Just after New Year, with little fanfare, my Maternity Leave ended, and I became unemployed. I don’t really know where the future will take me in terms of working and a career, but for now we will just see what happens. But noticing the date of my contract ending, made me reflect on the relatively brief period of returning to work after Leo died, prior to restarting Maternity Leave for Eli. This period, although only about seven months, was incredibly challenging – so I wanted to write about the things I learnt, in the hope that it might help others going through it.
I returned to work at the end of my paid period of Maternity Leave after Leo died – about nine months after he was born. It was also about a week before we discovered that I was pregnant with Eli.
I started the process of discussing my return to work in August… but the mental preparation to just even allowing myself to think about it probably had to start much earlier than that. The initial thoughts on returning to work in general gave me intense anxiety and an overwhelming fear. I had several panic attacks just having a conversation about it. I had spent the vast majority of my maternity leave up until that point sitting quite snuggly in my comfort zone (i.e. my sofa, reading books, listening to music, watching The Gilmore Girls, writing, and making very little eye contact with anyone). The thought of stepping back into the world of before was excruciatingly painful and incredibly scary.
I left work at 34 weeks pregnant, on the 23rd December 2015, with such glee, and excitement. We were going to have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and then do final preparations for our baby – our baby that we had spent the best part of three years working for. It was all finally happening. Until it wasn’t. Three weeks later, he was dead, I gave birth, and life as we knew it, had ended. The beginning of the new normal.
The central aspects to my fear regarding returning to work was the fact that my hospital, where Leo was born, is a five minute walk from my office. The drive to the hospital, that we did that day, was my commute to work. A twice daily 45 minute drive. I had parked opposite my office for our last ‘good’ scan with Leo two days before he died. I remember it all so vividly. Work and the hospital were linked in so many ways – to return to work, I was having to place myself in the centre of my trauma, every day. And that doesn’t just come from the hospital and the memories of his death and birth – but the vivid memories of pregnancy that I also had. Its a sad fact that you spend more time at work than you do anywhere else, so over the course of fertility treatments and Leo’s pregnancy, a lot of my memories centre around the office.
This is a lot to hold and keep your shit together.
I wouldn’t describe my return to work as an easy process at all. It was absolutely a massive contributor to how hard I found Eli’s pregnancy, and set me back in my healing and grief for so many different reasons. I can feel the difference hugely since being back on Maternity Leave. As I said, I had previously created a wonderful comfort zone. Returning to work was very much a case of leaving it.
I was pregnant for the third time (an exhausting, relentless task in itself), adjusting to being around people (some who knew about Leo, some who didn’t), finding the general noise of the office a huge anxiety trigger (noise is still a huge barrier to my zen), trying my hardest to keep panic attacks at bay (didn’t succeed at this at all really), trying to keep my pregnancy-after-loss-shit together which at times (most of the time) was impossible, all whilst just ‘casually’ popping in and out of the MAU (another huge emotional turmoil). At one point, my anxiety got so bad, I headed over to the hospital at lunch in tears, to be kept in for four hours and have Perinatal Mental Health check me over. Winning at life, right there!
My anxiety got to the point that I had no choice but to request working from home. Which helped enormously. I could work, I enjoy what I do, and I’m good at it. But being in the office, surrounded by noise and misunderstanding, being at the central place of my trauma, trying to keep my anxiety quiet – this, I couldn’t do. But being at home allowed me to actually do my work and my anxiety was so much better.
My challenges at work weren’t all reflective of being pregnant again, although it was no doubt a huge influencer to the struggles that I had. I would say that my emotional response was probably 50/50 PAL and Grief. Both work wonders at stirring each others pots, but mostly it’s hard to separate the two. You just have to ride out whatever emotions you are dealt that day.
So, in reflection I wanted to gather some ‘tips’ for anyone else venturing back to work – although, you are probably thinking my experience doesn’t create much hope, and tips from me aren’t going to help…
- Change it up. When I returned to work, I had to make some things different so the old me and the new me didn’t collide too often. It just felt odd to feel familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. So, I changed my commute to work (and accepted the extra traffic), got some new work clothes and listened to a different radio station (Nick Grimshaw for the commute in just took me right back to driving in feeling Leo kicks). It doesn’t sound like much, but I was a different person, and I needed to not ‘feel’ like my old self or have things too familiar. I also initially made some good upbeat playlists to listen too – a 45 minute drive on your own can be quite grief inducing, and I arrived many times having to wipe away my tears, but the music helped at times to keep me upbeat as much as possible.
