good life, good death, good grief

Scottish Bereavement Friendly Workplaces Toolkit

Case Study 5

"Mum died in her local hospice after living with an aggressive and incurable form of cancer for 15 months.

I took some time off both before and after she died, so by the time I returned to work I’d been physically away for almost 7 weeks. I was apprehensive, and worried about how I would cope, mostly because of the most awful ‘brain fog’ which was truly hampering my ability to think and process information, and the pure exhaustion I was experiencing.

My line manager was just brilliant. It was a case of do what you can, when you can, if you can. I can’t begin to tell you the relief this gave me, or how cared for, supported, and ‘seen’ I felt. They worked with me to make sure I was supported with compassionate leave, sick leave, and a bit of annual leave to cover my absence. They shared with me that they had, like me, experienced significant bereavements and while they knew it was a different experience for everyone, there are certain things that need to be put in place or offered regardless. I was allowed to ‘just be’, never questioned, never chased, and they checked in me regularly, but subtlety.

Some of my colleagues were equally as brilliant: just being true friends, not afraid to talk to me, ask me how I was, injecting a wee bit of appropriate humour, and again just letting me ‘be’. Reflecting back on this time I now realise those colleagues who I found to be the most supportive, had themselves been through significant bereavements, and again while different for everyone they had a reference point from which to come from. Some were keen to share how they felt and what they did, and while I know this came from a place of kindness, it wasn’t always helpful, especially if I was given advice as to what I should be doing/feeling/thinking etc.

It was clear a few colleagues didn’t know how to approach me or engage with me and I felt ‘shunned’. I could sense their embarrassment and discomfort. Equally, there were colleagues who said, ‘I can’t imagine what this feels like as I’ve never experienced anything like this, but if you need a coffee, or walk, or chat, please just say’. That was lovely, and I took some of them up on their offer, if only to talk about what we had watched on TV the night before”!

What was really unhelpful were the comments like, ‘Gosh 82! She had a good innings’ or ‘time heals everything, you’ll get over it’ [err – no, I won’t ever ‘get over’ my Mum dying], ‘just keep yourself busy so you don’t dwell on it’, or ‘I wonder why your Mum didn’t survive this cancer as she’s survived cancer before hasn’t she?’

There seemed to be genuine disbelief and surprise from colleagues that I wasn’t with Mum when she died. I am a nurse; many of my colleagues are nurses. I had to stop myself from justifying why I wasn’t with Mum, before realising it was my story to tell, to whom I wanted, and if, and when I wanted. Not being with Mum wasn’t planned: it just happened, and I have no regrets. It seems though that people felt they should hold this regret on my behalf.

There are though specifically 3 upsetting and unhelpful instances which stick in my mind even 3 years later and I can’t shift them.

The first came in the week after Mum died when a colleague texted me to ask if I was at home, and if so could they come round to see me. I invited them round and it was clear from the moment they arrived they were there to talk through a work agenda, and some work they wanted me to do. They felt because it was an area which I had more experience in that I should do it, ‘as you’re far more experienced than me in this field.’ This led to a challenging conversation, which I then had to take in confidence to my employer asking for their advice and support. I wanted to manage the situation but didn’t have the headspace to do so. It was resolved but it caused some ill feeling for a while.

Secondly, on my first day back at work, I was in a catch-up meeting with colleagues, and was struggling to comprehend and take on board the volume of information which was being shared with me. I shared this, and one colleague jumped right in and said, ‘I don’t see what the problem is. You’ve just been off for 7 weeks.’ That broke me and I had to leave the meeting. I never had an apology and still haven’t to this day.

The last instance is the one which still causes me to become emotional when I recall it. I was sat alone in a breakout area having a coffee when a colleague came over to chat and ask me how I was. After a bit of general chat, they said, ’Do you know, I’m actually quite envious and jealous of you not having to worry about both parents.’ I remember being completely speechless and I wasn’t able to respond."

Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

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