Returning to Work after the Loss of Your Child
I couldn’t fathom having to show up to work and explain to my classes what had happened.
My first daughter, Reese, was stillborn in January 2013. At the time I was teaching 7th grade, and the idea of returning to work was terrifying and seemed almost impossible to consider – after all, I had spent the entire first half of my school year with my students, forming relationships with them, and bringing them along on my pregnancy journey as they watched me grow closer and closer to my due date. I couldn’t fathom having to show up to work and explain to my classes what had happened.
Take your maternity leave. Because our loss was unexpected, I did not have a plan in place for my maternity leave other than to spend eight weeks at home. Looking back on it now, I was fortunate that my employer worked with me so that I was able to extend my leave for four months through short-term disability and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Plan ahead for your return. After Reese passed, I struggled with extreme anxiety, depression, and fear of leaving my house. I spent my entire maternity leave at home and kept the lines of communication open with my employer. I chose to return to work in April, knowing that that I could get through the last two months of the school year and have the rest of the summer off. Having that plan helped me cope with the stress and anxiety involved in returning to teaching. If possible, plan a vacation or time off in the future so you have something to look forward to when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Before my planned return, I scheduled a visit to see my co-workers.
Test the waters. One of my biggest fears about returning to work was how I would face my students and continue to teach. My principal helped by meeting with each of my classes shortly after Reese died and explaining what happened. This way the children knew and had time to process before I returned.
Another fear with returning to work was leaving home, driving 45 minutes alone, and showing up at a building that I had not seen since I was pregnant. Before my planned return, I scheduled a visit to see my co-workers. My husband came with me, and I was able to see my classroom, hug, cry, and talk with my team before returning to the students. That visit was instrumental in easing my anxiety. If possible, scheduling a pre-visit, sending an email prior to your return, or easing your way back into your full-time routine can help to make the transition smoother.
Have a support system in place. As a middle school teacher, I had a built-in support system with my co-teachers, who were more like friends. They were there through every step of my pregnancy and never left my side as I went through such a traumatic time in my life. This helped me feel supported, loved, and safe when I returned to work. Two mothers I worked with had experienced the death of their children later in life, and I was grateful to have their support, wisdom, and guidance throughout this whole process. Plan ahead to have a “work buddy” that you know you can contact at anytime when those fears start to creep in at work.
Seek outside/professional support. Before returning to work, I started seeing a therapist weekly. She helped me cope with my grief and overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss, but more importantly, gave me tools to use when I was struggling with crippling anxiety. I learned that even in the worst-case scenario, I could deal with these emotions and know how to find someone to help if I needed help. By starting therapy before returning to work, I began to regain confidence in myself and my abilities to return to “normal” life.
Go easy on yourself, be gentle with yourself,
and have a “backup plan” or two ready for when things don’t go as planned.
Trust your instincts. You may be surprised at the level of kindness and support you receive when you return to work. I was flooded with genuine love and support from my co-workers, administrators, and students. Being with my students really did help me overcome my anxiety and helped in re-adjusting to life in the “real world”.
You will experience days that are extremely difficult or times when you feel like you just can’t make it through the day. If you know that you have other options, such as working from home, when you are facing a particularly challenging day, it won’t seem so scary when you finally are ready to return to your old routine. Go easy on yourself, be gentle with yourself, and have a “backup plan” or two ready for when things don’t go as planned.
Making changes. Everyone’s experience is unique as they navigate returning to work after child loss. If you find that your work environment is not offering you the support you need or is contributing to more stress and anxiety, don’t be afraid to make a change.
In my personal experience, I finished the school year with my students and eased into summer. Toward the end of summer, I was told that I would be transferred to teach at another school and grade level the following year. This was an involuntary transfer. I was angry, distraught, and overwhelmed that my employer would do this to me, especially considering what I had just endured. I eventually realized that despite my unique situation, there were certain people at my job who did not have my best interests at heart, and I chose to leave.
Although finding a new job after losing Reese was challenging, it actually ended up being what I needed to continue to grow stronger, more confident, and able to cope with returning to a full-time job. I maintained support from my friends, prior co-workers, family, and therapist, but also found a sense a newness and fresh optimism that came with starting a new job.
Do not be afraid to make a change when your instincts tell you to do so. After all, going through the grieving and healing process isn’t a straight line or set of steps that you magically follow, it’s about trusting your own feelings, grieving at your own pace, being your own advocate, and doing what feels best for you.