- Ask for flexibility. It was important to me that I was open and honest that I wasn’t going to be able to perform in the way that I used to. I was anxious, easily panicky, fragile. I used my KIT days and remaining annual leave to create a staggered, phased return, that lasted about two months. This was really helpful to getting me used to being in the office again, without being too intense, too quickly. I also reduced my hours by dropping a day a week – I knew straight away that I needed the extra time for my grief. I knew also that arriving earlier at work would allow me time to adjust, and sort my shit out if needs be, before the office life really kicked off. It wasn’t much, but it was helpful. It also meant that I would be home earlier (530pm) as well, giving a slightly longer evening to recover from the day and for us both to support each other after a day apart. Eventually, working from home was really the only way I was able to continue working. These things are possible, and you are entitled to at least ask and find a way that works for everyone.
- Utilise advice. I read the SANDS Returning to Work booklet, and it suggested sending an email round prior to going back to explain whatever you wanted to explain. This was important to me as I hadn’t had much contact with my colleagues so I wanted to clear up any misunderstandings about why Leo died, and let people know that they could talk to me about him and use his name. It may not have had the full desired effect, but it helped at least break the ice initially.
- Find your tribe. In and out of work, its important to have support, even if its just dropping a text or a quick email. I quickly found where my support was at work, and was incredibly grateful for it. Equally, having fellow baby loss friends as well as those who were pregnant again helped me voice my concerns or frustrations where I knew that they would be understood – this is so important, as I acknowledge many people aren’t really able to deal with the stress that grief, loss and anxiety create. I also made sure my Midwife and Tommy’s Midwives numbers were in my phone, so that If I needed support (which I often did), I could quite easily walk away from my desk, and make that phone call.
- Get respite. Returning to work is hard. Pregnant again or not. Depending on how supportive your colleagues and management are, and how much joy your work now gives you – it can be a huge influencing factor on your healing and grief. Get away from the office at break times, slowly breathe in fresh air and find some nature. I often would grab my lunch and a hot chocolate, and just sit in the park, close my eyes, and breathe. Do what you need to do to recover from your work days also – find a way to wind down, seek support, relax, get a good balance, refer back to point two about flexility. Your self care is paramount – no-one can work long term under that much pressure. Grief needs time to be free, unfortunately.
If you are an employer, or a colleague to someone returning after baby loss, I wanted to share a few tips that may help them return.
- Keep in contact. It doesn’t have to be often, but keep in contact enough to make them know that they will have an ally when they return, that the ice has been broken, and so you understand more about how that person has responded to their loss.
- Read and act on what they share. If you are friends on social media, or if they send an email perhaps before returning, please read and act on it. Respond, make contact, show support. It can be incredibly isolating putting yourself ‘out there’ to minimal response. Show them that doing so was worthwhile, that you’ve listened and that you are there for them.
- Read the guidance. SANDS and other charities do useful ‘Returning to Work’ booklets for more employee and employer/colleague benefit (more below). I’d urge anyone to read it, it is there for that reason after all. I’d especially urge you to read it if its been specifically sent to you for the purpose. There’s a reason.
- Be flexible. Understand that this is challenging for them. Accept that you may not understand why or how. Because of this you may just need to go with the flow a little, be flexible, and keep an open mind. Most people who return to work, want and/or need to be there, but they just need a helping hand. They may also need a good few confidence boosters. Recognise moments when this can help. Have a break with them, make them a cuppa, ask them how they are, allow them to walk away if needs be, check in, listen.
- Engage. Don’t assume. Don’t make decisions in private for what you feel is their benefit. Talk to them, ask them what they need or want. Be prepared that this may change often. Empower them by allowing them to have choice in these decisions.
- Expectations. Adjust them as they settle back in. Don’t necessarily expect them to perform at full standard, but equally don’t expect them to perform at no standard. They are still capable, and with time and support, they will most likely be able to perform at a high standard again. If they aren’t, ask yourself, what can I do to help them? Have I asked them how they are coping?
- Talk to them. They are still human. They can make conversation still. Their grief is not catching. Engage with them about their child. Ask them their name. Follow their lead. You don’t need to be asking personal questions, but you can ask questions like “I saw that you were fundraising, how is that going?”, “I know its their birthday coming up, can I ask if you have any plans for the day?” or simply, “I’m so sorry, how are you getting on?” The silence is crushing. Believe me. The quieter other people are, the louder the grief is in your head, and the harder it is to stay calm.
- Don’t judge them. There may be things that you don’t understand about their loss, or how they have responded to it, or how they are now behaving. Please, do not judge them. They do not need that. They need acceptance, and love, and kindness. No-one can ever fully understand another person, but everyone can act with kindness. Perhaps consider the following if you see something out of character : “They aren’t normally like that, I wonder if something has happened today to upset them” and then perhaps make a cuppa, and check in with them.
Please do share in the comments if there is anything in particular that has helped you when returning to work following a bereavement, trauma or loss.
Most of all, if you find yourself unsure as an employee or an employer, there are many many places for support and guidance:
Please do share in the comments if there is anything in particular that has help you when returning to work following a bereavement, trauma or loss.
– J x