good life, good death, good grief

Scottish Bereavement Friendly Workplaces Toolkit

Case Study 6

"My Mum died 9 years ago. It was very unexpected – she went into hospital for a routine operation, but things went wrong and she died a few weeks later. When it happened, I was in shock. I’d been planning to spend a week with her to look after her when she came out of hospital, but instead found myself needing the time off to deal with her death.

I was working for a university at the time, and my line manager was great all the way through. The day after Mum died I phoned work and left a message with a colleague to pass on. The following Monday, I called my line manager and said ‘I don’t know when you’ll see me again’. She said, ‘that’s fine’, and I wasn't back in the office until 3 weeks later. I kept in touch with maybe one phone call, but this was on my own schedule and during that three weeks no-one said anything to me about returning to work. No-one was pressurising me. That was just what I needed.

When I did go back to work, I didn’t particularly want to talk about what had happened. I think I asked my manager to tell my colleagues what had happened – I only wanted to tell the story once. Everyone was lovely – people came over and asked me if I was ok. I really appreciated that – it would have been awful if no-one had said anything and I didn't want this to become 'the elephant in the room' which no-one could mention. The Head of Service came over, and looked a bit awkward, like he didn’t really know what to say. But he made the effort to come over, and this was what mattered to me, I really appreciated it.

And after that I just wanted to get on with it. What I didn’t need was people looking sad when they spoke to me. I was dealing with a lot outside work at the time, there were various things to deal with regarding the circumstances of Mum’s death. So for me, work was a bit of a refuge.

I really appreciated that I was able to take the time I needed without being bothered by procedures or bureaucracy. There were various times after my Mum’s death when I needed some time off to deal with various practical matters, and I don’t ever remember having to use my annual leave to do that. On the other hand, my brother’s employer told him he had to take sick leave… isn’t that strange? Why make your employees lie to you?!

I know that other people would have reacted to bereavement differently – some people would want to take lots of time off, or talk about it more. I didn’t know how I was going to react until it happened. People don’t know what they’re going to need until it happens. I understand it can be difficult for workplaces to know how to respond since everyone is different. Managers need to work out what each individual needs, and that might involve asking a person directly – ‘what do you need?’. ​They maybe also need to be aware that the individual themselves doesn't know what they want or need, so they might need to review things and ask the question more than once.

I’ve moved jobs since then, and more recently my mother-in-law died. I told my line manager, and the way she responded was fine. She told me I could have 5 days off, which was good I suppose, but somehow it just felt a bit too procedural.

When my Mum died, my line manager was lovely, and our Head of Service was nice. But I suspect elsewhere in the organisation it would be different. Your experience of ​how bereavement is dealt with in the workplace shouldn’t be down to how nice your line manager is."

Photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

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