Returning to Work

Returning to Work

By Shan Gao, Ph.D., Mother of Maxwell (04/28/17 – 07/20/18)

When should I go back to work?

This really depends on the job you have. Bereavement leave is often only three to five days, which is way too short. If you don’t have flexibility in your job, you may have no choice on when you go back to work. If you have the flexibility, then the answer is still a bit unclear. Some people go back quickly after the death, and some take a long time. Some never go back.

For me, after my 14-month-old son Maxwell died, I went back after about a month. This decision was highly personal. I was a psychiatry resident at the time. I risked a delay in graduation if I took too much time off. I was also newly pregnant with my second child, and I wanted to save my time off for my maternity leave. I also wanted to go back to work because I needed a break from my grief.

What will the transition be like at first?

Interactions with coworkers can feel hard, difficult, and painful.

Normal day-to-day interactions with coworkers, at times, may feel intolerable. Your interactions will get easier with time, but there will be painful moments. Try to remind yourself that these are normal reactions after a traumatic loss of a child, and the days will get easier.

Example: I saw an attending physician on the elevator, and he asked, “How’s it going?” in a joyful tone. Before death, I would have perceived his question as friendly and innocuous. That day, I perceived his question as a painful denial of my pain and grief.

Interactions with coworkers can also feel loving and connected.

One of my friends/coworkers decided to start walking with me to clinic on Tuesdays. He had attended my son’s celebration of life. The first day back, he asked, “How are YOU doing?” The way he asked the question felt curious, holding, spacious. I was able to receive his care and love in that moment. “Terrible!” I said, and we were able to talk honestly about how it’s been. I am brought to tears just thinking about those walks right now. We are still good friends to this day.

Are there ways to make the transition back easier?

I have some concrete advice, but overall, try to be loving, patient, and compassionate toward yourself. I felt, thought, and behaved in ways that weren’t my usual self. Looking back, I am both grateful that I am less reactive now, AND I miss that time of vulnerability and intensity. That time was the closest I had been to my son after his death.

  • Allow others to help you (ambassadors, point person, HR).
    •  I was in a psychiatry residency program with over 75 residents and fellows. This was too many people to navigate for one person. My program director sent out an email to my department about the death of my son before I returned so everyone already knew about my situation.
    • My chief resident helped me navigate which rotation to come back on and made sure every staff member knew what had happened.
    • My closest friend in my residency was the point person for the residency class.
  • Allow yourself to take breaks when needed.
    • My son died at the children’s hospital. My program director generously offered me to skip call that year at that hospital. Although I had some initial guilt, not doing call really helped with my mental health.
    • I returned on an easier six-week rotation and just took Fridays off. The time off from clinic was supposed to be for research, although I did no research and just cried in bed.
  • Have designated spaces (plural) to cry.
    • I was lucky to have had my own office. I cried a lot in there. I cried in my car driving to and from work. My parking lot was a 10-minute walk to my office, and I’d cry walking to and from the parking lot as well.
  • Therapy.
    • You can get really busy at work. It’s important to have a designed time and space to sort through your grief and your experience of a traumatic loss.
    • Couples therapy can also be helpful.

Deciding when to go back to work after the death of your child is a highly personal decision and may be influenced by factors such as job flexibility and financial constraints. It’s important to be patient, compassionate toward yourself, and allow others to help you during this time. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to navigate this difficult time, and it’s okay to take the time you need to grieve and heal. Remember that your experience of grief is unique and personal, and it’s important to prioritize your own well-being as you navigate this challenging time.

Additional Resources

Five Important Questions About FMLA & Bereavement Leave –

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder –

The Complicated Grief Program at Columbia University – 

American Psychiatric Association –

EMDR International Association (EMDRIA): EMDRIA lists training programs and a database of certified members for client referrals.

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