So, there you are: suit on, bag in hand, ready to go to back to work. A daily routine that, until recently, was so normal. And now, it is all different.

You had imagined what it would be like after the birth and maternity leave. Your sweet baby in the Maxi-Cosi to the nursery and you nervous (wondering if it would all go well), tired, but cheerful to finally go back to work after all those weeks. Participating in adult life again, having real conversations about subjects you know so much about, in other words, making a contribution to the working life again.

You feel pain, you have doubts and you are closer to tears than to laughter. The world has moved on and yours has stopped upon the death of your child. And now you go back, back to work. You want to, but you don’t want to.

What should you do? You do not know what to expect or how you will react, feel or think. Grief, sadness or other emotions often come at the most unexpected moments. Perhaps the following points can help you when you return to work and when you are back at work.

  1. Contact your work as soon as possible. They want to know how you are doing. Employers, too, do not experience this every day and do not always know how to support you. Even before the first day at work, contact your manager and discuss, possibly with the company doctor present, how you would like to feel on the first day at work. Discuss the possibilities and discuss the small steps. This way you can slowly build up your work again. Physically and mentally, you have to get used to working again. You are no longer the person you were before the loss, you have changed to the core of your being. It will never be the same again, not even at work.
    Moreover, you still have to recover from your pregnancy. Even though your arms are empty, your body still has to adapt.
    Agree, for instance, to have a cup of coffee before the first day at work. You and your colleagues will already have seen and spoken to each other.
  2. Follow your own feelings and see what you need. Emotions associated with loss do not stick to set times and come when you least expect it. Listen to your body’s signals and try to think of what you need in that moment. Express your emotions – or don’t – and take care of yourself. But how do you do that? Sometimes it helps to just go to work. In the beginning, with adapted working hours. A few hours of putting your mind on something else. You can tell your manager that you’re not having a good day and ask him or her to keep you out. Sometimes it helps to let your sadness run free for a while or to go for a walk for an hour. Then also call your manager and tell him that you are going to be a bit late. Just because it is not possible to make the step to work. Remember: everyone grieves in their own way and you have your own way. If necessary, say you’re not sure about it all, but try to stay in touch with your manager and colleagues.
  3. Come up with “excuses”. Excuses are ready-made answers that you have worked out of in advance. As you cannot leave the grief of losing your baby at home, and so take it with you to work, it is good to write down for yourself what you want and what you can do if you are confronted at work with questions that you find difficult at that moment. Then you are less likely to panic when people ask questions, well-intentioned or not. The ready-made answers are nice to make up in advance with your partner or someone close to you. It is reassuring to be able to say something that you have thought up in advance.
    Examples of excuses can be answers to the question: “How many children do you have?”, or if someone asks “How are you?”, what can you say to get rid of it? Does a vague answer like “Fine under the circumstances” make you feel good, or would you rather say “bad”?
    To a question you don’t want to answer, you can say: “It’s nice of you to ask, but I feel sad and don’t want to talk about it right now. Let’s have a cup of tea and talk about it some other time.”
    And when children or pregnancies are discussed, what do you do? Do you sit there, walk away for a while or say something?
  4. Do not go to work alone on the first day. The first day at work is not easy. Make sure you go to work with someone on the first day. Ask a colleague who you get along with, feel comfortable with and trust.
  5. Find a buddy at work. Ask a close colleague (or several) if he or she would like to be your buddy. Someone you can be yourself with and who doesn’t have to hide your emotions. Someone you can knock on the door of when things are not going well, who you can have lunch with and who will stand up for you when you can’t manage.
    It is nice to know that there is a colleague who supports you, who stands by you or who can even stand in for you when you can’t manage yourself. You hardly know how to react in certain situations, let alone the people around you. They don’t know how to react to you and they don’t know how to react to their own emotions.
  6. Days of remembrance. Difficult anniversaries are coming up, such as: the day of birth, the day of death, a birthday, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or the holidays. These are usually emotional days and you do not know in advance what the impact will be. Take care of yourself, fill this day with things that you and your partner enjoy. Inform your employer so that they are aware of this and can take you into account on these days which are important to you.
  7. Ask for and seek help if you can no longer cope. This is not a sign of weakness, it is rather a sign of courage. The work goes on, only you can’t do it now. Your manager, company social worker, confidential advisor or company doctor can help you or refer you to a specialised care provider. There are also good reintegration coaches and experts who have experience with returning to work and can help both parents and employers. Look for possibilities together. It will ultimately help you to return to work.

One thing is certain when you return to work. You remain the parent of your deceased child and he or she will forever be a part of who you are. Your future has changed, you are not who you were before your baby died. However, the work itself and the workplace have not changed. It is a place where everything is as it was before your loss. Your work gives structure and meaning to your day, factors that give you something to hold on to just because it is a different place than home, and that can also be a pleasant distraction.

©Hubertien van Heek

Voorburg, 4 October 2020

“A few weeks after Joppe died, my partner and I went to work. I was nervous. How would they react, what would they say and how would I react to them? In the end it wasn’t that bad. It was emotional but I found it very pleasant both for us and for my colleagues. When I finally went back to work after a few weeks, the tension was gone for everyone.”

Hubertien, mother of Joppe* and Douwe

“It helped that I knew that I could always take my husband, Joost, with me to the company doctor. “

Tessa, mother of Amy* and Yannick