Travelling in Hope
In my other life, I'm a medical writer, and I sometimes travel to for work. A few months after Tim died I went to Germany to write a report on a meeting. Whenever I went away, I'd always tell Tim that I was heading off to spend time with my people – doctors, scientists, researchers – and going to the conference was a little slice of normality after his death turned my life upside down. I love flying and the excitement of the journey kept me going, but arriving at the hotel brought me back down with a bump, as we'd message when I arrived safely and I'd send him pictures of the hotel room and the view out of the window. The conference went well, and I found moments of happiness talking about the science that I love. The journey home was hard, with a long delay in a late-night European airport, but a fellow widow kept me going by chatting on Messenger, and for that I'm still grateful.
Four and a half years on and I'm going to Grenoble to chair a panel at a medical devices conference, and my journey starts in Hope, at a rural railway station in the dawn light. I am living a whole new life – before I left I kissed my new wife and my new puppy goodbye – but I still carry Tim with me as I head out to see my people.
"I was particular in insisting that I'm treated the same way as the rest of the team. No special favours. I want to be seen to be an active member of the team contributing the same as the rest. That is really important to me. My company has a buddy system, so I can call the same person when I need help or cover for sickness and holidays. I basically don't want to be treated differently at work because I'm a widower, but its nice to know that should I trip up I've got support."
"I’m a contractor - I had a month off when my husband passed away last August. My boss was really nice about me taking the time off. I went back full time but I work from home so I didn’t need to go into the office which made things easier. It did take me a couple of months to get my head in the right space but I functioned. I’m better at functioning now."
"I went back after 8 weeks, mainly to have something to occupy my mind. I had fantastic support from my manager, he met me for a coffee the first day and set no expectations. If I had a bad day I could just message him and take the day off. But after a few weeks I asked for more work and slowly got back into working full time. I couldn't have asked for better support, he was awesome."
"I went back after 5 weeks from the initial time in ICU (4 after death and 1 week after funeral). For 4 of those 5 weeks, I needed a sick note as there was only one week’s bereavement leave (now up to two due to Covid, and the rules have become a bit more flexible). I had 6 weeks phased return. My boss was as flexible as possible - she ignored some of the rules where she could and allowed some odd part days where needed (without needing to use leave). People did their best to support me. It’s now been just over 3 years and that was all the time I had off (I work full time in higher education). My partner's employer (where he has only started nine months before death) bent over backwards to help in extremely practical ways and continues to get in touch from time to time to see if there is anything I need."
"2 months off for me. Then phased return with 2 weeks of shorter days. It was kind of good to be back I've been there 13 years and knew so many people so got lots of support. My manager was and is great (only been back 4 weeks in total) and really gets that I still have wobbles. But I needed some kind of routine back in my life. I'm managing day to day and having contact with people really helps."
"I had to go back to work asap as self employed. So it was 2 days after the funeral. Although I had no choice, I think it really helped me! Stopped me worrying about finances on top of everything else and it got me out of the house, kept my mind off things, gave me a purpose. Without it, I think i would have spiralled as i was having flashbacks and not sleeping. Starting back to teaching tired me out and enabled me to sleep."
"I worked in London, but my partner passed two weeks before we moved from Bucks to Somerset. Getting back to work proved to be one step too far, as I couldn’t cope with the new commute of an overnight train and then staying in a hotel (not helped by fact we had been in a hotel when he passed). Working from home or remotely was not possible in my job I had to be in the office. I was fully off for 8 months, and then did a few weeks of phased return doing just one or two days. But my anxiety over the travelling and being away from home got too much and I got signed off again and haven’t been in since mid-December.
"I knew I had to look for something locally so started looking and have managed to get a job which I start in July. I’ll only have to travel half an hour into the office and can also work from home. So, although I haven’t started there yet that all seems more doable. I handed in my notice at work and said it seemed pointless to start another phased return so could I just have gardening leave for my notice period. And they were fortunately fine with that. They have been really good, they arranged for me to have EMDR sessions with the work shrink which are still ongoing despite me handing my notice in."
"I had a pretty unique circumstance because my partner died on my first day of my new job, so I wasn't actually entitled to any time off work due to being in my probationary period. I work for a charity, and the Trustees gave me 2 weeks of bereavement leave and I took 2 weeks of sick leave, which was my entire entitlement. I then was placed on a return to work scheme after that where I started going in for two half days a week. Each week I would increase it by a half day, until I was back full time. Tom died on the 31st of August and I was back full time by the 9th Dec. My work made accommodations for me to have my regular 1 hour Thursday counselling slot that I started 2 weeks after my fiancé died, which I continued to do until the 6 month mark (I'm now at 8 months). My work also have an employee assistance programme, and I have a bi-monthly check in with a telephone counsellor, and my manager went on a bereavement training course for helping colleagues who've been bereaved in the workplace, which has helped a lot. It meant that she was aware about the brain-fog, confusion, low moods, motivation etc. I've also been very open with my colleagues about my loss, which has meant avoiding awkward conversations with people who didn't know - everyone knows and it's much easier this way."
