The morning I returned from holiday vacation, my father texted me to let me know he wanted to come by to deliver something to me. I assumed it might be a belated Christmas present, and nothing could have prepared me for the news he delivered to me instead: The day before, my only sister, and aunt to my son, lost her battle with depression and had taken her own life. I have never in my life experienced emotions this violent all at once — pain, shock, desperation, anguish, grief. I couldn’t control my body from violently shaking and screaming, and kept thinking I would suddenly wake up from this nightmare. The following days were consumed with sharing the tragic news with friends, family, and work, grieving and feeling waves of regret and “what could have been,” paying tribute to my sister by preserving every memory I had of her, and nights laying awake thinking about her final days, weeks, year, reliving every last encounter, text, and Instagram post as though they would bring her back.
While nothing will every bring my sister back, I have made it my mission to be more empathetic, aware, and understanding and to ask others to do the same. Mental illness causes 90% of all suicides, and it’s helpful to learn more about it and be empathetic of those who have experienced it themselves or through loved ones. I have also realized that if there’s an opportunity to be kind to someone, to take a minute and help someone out, or just listen, you should always take that opportunity. We need more of that in the world. It’s so important to make the time to spend time with those you care about, and to share the things you love about them openly. It can make a difference in their life and certainly theirs, and maybe some day save one.
Slowly, I’ve started re-entering the routines of everyday life: grocery shopping, swim class with my toddler, picking up dry cleaning, and returning to work. I am so grateful to my incredibly supportive work family for allowing me the bereavement time I needed, and wanted to share my experience and advice with others in hopes of raising awareness and understanding.
Taking time off to grieve and process your loss
When processing grief like that of a suicide survivor, it’s important to give yourself ample time and space, maybe even more time than you think you may need, to return to work. Ideally, you should return to work only when you feel able to cope, and you may also want to consider the possibility of working part-time for a period. Having experienced an intense state of shock and grief, you may initially have trouble with with sleeping, concentration, or even holding a conversation. I found that the first week after my sister’s death, I could hardly communicate in coherent sentences, and could barely bring myself to do the things that I was accustomed to doing so effortlessly. If you experience a short-term loss of efficiency and performance, be kind to yourself, and take things at your own pace. Just like you wouldn’t expect someone to come back from maternity leave at 100% capacity, a suicide survivor may also need weeks to return to their former state of functioning. Employers and colleagues should be aware and mindful of setting realistic expectations so as not to create extra stress, and understand that grief is unpredictable and can reappear erratically from time to time for months following the incident.
While you’re on bereavement leave
Remember, bereavement leave is time for you to take to be with your family and process the complex and painful emotions you are going through. If there are important projects you’re working on, your manager can help you put together a coverage plan, and discuss whether you want to check in periodically to get updates while you’re away. Remember, while it might be tempting to try to stay caught up on work while you’re out, your brain may not be functioning as well as it normally does, and it’s actually better to allow it the time it needs to process the emotions and events that have happened so you don’t regret not having the time to resolve and process your emotions. If you’re concerned about getting behind or letting your team down while you’re out, remember that your team cares about you and really wants to know how they can support you during this time. You might find it helpful to share with them what they can do for you — this will make them feel valued and make you feel more comfortable in their presence. As you start approaching the date you will return to work, planning ahead can make your return to work easier and less painful. Try not to overschedule yourself, and plan buffer time during the day to account for ad hoc conversations or pauses to recharge.
How to support a suicide survivor
Each person grieves at their own pace and isn’t always confined to non-working hours, so compassion, encouragement, and understanding are key during the reintegration phase. If you manage a person dealing with bereavement loss, try asking how their grief is affecting them, what they would like their colleagues to be told in relation to the death, and how they feel they could best be supported at this time. You could also check in via an in-person lunch or coffee a couple of days before they return to work to allow them to share the details in private and discuss concerns about not knowing what to do or say when their colleagues inquire once back at work.
Mental health, suicide and bereavement are all good topics for employers to discuss with employees in addition to counseling options, especially if offered through employment. If an employee needs to leave work to attend a counseling sessions, this should be supported.
How to approach “I’m so sorry” comments
Seeing co-workers for the first time exposes you comments like “I’m so sorry,” which can open up the healing wound. As difficult as these expressions of sympathy may be to hear, they can be better than no acknowledgement at all. There is no need to discuss anything you aren’t comfortable sharing, and a simple “Thank you” is a perfectly fine response. While you may worry about getting emotional or breaking down in front of colleagues, rest assured that many people will understand if they know what has occurred in your life and excusing yourself it totally acceptable. It might be helpful to share as much information as you are comfortable sharing with your work colleagues before you return to work and if you find people ask too many questions, you can share that you aren’t ready to go into it right now. You might find it helpful as well to keep your manager or one trusted colleague informed of key details and they can help message your boundaries to others.
I’m finding that recovering from the suicide of a loved one is an ongoing process that is likely unique for each individual survivor. Getting back into a routine and finding purpose through work, hobbies, giving back and social engagements can be an important step in the journey towards healing.