Monthly Archives: October 2014

Returning to Work in a Post-Loss World

h“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.

Potential Challenges

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.

hPotential Benefits

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.

More and Less than Hope

Some of the time the future comes right ‘round to haunt me

Some of the time the future comes ‘round just to see

That all is as it could be

Like it’s there to remind me

We’ve got to wait and see. –Beth Orton, “Conceived”


dahlia-dahlia-174239_640“No one knows anything.”

That’s something I thought and said over and over after my first loss.  No one had known that anything was going wrong in my pregnancy, no one knew afterward exactly what had happened (some of the medical evidence was conflicting) and I was very sure no one knew what would happen next in my life.  My general understanding of how the world worked felt extremely challenged.

I also started having an ambivalent relationship with the word hope.

Merriam Webster gives us the following definition of this four letter word:

HOPE -Noun:  the feeling of wanting something to happen and thinking that it could happen : a feeling that something good will happen or be true

Hope is something others usually want us to feel after our loss.  It’s an understandable and generally well-meaning desire.  We, however, may struggle with the concept.  It’s not like we want to feel hopeless.  It’s just that what we are hoping for- to stop feeling so sad, to have another pregnancy or baby, or to back up to some pre-loss point in our lives- may feel outside our grasp.  We desperately want to feel better but don’t know how or if we’ll get there.  Statements of hope may feel like someone telling us to go swim across the ocean- unreasonable and frustrating.

In my office, I’ve heard of many well-intended statements said to grieving people and their internal responses to the comments:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Really?  Do you know the reason my baby is dead?  Because there can’t be a good enough reason.”

“You’ll have more kids.”

How could you possibly know that?  And even if you are omniscient, do you think this loss will ever be erased or become a non-event in my life?”

“Time heals all wounds.”

What kind of time are we talking here?  Because I don’t know how long I can stand this.”

Rather than hopeful, thoughts after a loss are often along the lines of the following:

-Everything has gone wrong and it’s hard to imagine things changing for the better.

-Even if statistics show a likelihood for something good to happen in the future, it’s hard to forget being on the bad side of statistics in the past.

-Hope feels like a set-up for being sucker punched again.

-Superstitious beliefs make as much sense as anything else, and hope might bring about something bad.

-Positive feelings seem like a betrayal of the baby.

-The big good thing can’t happen.  The loved and lost baby can’t come back,  and therefore nothing else can really be OK.


So how can we possibly feel that something good will happen in the future?

Maybe the obstacle is seeing the “something good in the future” as an outside thing or event that we need to have happen.  The quick physical recovery, a different reaction from our family or friends, another pregnancy, etc. all may or may not  happen.  Additionally,  all of these ideas are likely to be pretty emotionally loaded.   Hope within that framework becomes a tricky proposition.

There is another possibility, however, that is easy to overlook while grieving and waiting to feel hopeful.  It’s that the positive, wished for thing that’s coming is you.  And you’ll show up when you’re good and ready.

Most of us are just not wired to sustain misery indefinitely.  I also don’t think we can (or should try) to snap back out of a loss of someone to whom we were deeply attached.  For myself, I know that I couldn’t feel better until I had thoroughly explored feeling terrible.  It was too big of a loss for me to not feel deeply about.

But I do remember one day driving a familiar route and wondering how a mountain suddenly appeared in the distance.  It hadn’t been noticeable to me for the past few weeks when I had been driving on that same highway in the same direction.  Suddenly, it was impossible to miss and I couldn’t figure out how something so beautiful could have ever been invisible.

Elizabeth McCracken speaks to this concept in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a memoir of her life carrying and grieving her stillborn son:

“Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds.  No it doesn’t, but eventually you’ll feel better.  You’ll be yourself again.  Your child will still be dead.  The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

As I look back, I think there was something that would have been worth betting on in those early, dark days.  There was reason to think something positive would happen.  The good, wonderful thing that I could have hung my hat on was that I would eventually be able to see things differently and feel happy again.  Not because I have psychological training or because I’m so wonderfully resilient, but because, like most people, I am especially human.  And humans are quite adept at waiting out the pain and eventually attaching to other, good parts of their lives.

So maybe you’re ambivalent or resentful about hope and maybe that’s fine.  You might just want to experiment with the possibility that there is something waiting in you that is stronger than your fears and respectful of your pain.  It won’t come as fast as you would like, and I am truly sorry for that.  But if you can begin to consider that something in you can and will shift, there may come a day when you find yourself with a glimpse of something brighter again.  Anyway, it could be worth hoping for.


“A lifetime ain’t no time at all.” -Mary Gauthier, “Lifetime”

"Heaven in Woodwork” by Richard Easterling, 2014

“Heaven in Woodwork” by Richard Easterling, 2014

“I like to look at my baby’s pictures every day.”

“I used to go to the pregnancy and infant loss memorial every year.  I think I have a different way of remembering her now.”

“The day he was born is our family day.  We remember him and we think about who we are as a family.”

The loss of a baby seems to leave us with so very little and so very much.

In my office,  I’ve been handed slippery ultrasound pictures and had people hold up their iphones cued to pictures of sons and daughters wrapped in small blankets.   I’ve seen fresh tattoos of the names of the babies that can’t be physically present and heard the hushed and stunned words of parents speaking about their children’s memorials.

These moments for me are often beyond words.  They are reverent and touching.  They are heartbreaking.  And they are beautiful in their display of honesty, connection and love.

Sometimes we worry about what we are supposed to be thinking or doing after the loss of a baby.  Is it unhealthy to cry so much and to want to talk about the baby all of the time?  Is it OK to keep the pictures of our baby in view?  Should we repaint the nursery and get rid of the clothes?    What about laughing-  do we ever get to do that again?

There may be so many reasons for these concerns:  guilt about focusing too much or too little on our loss, social pressure to not make others uncomfortable and the burning desire to “get it right” with our grief process in order to find a way out of this staggering pain.

All very understandable…

Another understandable reason may be our fear of being changed.  Or maybe we already feel changed in such a scary or painful way that we want to rush out and prop up the previous trappings of our life.  Maybe we can form our face back into a smile, talk about the weather, work or if the Giants have a shot in the post-season this year.  Then maybe we can feel OK again.

When we attach to a pregnancy or baby, a lot of our being voluntarily or involuntarily commits to a wild ride.  And if we lose that pregnancy or baby, we are affected in all kinds of ways.  Yes, that high price for love and connection does have to get paid- we’re changed by the experience.

But that doesn’t mean we need to fear or fight the change.  You are crying and miserable and thinking about your baby because you are missing someone you love.  This isn’t some distorted or bad version of you, this is just you on grief.  You don’t know yet where that may take you, but I promise you it will change again.

You might be feeling being stretched beyond capacity and challenged, but you’re still here.  It may be extremely meaningful and important to kiss your baby’s picture every night.  It might be very healing for you to make a scrapbook or visit your baby’s grave every day.  And it may be wonderful and important to laugh at a good (or bad) joke and notice something pretty in the world today.  Maybe the only rule right now is to try to let your emotions show up most of the time.

Strong feelings about relationships indicate our ability to feel the pain and beauty of our messy lives and be touched by what we experience.  It’s not a detour from living, it is living.  It means we’re connected, even if we feel mostly broken.  It means we are still here and that there is more to come.