Grief in times of joy - when two worlds collide

This week is National Grief Awareness Week. My colleagues Victoria Lewis and Mark O’Grady have bravely shared powerful stories about their personal experiences of grief in the podcast, Grief at work. If you listen to any podcast this week, make sure it is this one.

My blog leads on from Mark and Victoria’s podcast as I reflect on my experience of the loss of my sister during my maternity leave and the impact this had on me when it was time for me to return to work.

This year, on 18 December, I will be marking 10 years since I lost my eldest sister, Sulinder. Sulinder was born with a rare liver condition, Wilson’s Disease. Sulinder, battled the condition during her early teens, nearly losing her life, however she fought hard and recovered. However, in 2012, thirty years later, the condition once again aggressively took hold; Sulinder was hospitalised for the last time. On day 9 we were told there was no hope of recovery, on day 10 her life support machines were turned off and I watched my sister slip away.  It was devastating.

At the time Sulinder died I was seven months into my maternity leave with second child, my beautiful daughter, Laila. Much like my colleague Mark describes in his podcast, I went into auto-pilot supporting my grieving parents, organising the funeral, arranging and participating in the Sikh faith preparation rituals for my sister’s funeral. After that, being the lawyer in the family, managing the paperwork for Sulinder’s estate fell to me. There was so much to do and no time to properly grieve with everyone else around me, although that was what my heart ached to do.  

A further alienating aspect for me was that of those grieving around me, I was the only one who was a new mum (as well as being a mum to my then 3 year-old son, Dexter). Being a mum to such young children meant that I had to prioritise their needs alongside my responsibilities to my wider grieving family. It was an incredibly lonely experience. The next 5 months of my maternity leave was a blur of semi-paused grief, responsibility, confusion and guilt. I struggled with the guilt of not only being a surviving sibling but also the guilt of not being fully present for my children, especially Laila.

Before I knew it, my maternity leave was over, it was time to go back to work. My guilt intensified. Laila had not got the best of me during the time that was meant for us. Coping with loss whilst on maternity leave can be an incredibly confusing time. You are supposed be filled with joy but are battling with grief. For me it felt like a tug of war of emotions. I returned back to work, putting my best professional game face on, switching to another auto-pilot mode. Colleagues and co-workers would greet me with a “good to see you” or “how was your maternity leave?”. The general assumption being that the time on maternity leave was a good one. Each time the question was put to me, my guilt bore down on me again. The answer I would have wanted to give was, “it was wonderful”, but it wasn’t. It had been the hardest experience of my life. But I felt I owed it to Laila and the colleague asking me to say that my maternity leave was a good time, and to downplay the loss of my sister. I didn’t want to make my colleagues feel awkward and I did not want my daughter to ever learn that my heart was broken when it should have been filled with joy spending time with her. Not feeling like I could speak honestly made me feel isolated, disconnected and alone.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself that it was ok not to be on auto-pilot, to find a trusted colleague and tell them how I was feeling and to reach out for help sooner than I did to allow myself to start to properly process my grief.

Reflecting on my own journey I’ve set out below my suggestions for supporting a grieving employee returning from maternity (or any long-term) leave:

1. Don’t assume the grieving is done. An employee who has experienced loss whilst on maternity leave may not have been able to start processing their grief. Make sure that you make time to check-in on the employee on regular intervals. Create a safe space for them to open-up. Accept also that the employee may benefit from additional support at work, make sure the employee knows how and where to access support at work, the Employee Assistance Program, Occupational Health or Mental Health First Aiders.  

2. Ask them about their loss. Don’t be afraid to have this conversation. Ask them how they are doing. Unless the employee has expressed a wish not to discuss their loss, creating a safe space for an employee to talk to you about how they are feeling can be the support that employee may need.

3. How people process their grief can be very individual. Don’t assume that your experience will be the same as that of your employee. As above, the grievance process for an employee may not have begun. The support the employee might need may not be immediately on their return to work but some way down the line. Keep checking-in!  

4. Talk to the employee about their additional leave options. An employee may benefit from taking parental leave at some point, this may help the employee to reclaim time with their child that they may have felt that they lost during maternity leave.  

5. In all these moments take care to demonstrate empathy and not frustration. The right support can mean the difference between staying or leaving for that employee.  

For anyone reading this blog, who is currently having a similar experience, there are calmer waters ahead as you work through your grief. Reach out for the support you need and, above all, allow yourself time to grieve.