A Slow Adjustment Back to Work

It doesn’t make any sense. You bury your father on one day and you employer expects you back at work on the next day. If you’re a student, you’re back at school. A homemaker, you’re supposed to continue your responsibilities at home.

After a major emotional loss of almost any kind, people expect us to continue the activities of life and work. It doesn’t make any personal, emotional sense but it makes some practical sense. There are benefits to living in a world where people expect certain things of us. Activity is a crucial ingredient of the healing process. The whole idea of “keeping busy” is both absolutely crazy and absolutely necessary.

Mobilizing yourself for activity will probably be very difficult. Work and other activities once pursued with interest may now be a drudgery. Especially in the early months, just to get up in the morning and send yourself off to the job may seem to require all the strength that you have. Just to prepare a meal or complete some small daily task can represent a major accomplishment. For many people, a sad mood accompanied by a lowering of vitality, a reduction of the amount and quality of activity, and the tendency to fatigue easily is a main feature of grieving and involves the longest struggle. Although the intensity and constancy of this mood should diminish as time goes on, you may be apt to, at times, have severe bouts for at least a year.


Daily Routines

Prolonged inactivity leads people to repeat the depressive phases of grief over and over again, to no benefit. Resuming a normal schedule of activities as soon as possible is the best thing that you can do. Daily routines bring stability during the transition periods of our life. However, if you expect yourself to work with you normal energy level and ability to concentrate, you are placing an inhuman demand on yourself. For awhile, your mental and physical performance competencies will simply not be up to par.

Almost regardless of your circumstance of loss, activity has an extremely therapeutic value. Having to be responsible to other people will help you to mobilize your inner strength. Just remember to have the compassion toward yourself to know and accept your human limits. Your performance will only gradually return to a normal level.

Praising yourself for what you are able to do is a much kinder way to go about the recovery process than is self-belittlement. Try not to become impatient over your impaired functioning and the fact that often you don’t feel like doing anything. On lots of days you’ll be doing activities despite not feeling up to it, simply because you know it’s a help to your own healing process.

The value of physical activity cannot be overemphasized, particularly activity that helps you to organize and order your life. Under stress, many people have an intensified need for organization and structured time. Physical activity is the most difficult type of activity to undertake while you are feeling depressed and are lacking in energy, but it is also probably the most therapeutic activity.

Small acts of self-caring can be extremely helpful in times of duress. Taking a warm bath at bedtime, changing from bed clothes into regular clothes first thing in the morning, setting the table attractively even when eating alone, sitting outside for a while when the weather is nice, buying a small bouquet of cut flowers – even such small things can help you to feel better.

After the earlier period of grief has passed, finding a group to join which fits your particular age, sex, life situation and interest may be helpful. A community centre, local college, or your church or synagogue may offer a group activity that would be of comfort to you. Depressed people don’t feel like pursuing self-caring activities. You’ll have to prod yourself into it until regular routines are established.


Time Away From Work

No employer expects an employee to resume a full work load immediately following major surgery. It is commonly expected, however, that an employee will function as usual even when he or she has suffered a major loss. This distinction that is made by our cultural institutions regarding physical and emotional suffering is both distressing and interesting.

Employers usually have firm guidelines as to what are the acceptable and unacceptable causes of an absence from work. Physical illnesses are regarded as legitimate reasons for one not being busy “doing and achieving”. Our emotional needs and those of our loved ones are not similarly regarded as legitimate.

We pay the price for this production-oriented value system. The quality of our life together as a human community is impaired. By providing workers with so little time away from work to attend to emotional and family needs, we undermine family and friendship bonds and undermine our own psychological health as well.

Occasions will arise which call for your being absent from work, not because you are physically ill but because your spirit is in need of repair. It is important for you to recognize these occasions when a day or a few days off are needed. Especially in the first three to six months of bereavement you are likely to need a day of freedom from work now and then. Perhaps your boss is someone who will understand and accept this necessity for periodic “mental health day” absences early in your grief journey.

If your employer is not someone who would be understanding in this regard, you may need to take sick leave. Working is one of the most effective ways to maintain mental stability in a time of stress, yet it is equally important not to overwork and to occasionally have time away from work.


For Those Not Employed

If you remain at home most of the time, a schedule of daily and weekly activities is especially important. Try to follow a schedule as much as you can, even if at first you can only bring yourself to complete one planned activity per day: doing the laundry, shopping for groceries, spending an hour straightening the house, talking a long walk.

Every week, preferably on the same day or days each week, plan to get out of the house one way or another. You can arrange a regular child-watching exchange with a friend or family member if that is needed. At least for a few hours on a regular weekly basis, you need time away from home with other adults.

Copyright (C) “A Slow Readjustment Back to Life and Work“. Reprinted from Ann Kaiser Stearns, Living Through Personal Crisis. The Thomas More Press, Chicago (1984)