For me, like so many others, work takes up a fair bit of time and energy. It’s inevitable that the way we respond, in our workplaces, to bereavement, and the way colleagues respond to us, plays an important role in how we deal with it. This year’s theme for Dying Matters Week – bereavement at work – resonates much more with me this year than other years. On the 23rd December 2022 my wonderful friend Helen died after a car accident. It was coupled with the sudden death, just one day earlier, of Katie, a colleague who was instrumental in the Enhance programme. Both women in their 40’s without prior health conditions and both I can remember the last thing I said to them without the faintest clue that this would be the last conversation we’d have.
I’m not suggesting that a sudden loss is worse than another loss, or the age of the person who has died makes it less or more painful for those left behind. But for me, the sudden and shocking nature meant there was no time to prepare for the whirlpool of grief that I was about to be sucked into.
Helen’s death hit me like a bullet, I thought we had years of camping holidays and long walks ahead of us. Helen was the first friend I made on my course at Uni and was one of those wonderful people you could sit and say nothing to, and just be happy in their presence. Even in tears I smile at the thought of her wonderful, huge, beaming, genuine smile. The enormous waves of grief have been hard and although through studying and volunteering I am very aware of the theories around grief, the intensity of feelings and the unpredictable nature of grief has surprised me.
From my previous experience of bereavement I am very aware that as a society we don’t talk about death and loss enough. Many of us (me included) don’t know what to say. We feel we may make the situation worse or say the wrong thing.
I knew that when I returned to work after the Christmas break I wanted to be clear on what I needed from work as I knew that Helen and Katie’s death would be a very difficult thing for me to face. I dreaded the ‘have you had a nice Christmas?’ conversations.
I felt aware that I needed the understanding of others to give me compassion and a bit of leeway. I have made more mistakes at work over the last three months than I’d want to admit. I’ve found it hard to concentrate on the details of tasks and at times felt anxious as if I couldn’t totally trust myself and emotions. I suppose I feel the need to share as some of these feelings and experiences are part of the grief journey and can often be misunderstood and can feel isolating.
I found telling people that Helen had died the hardest thing to do. I knew I wanted to tell everyone, at times I wanted others to feel the loss of such a beautiful soul as I did. Verbally telling people was so difficult for me, I’d get upset and the words wouldn’t come. Instead I emailed the office team and told them what had happened. I explained that I was happy for people to ask questions and ask how I was, if I got upset it wasn’t their fault and by talking to me about it wouldn’t make it worse. The response from the whole team was of compassion and deep care.
I know that people can think that by asking about the person who has died, you are reminding someone of their loss. Often people carry that loss with them all of the time, they haven’t forgotten and by asking it is a nod that someone cares and that the person has lived. For me, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is so helpful when genuinely meant and I have had the positive experience of feeling genuinely cared for by those around me. It has also been incredibly helpful when others have asked how I was and most importantly being there and listening to the answer. Not looking over your shoulder or wanting to move the conversation on. Through the empathy of others I have felt stronger and able to get back to work.
It was important for me to share and explain that I might not be as ‘on it’ as I hope to be at other times. This does take confidence, but having a team around you that you can trust is also so important. I am lucky to have such a team. Some of the support I received was as simple as people asking how I was, checking I had the support I needed, being clear on compassionate leave and the ability to take breaks and work flexibly when I felt overwhelmed.
Bereavement can be a lonely place and doesn’t have a time limit. For me the pain of grief comes in waves of intensity and duration, but having supportive relationships at home and work have helped me enormously. My six year old on seeing me cry asked ‘Mummy, will you always be sad about Helen?’, to which I replied ‘Probably, but maybe not as much”.
Enhance Programme Manager / Good Practice Mentor Manager