Resuming Work After the Loss of a Husband or Partner
Help for working women who are recently widowed
When a loved one dies, regardless of the circumstances, returning to the workplace can feel like navigating a minefield. Your world has been forever altered, yet you must now step back onto your old path. At the same time, returning to the familiar can provide needed structure, routine, and balance.
According to WISER (the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement), one-third of all widowed women are under the age of 60, and half of all women are widowed by age 65. It seems likely that many of these women face the challenge of return to the workforce after the death of husbands and partners.
Recently, ESME caught up with Rachel Blythe Kodanaz, a grief consultant and author of the books Grief in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide to Being Prepared and Living with Loss, One Day at a Time. Kodanaz helped us better understand the special challenges women face when resuming their working lives after being widowed.
NS: What’s a reasonable amount of time to give oneself before returning to the working world?
RK: Unfortunately, the timing is typically dictated by bereavement leave policies, income requirements, and the fear of losing a job rather than by the griever’s readiness to return to work. Leave policies differ from state to state and are usually at the discretion of the company. As for your own personal readiness, it is important to realize that you will likely experience both a cognitive and emotional shift in your capacity to handle stressful situations following a deep loss.
NS: What’s a typical first day or week like for someone who returns to work after bereavement leave?
RK: The anticipation of returning is often harder than the return itself. Women tend to put up a strong emotional front when seeing coworkers for the first time after a loss and trying to catch up with work. “I can handle this,” is the image they project. Such posturing is a normal coping mechanism, even if it isn’t the whole truth.
The typical person moves forward in her grief journey, with the occasional setback. The more supportive her managers and coworkers are upon her return, the sooner she will gain strength and confidence.
NS: As coworkers, how can we ease the reentry process for someone who has lost a husband or partner, and what should we avoid doing?
RK: Reach out to the griever before she returns. Send her a card or e-mail to let her know she’s on your mind. If it’s appropriate and she’s receptive, visit her at home. Certainly, the employee’s direct manager should be in touch with her before she comes back to work, both to help her feel more comfortable about returning and to update her on what she’s missed.
Welcome her back to the office without making a tremendous fuss. Saying “It’s great to have you back” is sufficient. Beyond that, take your cues from her. Another idea is to consider a “welcome back” gift, such as a plant for her desk.
Even if you used to socialize with this coworker, don’t assume that she’ll be ready to rejoin such activities right away. Mourning is a whole new world for her, and she may need time before rejoining the group.
Avoid comparing personal losses, as everyone experiences grief differently. You might mean well, but you risk coming across as insensitive. Be particularly cautious, too, about labeling the grieving employee or her loss. The wrong turn of phrase could lead someone to be forever labeled as, for example, “the one whose husband was hit by a car.” Labels create a burdensome stigma that could make it harder for an individual to move forward.
NS: What is unique to women who are returning to the workplace after loss?
RK: There are some similarities between grieving men and women: they need time, patience, and understanding. Grief doesn’t just stop after three months—it’s an enduring process—but the raw immediacy of the loss will lessen over time.
Women are more likely to engage in conversation about their experience, whereas men might simply dive back into work. Talking aids in the healing process, unless it becomes an all-day distraction. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance the grieving person needs to take some additional time off to heal.
We women also hold ourselves to high standards. We think we can manage hitting all our work deadlines, socializing with coworkers, baking cookies for our child’s class, going out with our friends, and so on. We have difficulty delegating and saying no. Men, by comparison, are more likely to receive immediate support from friends and neighbors in the form of carpooling, dinners, and so on, and to get a pass on volunteering. When grieving, be realistic about your responsibilities. Drop anything you can that feels burdensome and, by all means, ask for help. You’ll be surprised just how much friends, family members, and colleagues will be willing to pitch in if you just ask.
You can learn more about returning to work after the loss of a husband or partner and related topics at www.rachelkodanaz.com.
Photo Credit Shutterstock.com
Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter: @BoldLivingNow and Facebook: Nancy Sharp.
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