Dorothy

Returning to work after losing a child

*Trigger warning – baby loss, neonatal death, bereavement, grief*

I will start this post by saying that I am in a fortunate position – my workplace, managers and colleagues have been very supportive and caring since Dorothy died. I am aware that not everyone has the same experience, and I’m sorry if you’re finding returning to work difficult outside of the usual reasons.

In the UK, if your baby is born alive at any gestation, you are entitled to your full maternity leave. I took four months, where I painted furniture, dyed my hair pink, watched a lot of TV, started jogging, and attempted to begin putting myself back together again.

Once I’d painted all the furniture I could get my hands on and the pink in my hair started to fade, I began to think about my return to work. My workplace had been very good, checking in occasionally but leaving me firmly in control of when and how I wanted to return. After a couple of meetings where they gently told me I was coming back very soon (it didn’t feel like that from my sofa), we decided I’d return to work on 21st September, almost four months after Dorothy died.

My first day was a big team meeting, where we were having CPR training. I insisted I’d be fine, then had a flashback when I saw the dummies we’d be practicing on and quickly left the room. It was phenomenally unpleasant, and I’m incredibly grateful to my colleague-who’s-also-a-friend who took me back to the office where we chatted about inconsequential things (I seem to remember celebrity gossip featuring heavily).

Since then, my head has mostly settled down, but – despite everyone doing all they could – it hasn’t been easy. In the hope that someone may stumble across this post and find it helpful (or even just be comforted that they’re not going through it alone), here are some things I’ve learned about returning to work after you lose a child.

Advocate for what you need

If your workplace doesn’t ask what you need, tell them. Whether it’s a phased return, flexibility to work from other locations, time off for counselling or just a bit of space – they won’t know if you don’t tell them.

And if what you need changes after you’ve been back for a day, a week, or a little while, tell them.

Send out an email before you return to work

This was actually advice in one of the Sands booklets we were given by the hospital, and it was invaluable. It was hard, but it helped to write things about Dorothy that I wanted people to know.  A few people in my team told me it was helpful for them to know that I was happy to talk about Dorothy, but understood if they found it upsetting, which was nice.

But on that note…

People may not ask you about your child

Or they may ask once, and then move on. That’s ok, of course, but it’s something to prepare yourself for. Not everyone wants to hear about other people’s children, and others might find the situation too sad or difficult (maybe they have children themselves and feel guilty or awkward).

You’ll have plenty of feelings about this (I certainly did), but I urge you to try to be understanding; it’s not about you, or your child. And hey – it doesn’t stop you from talking about your child if you want to.

People may ask where you’ve been

Especially ones who you don’t speak to regularly and/or haven’t seen for a while. The first few times someone asked me where I’d been were awful. I hated their sympathetic head tilts when I told them, I stumbled over my words and spent far too long apologising for having to tell them. Now, I explain that I had a daughter and that she passed away, accept their condolences and move on.

And then spend the next 45 minutes worrying that I sound callous or flippant.

There isn’t a magic set of words to make it better (if there is, I’ve yet to find it), but it will become easier the more you do it.

Other people will get pregnant

It will hurt, and I’m truly sorry about that. I don’t have any advice other than it’s ok to be sad and angry that it’s not you.

And if anyone asks you if and when you’ll be trying for another baby, it’s absolutely fine to stumble through an answer while wanting to stab them in the eye with a hot poker. That’s what I usually do, anyway (this has come up much more than is reasonable – or, indeed, appropriate – in the workplace, although not with anyone in my team, I hasten to add).

You will hear insensitive things

Particularly if you work near pregnant people, but also just in general. Some conversations that have set me off since I went back to work:

  • Are all new-born babies ugly?
  • School plays and concerts
  • A joke between two colleagues (one pregnant) about whether it bodes well if the pregnant one can’t even keep plants alive.

I’m lucky that I have a laptop and a mobile phone, so when conversations that make me feel uncomfortable are happening, I can take myself off to work somewhere else. Usually, by the time I come back an hour later, everyone’s moved on and I can get on with my day.

If you have the option, I would definitely recommend it. And if you don’t? Take yourself off for a walk, or pop to the ladies.

Take your time

I started back at work on a phased return; three days a week initially, building up to four (with one of those from home) and I’m now back to full-time (one day a week from home). Again, I’m aware that I’m fortunate to be able to do this but even if you need to be in every day, take your time; find out if you can work some half-days, or take some time off, but make sure you’re going at your own pace.

If your own pace is a million miles an hour (like mine), make sure you’re not burying yourself in work to put off dealing with big feelings. Otherwise, when you finally stop, it’s going to hurt that much harder.

It’s ok to cry

I don’t do it in front of colleagues (if I can possibly avoid it), but – particularly in the first few weeks back – if I knew I could cry in the car on the way home, it made getting through the day a little bit easier.

And there’s no time limit on it. A couple of weeks ago, I had a great off-site meeting and felt really good about it, then full on sobbed for the 45 minutes it took for me to get back to the office, just because I realised the meeting wouldn’t have happened if Dorothy was still here.

If you want a photo on your desk, put one there

I decided not to, for reasons that I’ll probably go into more detail about on another post, but essentially – Dorothy was a beautiful little girl, and I don’t like watching people steel themselves to look at photos of her. Instead, I have a sweet little doll from Lotty Lollipop on my desk, and I carry her photo in my handbag.

Ultimately, do what’s right for you

And set appropriate boundaries. I have a couple of trusted colleagues who I talk to, who will sensitively pass things on if they need to.

Don’t pressure yourself to move on too quickly. Grieving any loss is a process, and what you’ve been through is indescribably sad and painful. Give yourself a break.

Do what you need to do to get through the day (provided you’re not hurting yourself or others). In case no-one told you today – you got out of bed and you’re upright, which is an incredible achievement and I’m proud of you.

Going back to work since Dorothy died has been difficult, challenging, interesting, thought-provoking and satisfying (sometimes all in the same afternoon), but I’m glad I went back when I did. I know this won’t be the case for everyone, but I’ve found having something to focus on has helped me move forward, and I’m grateful for it.

If you – or someone you know – needs some support and guidance after losing a baby, please contact Sands. The stillbirth and neonatal death charity has lots of very helpful, practical advice that my husband and I appreciated.

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