Grief at work: moving on is the hardest job ever


UK – Why do we spend time debating a woman’s role when another life begins, but not what to do when a loved one’s life ends?

I can’t remember much about returning to work after my husband Neil died. But then most things about those dark months remain a blur.

Sometimes I was so bewildered I couldn’t find my way in, despite living minutes away. If I made it, I often stared blankly at a screen, telling anyone who challenged me where they should go, with no obscenity spared.

As time went on I continued to struggle. My grief was raw. Having lost my husband to cancer weeks after his 44th birthday, six months after his diagnosis, I was a shell of my former self. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I wasn’t just grieving for me but for Neil as well – his anguish at leaving me and our daughters left me broken.

As I cursed anyone for daring to ask how I was before opting to go home and sit vacantly in front of Homes under the Hammer, working more hours was out of the question. But still I kept trying before I was ready.

Three years on, I consider myself lucky – well, when it comes to work, anyway. I’d started a small business when my twin daughters, now 16, were four, and this allowed me what I consider the privilege of having as much time as I wanted. I suspect I may have ended up without a job had I worked for anyone else.

Not everyone has such a luxury of choice.

Why is it that we spend so much time debating a woman’s role or leave from work when another life begins – as we did with Marissa Mayer – but the equally, if not more, pressing matter of what to do when a loved one’s life ends remains a taboo?

Louise Smith, whose husband Richard died aged 52, has worked with bereavement charity Cruse and helped launch bereavement at work guidelines with ACAS.

She says: “I have heard so many awful stories of companies getting it so badly wrong when one of their employees has been bereaved. It struck me that although most companies will have policies on other leave entitlements, very few fully understand the complex and very different requirements for bereavement leave, and for managing their bereaved employees’ return to work.

“What is apparent is that it is largely down to an individual’s line manager as to how the process is managed; to their interpretation of the policy.

“Some people for example, have had extremely positive experiences while working for the NHS after the death of their partner, but others have had very different and more difficult experiences and this has been down to how their management have interpreted the bereavement policy.”

It’s now a year since the ACAS guidelines were published. Smith believes there is still a huge amount of work to be done in this area.

“The guidelines were just that, and no organisation is obliged to adhere to them. I know that Lucy Herd, a mother, who started a campaign for a statutory length of bereavement leave following the death of her son, is continuing to campaign for legislation in this area.”

Asked what employers still have to learn, Smith says that everyone is different.

“While some people may need to return to work straight away for some semblance of routine and structure, others may need longer to adjust to their new life.

“They need to listen to the individual needs of their employees and do their best to accommodate them as sensitively as possible. And they need to consider that specific dates, such as the anniversary of the death or the loved one’s birthday, may be particularly difficult.

The charity WAY (Widowed and Young), of which both Smith and I are members, says there are very positive examples of people being supported through bereavement, but much is left to be done in encouraging a better understanding.

“Many of our members have had horrendous experiences returning to work after their partner has died,” said WAY’s chairman Georgia Elms. “Grieving in itself can be a full-time job in the first few weeks and months of bereavement. The guide that Louise has helped to put in place will help to make workplaces more compassionate for bereaved people in future.”

At the time of the guideline launch last year, WAY members shared their stories.

“I returned to work after two and a half months,” says one. “The lack of understanding and support was incredible. No-one spoke to me about my husband or the situation – the ultimate elephant in the room.”

A civil service employee said: “I went back too quickly: funeral on the Friday, returned to work on the Monday. I sat down and the guy sitting opposite me asked if I’d been on holiday. I was aghast that he didn’t know and had to explain my husband had died of cancer.

“He was mortified. I think work colleagues should be told so they can say they are sorry and not have to guess where you have been. HR have not contacted me at all. I have two children who were both in infant school when my husband died seven months ago. I work full time. I’d have liked some acknowledgement of what I have been through and am going through.”

Smith makes a brilliantly simple point about how employers can help.

She says: “It’s important to remember that there is a real business driver to ensure employees are treated well at their most vulnerable time – people remember the good and the bad. People going through a particularly vulnerable period will be highly likely to reward a compassionate and empathetic employer with loyalty and motivation.”

I can only hope more bosses take on Smith’s words of wisdom. Moving on is the hardest job ever.