I realise it’s been absolutely ages since my last blog post and so much has happened in these last few weeks. As of this week I’ve completed my phased return to work after maternity leave and I’m now full time. So whilst I’ve been telling myself to write a new blog post I’ve just felt absolutely drained – both emotionally and physically.
My first day back to work was just before Easter and I must admit that the first day felt easier than I thought it would. I think probably because I was steeling myself for the “big day” and because I knew it was going to be a big step, subconsciously I’d created a safety barrier for myself. Don’t get me wrong when I say it was easier, it was still difficult. I came into the office, sat down at my desk and just looked directly at my computer as I didn’t want to make eye contact with anyone. Kind of a hiding in plain sight approach. Obviously I did have to start making eye contact and talking to people eventually, but I just did this slowly and with my guard up. So when I say easy, what I really mean is I didn’t cry. Instead though what I was doing was treating myself like a tightly wound coil, only instead of letting the tension release, I just wound it tighter and tighter. This manifested itself not only mentally, but physically too. That month my period was a whole three weeks late and I knew it wasn’t because I was pregnant (see fertility post).
It was the second day that my emotions and reality really hit me. Because I’d managed to get through the first day “okay”, I’d just assumed the rest of the days would follow suit and get even easier. Why I thought this I don’t know as grief is anything but linear. The second day, the third, fourth, and fifth day, all those days were really hard. When I wasn’t crying, I felt like I was just staring at my screen thinking of how much I didn’t want to be there and how wrong it felt being sat back at my desk knowing this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. I don’t think Jamie will mind me saying he was really struggling with work too and so life at that particular moment in time was incredibly hard for both of us. My counsellor recommended that I go to my GP as she didn’t think I was ready to be back at work, but instead of taking her advice (which in hindsight I probably should have done) I just pushed myself harder and ended up spending my evenings and days off crying, hoping to win the lottery so I didn’t have to go back. Note to self, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket….
I spent a lot of those earlier days holding in my tears and grief, not because I thought anyone in my office would have judged me or told me to get over it. But instead because I had a lot of completely made up thoughts in my head about me being a time-waster, me letting the team down for not being able to get on and do my work, feeling lost in my own head and just generally putting an absurd amount of pressure on myself to “be normal”. I was telling myself that I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t have the energy for engaging in everyday office conversations, that I should be trying harder, that I was taking the piss out of everyone by being there and not doing enough. I felt stupid and angry with myself when I had to ask for help and I felt guilty that my work no longer felt like a priority to me.
It was only by talking to people at work, talking to family and friends and to my counsellor about how I was struggling that I really started to realise that part of the reason I was struggling wasn’t just because I was missing Beatrice and the life that I was supposed to be living, it was because I was being really hard on myself. I was effectively bullying myself. And this is what we do when we feel vulnerable isn’t it? We let all those negative thoughts rise to the surface and dominate our minds. We say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to anyone else we love and care about. We know it’s not right and yet we still let it (self-doubt) happen. I had a really honest conversation with one of my friends at work and I remember saying to her that logically even though I knew none of the things I was telling myself were true, it still felt real to me inside.
After a few weeks of returning to work my beautiful Grandma sadly passed away. Aside from the fact she was my Grandma, hers was also the first death since losing Beatrice. All those feelings of pain and heartbreak came flooding back and whilst I don’t want to go into it here, I felt like whilst I’d taken one step forward I’d taken another ten steps back.
I am however really fortunate that I work with some of the loveliest people in Essex (fact). I can honestly say not one of them has put any pressure on me to not feel sad or low, to get back to normal, to not cry or to do more work. They’ve been the complete opposite, telling me to take more breaks, take more time off if I need it, put work last on the priority pile and let out the tears when I want to. They’ve been nothing but supportive giving me kind words and messages, lots of hugs and much needed laughter – which naturally, has made me even more emotional.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been starting to find my feet a little more. I’m still nowhere near to performing at the same level I was previously, but I’m trying to not let this worry me. When I actually think about what I used to be like with my mind going at 100mph working on multiple projects at once, I don’t think this was probably all that healthy. Neither do I think I was as balanced as I thought I was, as when I wasn’t at work I was thinking about work, and when I was at work I was both working and thinking about the million things I “had” to do at home.
I’m still exhausted when I get home on an evening after work. Grieving is exhausting, it just never seems to give you a break, or if it does it just crashes down on you even harder at a later date, so adding a day of work to this just tires me even more. I’m also still finding it hard to focus my mind and concentrate. I thought that when I returned to work I would be upset, but in between being upset I would just be able to get on. This is not the case at all. My mind just flits all over the place completely out of control, sometimes it works but other times it feels like it just shuts down. I am however trying to be much kinder to myself when this happens by letting myself have breaks when I need them and not feeling guilty for it! Of course I won’t be able to have frequent breaks forever, but at the moment it’s much more effective than forcing myself to suppress whatever feeling is distracting me and then not concentrating at all, or having an emotional breakdown.
So what would be my advice to anyone returning to work after a loss, or for anyone who is at work and grieving?
- Don’t expect to be able to return and perform at the same level you were before. Grief is exhausting. Work is mentally and/or physically tiring. Working and grieving is even harder.
- Try and have a short visit back before your actual return to work day. I was asked to come in for a big meeting before my return date and whilst at the time I wasn’t particularly interested in the meeting itself, it helped me to walk through the doors on the day as I had a purpose for that visit, rather than just feeling like I was on show. It also helped me on my actual start date as I’d already made the step of physically coming back into the office.
- Don’t suppress your emotions. I feel like I’m quite the hypocrite saying this as I often still do this, but if you start to feel yourself getting upset – don’t push your feelings down to process later. Instead if you can take a walk outside, go and get some fresh air. I’ve found it helps to physically step away from the environment where I’m starting to getting overwhelmed helps.
- Have something nice planned on your day/s off. It feels good to treat yourself and to have something positive to look forward to.
- Try and make life easier for yourself when you’re at home. We’ve recently hired a cleaner and whilst I know this isn’t possible for everyone, doing little things like making sure your washing is done on a weekend takes the pressure off after work. Occasionally we also order recipe food boxes so that we don’t have to think about what to cook for dinner or do a food shop.
- If you’re like me a simple, small to-do list at work helps to keep things organised. But get rid of the to-do list at home. Most things in life don’t need doing today and so can wait – guilt free!
- Don’t be ashamed or feel guilty if you need to take more time off if you need it. If you’re struggling to cope every day, it might just be too soon for you.
- Don’t feel you have to take any of this advice at all! Everyone deals with things differently and so you may want to take a completely different approach to work to suit your personality and needs. There are lots of resources, particularly on the Sands website which offer ideas and support.
And finally, for my friends at work who are reading this, I really can’t thank you enough for making me feel both truly welcome and wanted.