"I went back to work 3 months after my partner died. For the first month I was dealing with the funeral and a succession of infections, so was constantly on antibiotics. I was absolutely exhausted and would have been no use to anyone. My work, for a charity, really depends on me motivating myself and others, and I couldn’t even think about it. After a few weeks, a friend of mine met my boss at a conference and my boss told my friend that he didn’t understand why I wasn’t back at work - after all, the funeral has been at least a week ago!
My GP was brilliant and wanted me to stay off for longer, but I was getting a lot of pressure from my boss and in the end I felt it was easier for me to just get on with it than to deal with his comments and unsubtle messages to/through colleagues. I did send him the newly-published (at that time) ACAS guidance on bereavement, but he didn’t read it. When I went back to work, I asked him for a return to work conversation and a phased return. A colleague offered to be with me in the meeting. We both waited but he didn’t turn up. Eventually my colleague phoned him and he said he couldn’t come because the trains had problems in his area. We checked online and couldn’t even find a single delay or cancellation. The phased return didn’t happen - I was expected to carry my full workload with no support. We’re a very small team, each responsible for their own area of work, so I had 3 months-worth of e-mails waiting for me and no support. I was so relieved when that boss left a few months later. It was all a really bad experience."
"I was self-employed with a flower shop and staff, so I got 2 weeks off before I had to go back to do someone’s wedding flowers. Not sure how I did it, but I knew I couldn’t sit in the house on my own all day every day. It kept me going for a while, but made me ill eventually so I sold up."
"I was due to start a phased return in April, after losing my partner in November. Obviously that was put on hold due to lockdowns and covid. I started phasing back at the end of the following March… had to constantly remind them that I was returning to work after bereavement rather than just coming off furlough, and have had to ask repeatedly for back to work discussions and an idea of what their expectations of me are so that I can understand or ask for help when I fall short. I did not get support, other than them agreeing to a phased return since it also suited them. I have had coping strategies dismissed/undermined and self-care belittled. I also had to raise an issue with my direct supervisor and have been told I’m just more sensitive now I’m a widow."
"I went back after a month. Was one of the hardest things going back. I didn’t want to, but I knew going out would occupy my mind."
"I work for a very small company and went back after two weeks. I did however work from home or my parents' house for a long time and then said I would be moving away from the area, so I never actually went back in the office at all. I have made an effort to do my required hours since then, so I haven't actually taken any further bereavement or sick leave and in return they have allowed me lots of flexibility and patience. If I had a more demanding job or children to care for then I would probably have needed a lot more time off, but I felt if I didn't go back I might never been able to. It was also helpful in giving me a routine and a reason to get up each day even if I only fetched my laptop into bed to work."
"I lost my original job when my partner was poorly and I had to become his carer. I got a new job 7 months after he died, it was difficult to get a new job as it was during lockdown. I started my new company and was honest with them about my situation, they were somewhat supportive, but when I mum in law died while I was at work a month later they told me I couldn’t go home because it was bad timing and month end!! I left just after that as I couldn’t cope. I started a new job the following month but working from home which is much better."
"I was back 4 weeks after his heart attack, he was 3 days in ICU, so I was already back by the 4 weeks since he died and only a week and a half after his funeral. I'm self-employed so had no support and no pay while I was off so needed to return. No option really. I would have been back to work sooner but my dad insisted on helping me financially for a few weeks."
"I went back on reduced hours after 10 months off. I’m still on reduced hours as my sleeping is still very hit and miss. My company have been incredibly supportive, and I am temporarily in a different job with less responsibility for the same pay and they are happy with this to continue until Christmas! It may be because my partner also worked for the company when he died."
"Went back the following day. I know it sounds crazy but with the shock and feeling lost I needed something in my life to be the same. Work was, and still is, the only thing in my life that hasn't changed at all (for now...!). Initially work was great. I was told to take as much time as I needed and that my job was safe (I am agency). At almost exactly 3 months I was told I needed to increase back up to a full case load or drop to 15 hours, which I can't live on. I tried negotiating but met brick walls and was told my recommendations didn't fit the needs of the service!! I reluctantly agreed to increase my case load slowly... now it's 4 weeks since I made that decision and I have been given 4 sets of court proceedings (10 children). I met with my manager today and told her this isn't manageable, and I cannot do what is expected. I explained it's not to do with grief or my capacity as a Social Worker. There just isn't enough time to do the work needed between now and mid-July. I was told I will get some support from a student, which of course will help... to then be told as she's leaving the room that everyone on the team is going to be expected to take on 2 more sets of proceedings (could be any number of children). I'm quite looking forward to handing my 4 weeks' notice in in a couple of weeks."
