I feel like everyone sees the big, bold-letter ‘W’ painted on my forehead as I enter the hospital this morning. Looking at my feet as much as possible, I put on my scrubs. In my numbed state of grief, I walk through the locker room to my work station, to get report on the baby I will care for today.
I am a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of a large urban hospital. Nothing has changed about my job. But everything has changed in my life as of three weeks ago, when I unexpectedly became a Widow.
Everyone around me at work has also changed. The once talkative, lively group of adrenaline-driven doctors and nurses are now reserved, quickly looking away when we make eye contact.
Some approach me offering a two-second hug, others mumble “we’re glad you’re back” but most retreat to their work stations, turning their thoughts back to tasks.
Then the night nurse gives me the detailed report of the child to whom I am assigned.
Looking down into the isolette as she begins, I recognize the appearance and the inevitable diagnosis of the fragile baby clinging to life.
DEATH is coming, and it will almost certainly come on my shift.
And all I can think, all I can say in my mind is – “Are you kidding! Who the hell assigned ME to this on my first day back?”
I’m not sure if it’s panic, or my first attempt at self-care, but whatever is leading me to do it, I rush out of the room and find the head nurse. Telling her, “I will either go home or you will reassign me to a baby that won’t die today!”
As a matter of fact, I continue to tell her that for several months. I tell them I won’t go to high-risk deliveries, on ambulance transfers or anything else that requires extra brain power. It is hard enough to do my job, showing up fully present and pushing the grief aside for eight hours.
I learn that I am in charge of education. Educating the people around me about what I am feeling and needing at any given time. Telling them it’s okay to talk about Chris and his death, but that it’s not okay to talk behind my back, or assume what I am feeling.
I teach them that when I’m around it’s not okay for them to bitch about their husbands not making dinner or complain that they don’t put the toilet seat down – my perspective is different now.
But the most important lesson I end up teaching all of us, is that it is still okay to use the best stress reliever – Laughter – so that I will remember how it sounds.
When my husband Chris died in 1990, I was not aware of any attempts by the Human Resource Department or the leadership team to educate my fellow-workers on grief before my arrival back to work.
Writing this, I find myself thinking about things that hadn’t occurred to me before. I don’t know if I got paid for a certain amount of days off. Frankly, I don’t think I cared. My priority was to grieve, take time off to be with my son, and come back to work only when I knew I wouldn’t be at risk of killing someone! Working with neonates, lives were in my hands and despite the fog, I knew this.
There is a great article on one of my favorite blogs “What’s Your Grief?” that is all about going back to work. You can read it here. It provides a lot of questions to ponder before you enter back into the work force.
One statement in the article I disagree with is, “Help your coworkers to understand grief. Don’t worry this doesn’t have to be your job!” Actually, I think it does become a part of your job and that’s another reason going back to work can be extremely difficult.
YOU are the best option for communicating your needs and feelings and to give your co-workers specific instructions on how they can help.
I wish this weren’t so, but in talking with many people about their grief journey; they did the job, often in subtle ways – like leaving a pamphlet in the break room about how to help someone after a loss. Others left the grief book they were reading out for their co-workers to see, or spoke to another worker who experienced a loss to find out what was helpful to them.
As with all things related to GRIEF, everyone approaches things differently, including how and when to go back to work. What is the right time for you? What is the worst thing that can happen? Do you have a contingency plan? Then go for it and WORK your way back into life…
You can read a previous blog post related to this topic entitled, Grieve And Now Go Back To Work. I’d also love to hear whether you had to educate your co-workers about grief when you went back to work, or if you were lucky enough to have a HR department that helped educate those around you? Leave your comments…