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Bereavement at work

Even if you have been expecting it for a long time, it is still a shock when someone dies.

If you have been their carer, death can completely change your role in life. If the person who died was your child or an unborn baby, there can be overwhelming feelings of unfairness.

Understanding grief

People grieve in different ways. There is no right or wrong way.

There is a recognised series of stages of grieving, which is a helpful guide as to what to expect.

  • Shock and disbelief. Immediately after a death it can be hard to believe that it has really happened. People can feel numb or even deny the truth.
  • Sadness. Profound sadness is probably the feeling most people experience after a death. It is normal to cry and to feel empty, desolate or deeply lonely.
  • Guilt. People often feel guilty about things they did or didn’t do, or did or didn’t say while the person was alive. They may also feel guilty about some of their own feelings, if they are relieved that someone has died after a long illness, or if they are now relieved of the burden of caring. Or if they didn’t much like the person who has died.
  • Anger. Even if no one was actually at fault for the death, grief can make people angry and resentful about their loss and what they are being made to feel.
  • Fear. Death can trigger a host of worries and fears. People can feel anxious, helpless or insecure. They may even have panic attacks and be fearful of new things.
  • Physical symptoms. Grief is not just an emotional process. People can also experience tiredness, nausea, weakened immune system, weight loss or gain, aches and pains and insomnia.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to."

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist and author (1926-2004)

Grieving may not be a simple linear process. Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace and may go through some of the stages more than once.

Even when someone has reached their new normal, they can be taken by surprise by a sudden burst of grief. The trigger could be a sound, a smell or a random memory. birthdays and anniversaries can be hard. For someone who lost a baby in pregnancy, the due date can be a stark reminder.

Grief is not an illness. Most people are able to make their way through it without counselling or therapy.

Grief is an active process. It does not happen to you; you have to make your way through it. It can sometimes be helpful to think of grief as involving a number of tasks. These are:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Experiencing the pain and emotional aspects of the loss
  • Adjusting to an environment where the dead person is missing
  • Finding ways to remember them
  • Reassessing and/or rebuilding faith or beliefs in the light of the death.

You don’t undertake these tasks one after the other but move constantly back and forth between them.

Who can help

Although grief is not an illness some people have a complicated grief reaction. They can find it difficult to move on in their life, and they can experience a range of symptoms which might mean they need more help.

It’s not possible to set a time frame as everyone is different, but most people will be getting to their new normal within about 18 months or two years.

If this isn’t you and you’re still feeling overwhelmed by grief – maybe you’re not sleeping, have a poor appetite and have symptoms of depression – your GP will be able to help. You could also talk to your occupational health service or find bereavement counselling through a charity.

You don’t have to wait until you are desperate. If you feel you could use some help you should ask.

If your employer is signed up to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), you will have free access to a 24-hour confidential helpline, offering information and advice.

Depending on which provider they work with, you may be able to ask for face-to-face counselling sessions. Your HR team or occupational health will know what is open to you.

Hospice UK has a wealth of information on our website and there are various organisations that offer confidential helplines that are usually free. You can find links to these in the useful resources section.

If you are not comfortable talking but would like to be able to interact with others, you could try an online community. Lots of charities have one of these, including Hospice UK’s Dying Matters blog and ‘Share your story’ page.

They are free to use and can offer a safe and confidential environment to discuss what you are going through and benefit from others’ experience.

Within the workplace

At work you may find that people are awkward about talking about what has happened. They will be worried about upsetting you.

When they offer sympathy, try not to jump down their throat, even if that’s what you feel like doing. It is very hard to know what to say and not everyone will be able to find the right words, though they will try.

Your line manager is likely to be your first line of support. They will want to have a meeting with you to discuss what support you might need. This is likely to cover issues such as how much time you need to arrange the funeral, maybe looking ahead to whether you are an executor in which case you might need time to deal with the will.

This is a chance to talk, if you want to. You can let your manager know what you want your colleagues to hear, for example, whether you will tell them yourself or if you would rather someone else did it.

Your manager may ask whether you would like anyone from work to come to the funeral and if there is anything they need to know if they do.

There may be someone else at work who you can turn to for support. If there is, let your line manager know, especially if you would prefer not to have everyone trying to help.

