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…
Just tried to post comment but it won’t let me! Anyway, great post. SO much helpful stuff here. I remember when my mom died I was so happy that I didn’t not have a work to go back to. But now I can see how healing work can be—IF you have kindness in the workplace. Thanks!
Warmly, Suzanne >
Not sure what happened there, but it’s posted on my end! I am so glad you found the article helpful Suzanne. I think it is underestimated the toll work takes on the bereaved. Of course it is always a positive and negative experience, each day being a rollercoaster with or without work. Yes, I agree – kindness and compassion from those around us eases the stress. It always seems to me that those who “get it” are those who have survived a loss or experienced deep suffering – they have a better understanding of how to journey with us.
GG, a really important topic. It’s pretty amazing how people are so uneasy around those who are bereaved, given the fact that death is such a part of life.
I think a lot of the problems stem from the fact that everyone has different ways of dealing with grief – and each loss can be treated so differently by any one individual.
I think there is an onus on all of us to try and ascertain as sensitively as possible how people want us to be with them, especially in work situations or other so called ‘normal’ activities.
In ways it’s easier if no one knows about the loss!
I agree that it is strange that in a world where death is reported daily, it is still a taboo subject for many. Yes, it is our job as co-workers to ascertain how best to support others on the job – unfortunately, I think some just find that too challenging so they choose not to make the time. Interesting point that it may be easier if no one knows about the loss however, most of us wear the pain in our faces, our bodies and spirits – it’s hard to cover up grief!
I agree that it’s hard to cover up grief but not that many people are good at reading feelings. I’m not suggesting it’s the best approach to take but it can give one a rest from the whole issue and avoid those awkwardnesses.
True! And some days/hours or minutes you just need to leave it behind. Whatever is needed at the moment for self-healing is the best approach!
“…the most random time and places can bring them back.” This was your comment on a previous post, GG, and I can say that time and places have triggered memories and feelings of grief for me. I’m in my mid 50s, and have had a number of family members and friends die in the last few years. Grief is a very difficult emotion… loss, sadness, and the concern that losses will only continue as the years go by. Time with the Lord helps; also, I’ve participated in some support groups around the holidays and have read about grief. It’s hard to move on and heal. (Perhaps changes in female hormones are also a contributor.) I try to be grateful for the many blessings I have. Other insight on how to “greet grief” would be welcome.
I applaud you for spending “time with the Lord” and for recognizing the fact that hormones may be a contributor as I believe they probably are! I sense that you are trying to “heal” as gratitude is a powerful tool as you move through grief. I think the most important way to “greet grief” is to acknowledge wherever you are on any given day and accept it! Don’t apologize, don’t over-analyze and don’t criticize yourself for how you feel – it is ALL Normal, Necessary and Natural (taken from Patrick Dean – the 3 N’s of Grief!)
I had planned to join all of you tonight at the Blue Christmas service, but had a sudden onset of a sore throat, lots of sneezing, and fatigue this afternoon. I wouldn’t want to bring this to others, so will stay home and nurse the illness.
I left a voicemail at your church, hoping I could share my greetings to all who attend the service and coffee, but staff were gone for the day.
Lord willing, the church will offer the service again next year, and I’ll be able to come. I’m sad I won’t be there, but it motivated me to seek out sermons on Blue Christmas. If you’re so inclined, please post onto your Twitter account (from sermonaudio.com):
God bless, keep and comfort all of you in this holy season.
Renee – just saw this as I have been away from writing for way too long! We all commented that we hoped you were doing well and that we missed you! We had 10 participants , most of whom were new and very raw in grief – so we felt it was a success. Yes, I believe this will be an ongoing part of our ministry at MCLC so please come next year. Blessings to you in 2016!
It was so good to read your reply. I missed all of you, too, but made the right decision to stay home that night. (I was in the contagious stage, and wouldn’t have wanted to pass it on.)
(Sorry for the delayed response… I found the draft of this note hadn’t been sent.)
It was such a blessing to attend Blue Christmas in years past, and it has actually become a sort of “tradition” for my holiday season. All of you helped me to focus on looking to the Lord in the sadness of the season. I saw that steps were made in the grief-recovery process each year I went. I hope all of you can say the same, and I’m so glad that those 10 people found your church. Thank you for this ministry. Lord willing, I will participate again in 2016. If you have the date at this very early part of the year, please send and I’ll set the day aside.
Thanks to all of you for the kindness, ministry, website, and other blessings. [😊] May God bless and keep you!
Renee, your kind words impact me greatly, thank you! I am so glad that you have felt that the service has brought you healing – that is always our goal!! I believe the service will always be on Dec. 21st, the longest night of the year! Hope that we will see you in 2016! Peace to you until we meet again 🙂