I vividly remember calling the wife of a patient after the death of her husband, as I wanted to see how she was doing. I purposely waited to call a month after the patient’s death as I knew from my research with families whose loved one died in the hospital setting, that this is a particularly rough time. The cards and calls no longer come. The visitors have left, and the primary caregiver is left in an empty house to face the reality that their loved one is gone forever. I also knew caregivers find these calls particularly supportive because they feel the nurses who cared for their loved one truly know what they went through, especially when the cancer trajectory was a difficult one. This wife told me that she returned to work earlier than expected after taking a leave of absence during her husband’s treatment. She said she felt isolated and lonely in her house so she thought her return to work and the company of her co-workers would be helpful to her, but she found the opposite to be her reality.
“It was awful,” she said. “I felt like a leper. People I had worked with for years avoided me like the plague. No one even mentioned the fact that Jim had died; it was like my personal tragedy never happened. I felt even more alone than when I was at home and I was angry at my co-workers who treated me this way. I wasn’t asked to go to lunch or socialize with them like we used to do. They avoided me, I think, to eliminate the possibility that I would bring up Jim’s death and they didn’t want to talk about it. Jim’s death and my grief were topics no one wanted to talk about. I was around people I had known for years, had a relationship with yet I experienced such alienation, it was painful. I eventually quit my job and decided to try something new, go somewhere where people weren’t aware of my situation and my sadness.”
Never could I have imagined at this time, that I would personally experience this same phenomenon, not once but twice.
Following my own husband’s death from metastatic bladder cancer and my daughter’s untimely death following a tragic car accident, I returned to my work in the hospital setting. I was met with similar insensitivity from some co-workers. However, in my case, the avoidance and isolation did not come from laypeople with little exposure to and much discomfort with death. In my instance, it was my colleagues, nurses, and doctors, many of whom witness tragedy on a daily basis, who were the ones finding my presence uncomfortable. These are the people who were supposed to be knowledgeable about offering comfort to families who were suffering from the loss of loved ones.
After returning to work following my husband’s death, I was on the elevator and it stopped on the floor housing the OR. When the door opened, there stood my husband’s urologist waiting to get on. I actually saw the discomfort on his face when he saw me. He made a brief attempt at a greeting, but he then abruptly turned saying, “Oh there’s something I forgot to dictate about my last case” and turned away from the elevator. Very similar to the patient’s wife whom I called, when I returned to work after my daughter’s death, the avoidance and isolation from the group of nurses I worked closely with was abhorrent. Not one of them ever mentioned the fact that she died, never mentioned her name or asked about my sorrow. The first time I returned to work after an extended bereavement leave, the only people who mentioned what had happened was the director of volunteer services and an administrative intern.
I am sure there are many other comparable stories like mine. I feel strongly that every work setting should have a support program for employees who return to work after the death of a close relative. Focus groups with employees who have personal experience with this issue would generate many ideas about what would help.
For example, it would have been very comforting for someone from work to have met me in the lobby of the hospital to welcome me back and accompany me back to my unit or if there was a card waiting for me signed by my co-workers telling me they missed me and thought a lot about me around the loss of my child. They could have had an EAP counselor come to me on one of the first days back (rather than expect me to go to them) to offer support and to determine if I might want more counseling in the future. A session with my co-workers might also have been beneficial for the counselor to discuss how to talk to someone with intense grief and how to interact with them upon my return.
Knowing what to say and emphasizing the importance of positive communication skills might have made them less anxious about knowing how to interact with me. It could have let them know I didn’t want to hear their stories of their losses, but rather that I would have found a listening ear more beneficial. I didn’t want to keep my sadness hidden and this would have allowed me to give it a voice. Also, for me personally, it would be great to just be hugged, no words necessary.