There are lots of arrangements to be made after a death. We have included further links about these in the useful resources section. Practical tasks that may need time away from work, include:

  • Registration of the death
  • Arranging the funeral
  • Attending the funeral
  • Interment or scattering of ashes
  • Dealing with the estate
  • Organising and attending a memorial event
  • Attending an inquest
  • Attending a trial.

You will need to plan with your line manager when and how long you need to be away. They and your HR team will know what the policy is on bereavement and compassionate leave, and how much time you can take off, both paid and unpaid.

While you are away, you will want to keep in touch. This may just be to confirm the arrangements you have made for returning to work or to let your employer know if something unexpected has come up.

Your contact may be your line manager but it could be another colleague if that makes better sense for your workplace. The important thing is that you know who the right person is.

Respecting diversity

Organisations work hard to respect diversity in their staff, and the Equality Act 2010 sets out their obligations to do so.

You do not have to share information about your religious background but, if you do, it can help your colleagues to say the right thing and provide the right support.

Don’t expect them to know the details. Even within faiths, there are so many different denominations and sects, that your colleagues may need to ask about how your culture and beliefs affect what you need from the workplace when you have been bereaved. For instance, they would need to know:

  • If you need leave to travel to allow them to fulfil religious obligations
  • If there is a cultural expectation that you return the dead person to the country where they were born
  • If there are any cultural practices, such as fasting, which they need to know about
  • Would it be appropriate for colleagues to attend the funeral? If so, is there anything those colleagues need to know? For example, often only men attend Muslim burials
  • If they would like to arrange a collection, what would be a suitable tribute? For example, would flowers be appropriate?

Traumatic death

Any death, even an expected one, is likely to come as a shock when it happens. When a death is completely unexpected the shock and surprise make it even harder to cope with.

Sudden deaths can be natural, such as those caused by illness, like a heart attack or stroke. Others might be:

  • accident
  • suicide
  • murder or manslaughter.

Sudden or unexpected death automatically involves the coroner and an inquest. This is normal and does not imply that anyone is to blame.

Feelings of guilt are a normal part of grief and can be especially strong when someone has been bereaved by suicide. You may feel shame and that others blame you for the death.

These feelings can be experienced even if you cannot possibly be to blame. These are natural feelings but this does not make them any easier to deal with.

Social media means that news and rumours spread quickly and easily. Your colleagues may not have the full facts, especially if the authorities have asked for some details to be kept confidential.

You may want to make sure that your line manager has the true picture so that they can handle any speculation from colleagues.

If the death was the result of murder or manslaughter, the investigation may go on for months or even years. Depending on how you were involved, you may need to attend an inquest or be a witness at a trial.

If you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, there is specialist help to overcome it. Your GP will be able to refer you if necessary.

Bereavement when a baby or child dies

If you have lost a child or a baby, your grief will be coloured by your role as a parent and your instinct to protect a child. It seems simply wrong that a child should die before their parent and unfair that a baby should have no chance of life.

If the baby died before your colleagues even knew you or your partner were pregnant, you could let your line manager know. This is up to you. If you do, they will be able to be supportive and you will avoid awkward misunderstandings.

  • Do not be alarmed if the police have been involved. This is standard practice with all unexpected child deaths even if they are caused by illness.
  • This is not just about small children and babies. A parent who loses an adult child experiences the same feelings of loss and wrongness as any other bereaved parent.

Returning to work after bereavement

Coming back to work after a bereavement can be daunting. Your colleagues are likely to feel awkward talking to you in case they say the wrong thing and upset you.

You can help them by acknowledging their efforts to be considerate. If they know whether you want to talk or not, that will make the workplace easier.

You could ask your line manager or another colleague to speak to them on your behalf if it is too painful for you to do.

It might be easier returning towards the end of the week or on a part-time basis for the first few days, to help you to adjust back into work.

Most people want to be treated as normally as possible after a bereavement. You are still you, with the same skills as before and you may not want to be defined as someone who has been bereaved.

However, there may be times when work is a struggle. You may become forgetful and less able to concentrate because your mind is distracted by bereavement and grief. If your line manager and your colleagues know about your bereavement, they will help you get through these difficult times.

It may be that bereavement means big changes for all aspects of your life. You may need to take on caring responsibilities for children or older relatives. If so, you will want to discuss with your line manager how best to manage this.

They may be able to offer flexible working arrangements to help you to cope. There are further links to bereavement support in the useful resources section.

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