Working with bereavement, a personal reflection

Adrian Wakeling, Acas senior policy adviser

Adrian is a senior policy adviser at Acas and is part of a team responsible for informing the future strategic direction of Acas and influencing the wider debate on the value of employment relations.

I lost my mother and mother-in-law in quick succession towards the end of last year, and it's made me feel old. To quote Bilbo Baggins in 'The Lord of the Rings', "I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread".

I'm pretty sure this is a common symptom of grief. I think that grief stretches us because we use up so much emotional energy thinking about the person we loved throughout their life. Especially when it overlapped with ours – going back to childhood and beyond. We think of them then, often in those great black and white shots, and now, as if they were still with us; and we think of their absence in the unbearably empty future. No wonder it is so exhausting and disorientating.

I am writing this blog in my capacity as a policy adviser for Acas, and want to ask 'can work help with bereavement and, if so, how?'

The experience of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been likened to grieving, with the loss of friends, routine, the known and familiar. And of course, many have suffered the loss of loved ones directly as a result of COVID-19.

For me, and for others I have spoken to, work can be a useful distraction to loss. It tells you that you are still ok, capable and can do stuff. But there are limits and everyone is different. For a while you may feel you simply cannot do anything. To quote the famous Auden poem, you may want to "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone".

Many of us need to take time out. I did. It gives you the chance to let things settle. Or you might want to keep busy. Whatever is right for you, you are likely to feel different. Maybe more emotional or more detached. I felt and still feel a mixture of the two – moving between tears one moment and stony detachment the next.

Expect the unexpected is what most people would say. The 'five stages of grief' might offer some clues, but how does a manager get close enough to find out what stage someone is at? As the writer C S Lewis said following the death of his wife, "I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don't".

Acas's advice on time off for bereavement gives tips on things that can help the grieving process, like agreeing how and when to keep in touch if an employee is off. But, as it says, grief is not a linear process. Managers should accept that it is not necessarily about getting everything right, but more about being empathetic and patient.

In some ways I was lucky. My mum was in hospital for a few weeks, when we were not allowed to visit because of a COVID-19 outbreak on her ward. But she came home so we could be by her side at the end. Many have not been so lucky. My heart goes out to them.

We are all very aware of the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on some groups – notably carers, those from minority groups and women. I would argue that no one is more vulnerable than when they have lost a parent, a child, a sibling or a friend. The need to reach out a hand has never been greater, whether to offer help with personal grief or to share the collective grief we are all feeling to varying degrees.