"I lost my husband in mid-July last year. I had been working at home since March. This was good whilst he underwent brain surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I pretty much was still able to fit my full-time job around him so didn’t take much time off apart from the two weeks before he passed away. Work gave me two weeks compassionate leave, so I went back 4 days after his funeral in early August. I think I probably went back too early - but felt numb and was in shock. I needed the routine at that time. As the numbness started to wear off - I just found myself sitting at my desk crying for most of the day. I think it all caught up with me. My doctor signed me off at the start of October and I had 3 months off sick before returning in early January. During my time off I started grief counselling. I had a phased return to work and in early February decided to go down to 4 days a week. My immediate boss struggled with the situation and didn’t show any empathy. However, after tackling him things have got better and I’m back into the swing of things now. I tend to go into the office once every two or three weeks.
"I went back a week later after my mum died (I worked in law then) and also a week after my wife died (a uni student as I'm now retraining). I'm not good at actively processing grief and prefer to get on with stuff while it happens in the background. It wasn't easy but I don't think being alone with my grief and metaphorically staring at the wall would have been either."
"Self-employed which really helped as my partner's condition worsened I was able to fit everything around her. It meant stupidly long days but would not have changed it. I went back to work the day after she passed as I needed to do something that wasn’t grief/funeral/shit-sorting related. I am approaching a year in a few weeks and don’t think I am back to the levels of intensity I once was. Suppose it’s good days and bad days really. Work has helped focus the mind, so you are not sitting staring at walls etc all the time. Compassionate leave was not possible. Just had my first two official days off and felt weird."
"I am a contractor which meant that I was able to pay myself from the absolute graft from the previous years… through to my partner's diagnosis and beyond. I got a contract the following March after wrongly believing that life on the emergency horror rollercoaster was slowing down but I terminated it shortly after the funeral. I simply was not able to go back to work, though I did try. Whilst always temporary in nature, my job requires me to go in and be all dynamic, fixing large scale problems, leading large teams of people, being extrovert when I am naturally introvert, and doing this with a massive energy and drive. Not only was I not even able to do the job of someone several levels below me - my brain just wouldn’t work - but I could no longer see the point in doing what I did. In January this year, I started my A-levels, on this journey to changing direction into cancer prevention, but I’m still not back at work (I guess this is the fundamental reason I worked my fingers to the bone all these years - to financially support myself through this journey!), although recently I have been looking at contractor job boards as I think I could do with that work dynamic again whilst studying. I am not pushing myself though - I’m being very picky. I’ll be 12 months in this June."
For hints and tips, see Going back to work
Going back to work
Going back to work after losing someone, whether it's back into a physical workplace or working from home, is a really tough thing to have to do. You may need to go back to work because you need the money, or it may be to provide structure, company and support.
As a freelancer I didn't have a lot of choice about going back to work. I also found that doing a job I loved meant that I got up in the morning with something to do. I started back a week or so after the funeral. One of the first stories I had to write (I'm a medical writer) was about heart disease in diabetes, which was the cause of Tim's sudden death. Even now I struggle to write on that topic, with the only consolation being that the medical research I cover could stop someone else being in my situation.
I did take on too much too soon, and that kicked me in the butt around six months after Tim's death, when I had a crash in my grief and mental health and had to pull out of two major projects. I've tried to be more measured about my workload since then (which I don't always manage), and to take on smaller rather than larger projects.
There is no specific right time to go back to work – it's whatever works for you. It may be days, weeks or months. You have the right to time off when a partner dies. However, depending on how much bereavement leave you get, you might need to take holiday or unpaid leave as well, or get your doctor to sign you off. You may go back to work and then find out you need to take more time off. This isn't a failure, it's what you need.
Unfortunately, not all employers are as good as they should be. You may need to be determined in asking for what you need, and you may experience your coping strategies being dismissed or undermined, and your self-care plans belittled. Talk to your boss (or your boss' boss) about what you need, and if you have an HR department or a union, you might want to get them involved.
Some people don't go back to their old job, go back and leave, or don't go back to work at all, after bereavement. This may be because their workplace doesn't provide the support or adjustments they need, the travelling is too much, or the experience of bereavement has changed priorities.
"I left my job a month before Steve died to care for him, so I had no job to go back to. Steve had said to me that I should work for the special assistance at the airport - he said I’d be good at it. So, 9 months later I rocked up at the airport to start my new career. Although it was hard at first they loved me for being the only member of staff that joined because we had used the service, and they were compassionate about what I had been through. I loved my job then and 7 years later I still love it. I went from doing nothing for 9 months (apart from the horses - three at that time!) straight into shift work. It was a bit of a launch but was so the right thing to do for me."
How you might feel
Hints & tips
Widow's experiences of going back to work, both good and bad.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.