Back to work, with grief in tow | Empathy
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Grief & Grieving

Back to work, with grief in tow

Important tips for easing back into work life after loss


  • Try to settle into a routine before actually returning to work.

  • Give yourself little breaks throughout the work day to decompress or grieve.

  • Expecting emotional moments at work is key to being able to deal with them.

  • Rushing and burying yourself in work too soon might have adverse effects on your overall mental health.

  • Listen to your inner voice about how much to take on, and honor your limits when you reach them.


When someone you love has recently died, it can feel like your whole world has come to a sudden halt. So it can be tough to confront the moment you must get back into a daily routine—and even tougher when returning to a professional environment. 

Unfortunately, most working people in the U.S. only get a few days of paid time off to grieve, if they get any. But no matter how long you’re able to be away from your job, it most likely feels like it’s too soon to go back to it. It is probably going to be rough for a little while. However, there are a few simple steps you may want to take to feel more prepared when you step back into your working life.

Start slow

If you know that you’ll need to be returning to an office or job site soon, it may be helpful to rev up your emotional thresholds by tricking your brain into settling into a routine. Even though you’re not going back to work yet, set an alarm for the time you’d usually need to get up, eat breakfast, and get ready as you normally would. 

If you have a few more days, after spending some time adjusting to the first part of your day, stretch your limbs a little further and leave the house at your regularly scheduled time. You can go run errands, go to the gym, or just go for a walk with the dog. Exposing yourself to public life during the workday hours can help you prep for being composed around your coworkers and peers.  

You can also slowly take on small work-related tasks before you’ve officially returned, such as catching up on your email or having a one-on-one meeting about coming back with your boss. However, if you start to feel exhausted or like you’re taking on too much, slow back down. 

Work as a distraction

As the day you'll be returning nears, make a list of things you’re excited about when it comes to going back to work. Maybe you left a big opportunity or project undone and you’re going to get some small joy out of finishing it. Or maybe it’s something as simple as chatting with a friend in the office. 

Whether your job is technical, creative, or strategic, it can take up some of the idle space in your mind that, right now, is consumed by your grief. If you’re anxious, remind yourself that some distraction can be a good thing—and a productive distraction is often even better. 

If possible, find a way to step away from your job and your peers periodically to process your feelings.

If you have some flexibility once you’re back, try to take on work or tasks that feel stimulating so that you’re engaged and content to be putting your energy toward them. Make to-do lists at the beginning of your day to stay on track, and be sure to give yourself little breaks to decompress or grieve. 

Be prepared to be taken by surprise

Obviously, no amount of prep work or distraction will erase the memories of, thoughts of, and love you feel for the person who is gone. You wouldn’t want them to, even if they could. 

When those emotional moments inevitably happen at work, you might be tempted to chase those feelings away. Instead, embrace them. If possible, find a way to step away from your job and your peers as soon as you can to process the feelings. This can be a trip to the restroom, a short walk, or maybe even just going to make a cup of tea in the kitchen. No matter what you do, expecting that these emotions will come is key to being able to deal with them.

Addressing your coworkers and friends

The people who work with you will likely have a range of responses when you return to the office, including awkward avoidance, or comments that might strike you as insensitive. The people around us who are not in the process of grieving often do not know what to say or how to act around someone who has just experienced a loss. 

You may also feel emotions you might not have anticipated around returning to work, such as guilt.

Be prepared for this, and try to be understanding, even when it’s difficult. They are most likely trying to be respectful and compassionate, even if they are failing. If it brings up negative feelings, return to your emotional-response strategies, and make room for your need to forgive them. It is difficult, but you do not want any lingering discomfort or anger to affect your professional relationships.

Dealing with guilt 

You may also feel emotions you might not have anticipated around returning to work, such as guilt. By going back to your daily routine, you may have a sense of trying to “get over” the loss of your loved one or forget the weight of their loss. It might even begin to feel like you are dishonoring their memory. 

If you find yourself dwelling on thoughts like these, remember that this person loved you in and through your daily routines. Even if they weren’t necessarily someone who regaled you for your professional achievements, they lived alongside of you in that life—and they would most likely want you to continue living it fully. 

Balancing work and other responsibilities 

Depending on when you have to return to work, you might have to do your day job while settling aspects of your loved one’s estate or planning memorials, all while maintaining other aspects of daily life. It can be difficult to find a way to do it all—in many cases, you just can’t. 

Enlist the help of a close family member or spouse to tackle your to-do list, and set aside dedicated time to work on any paperwork or tasks related to your loss. While it might not eliminate the pressure completely, it can help compartmentalize it, allowing you to focus on one thing at a time. 

The people whom you work closely with know you are grieving, and they will be understanding while you adjust to getting back to work. Take it slow and check in with yourself; rushing and burying yourself in work too soon might have adverse effects on your overall mental health. Everyone does this at a different pace, and that’s OK. Listen to your inner voice about how much to take on, and honor your limits when you reach them ●

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Grief & Grieving

Grief & Grieving

Grief isn’t a feeling. It’s a process. Everyone experiences it differently, and you are the only one who can feel your feelings. But some understanding may help you come to grips with what you are going through.

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