is generally fulfilling, or a big part of your identity, it can feel rewarding to revisit that part of yourself, even if, like the rest of you, it is a somewhat altered version. For many people, spending at least some of their time at work while they are grieving also provides some needed time of alternate focus. It may, ironically, feel like a break in your day. Additionally, some of the routine needed to maintain a work schedule can also be useful in making you feel connected to the world.
For many of us, work is also a supportive and social environment. An example is a nurse who returned to her close knit hospital team after her infant died. Her coworkers made a point of checking in to see what she needed emotionally and to make sure she could get extra help if she was having a tough time. They also shared more about their own issues and the self-disclosure made her feel closer to them. Although many moments were challenging, she felt that she was being supported in a way that helped her to succeed in her work and further supported her in her grief process.
What Can Help
The following suggestions come from hearing what has been helpful to my clients:
–Expect to have a variety of feelings when you first return to work . Having strong feelings at work may be very worrisome to you. But if you give yourself permission to have the feelings and have a good support plan in place, you will likely find that you can tolerate them.
-As much as possible, set reasonable goals and expectations for yourself (e.g. don’t plan to meet a high sales quota or do a big presentation your first week back).
–Think about what you would like your coworkers to know regarding the details of your loss and how you are doing. It’s likely that nothing will really feel OK, but it might help to think through whether you are more concerned about fending off personal questions or having people not acknowledge your loss at all.
–Ask a point person to communicate on your behalf before you return to work. This person can relay the information you would like your coworkers to know regarding what has happened and what would be helpful to you upon your return. Sometimes the trusted coworker can set a tone and specifically relay whether or not you want to be asked personal questions about your loss. They may also be able to pass on other suggestions regarding how coworkers can support you in emotional and practical ways as you make your transition back.
–Be ready for awkward/insensitive questions and statements anyway. If you don’t get them, that’s great. But since it’s likely that you will, it could be useful to come prepared with a statement such as “thank you for understanding that I don’t want to talk about that.”
–Consider (if possible) a titrated return to work schedule. If you can initially return to work with a shorter schedule or some days when you work from home, this can help you to reorient and gain confidence.
-You may also want to have a brief, non-working visit to your workplace before you return officially. This will allow you to have the first face-to-face contact with people before you are there in your regular working capacity.
–Plan mini breaks/escapes in your work day. Especially in the first few weeks, it can be helpful to plan walks, times when you can call your partner or have check-ins with a trusted coworker.
–Consider short-term vs. long-term goals. You may not be sure at this moment if you want to change where you work or if you want to start a new profession. It’s OK to start in one direction and change later if that’s the right thing for you.
–Check in with a mental health professional if you have questions about being able to return to work or feel that you could benefit from having a safe place to process your grief during this time.
–As always, keep breathing and have some compassion for yourself. You’ve survived a lot so far and there may be a number of things that have helped you along the way. This is an excellent time to practice every self-care technique you know and to ask for help when you need it.