Back To Work
Posted on January 23, 2014
When is the right time to return to work after the death of a child? I still don’t know the answer but there’s really only one way to find out. It’s time to give it a go.
Officially I’ve been back at work since October but it’s only been in a limited capacity with one client. I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my wife and children so that we can get used to life without Edward together. It’s meant that money has been tight and our savings have taken a big dent, but it’s been the right thing to do.
I haven’t been ready to work full time and it’s only because I’m self employed that I have been able to take so much time off. (Did you know that statutory bereavement leave is just 3 days? You get 2 weeks paternity for your child’s birth but just 3 days for their death. It’s crazy). I am also very lucky to have a client who has given me the flexibility to work around my grief and its emotional roller-coaster. It has given me time to mourn properly and think about what I want to do now that Edward is gone. I set up my business largely because of him so that I could spend more time at home and now I need to decide if I should keep going on my own or return to the ad agency world and the stability of a regular job.
I’m happy to say that I have chosen to keep going. My business focuses on sustainability, ethics and wellbeing in branding, politics and society in general and it just feels right to keep doing it. Not only are these issues more relevant than ever but, most importantly, Edward’s birth set me on this path, and I owe it to him to stay the course and keep trying to do my bit to make the world a better place. So the pressure is now on to find more work but, for the first time since he died, I think I can do it.
Just a few weeks ago this would have been impossible. I was so absorbed by grief that I couldn’t hold productive conversations with prospective clients. Who, quite rightly, wants to work with someone who is clearly distraught and constantly distracted? My grief demanded that I talk about Edward. I wanted everybody to know what happened to him and to us because it was cathartic. But openness like this simply isn’t compatible with business. There is very little room for grief in the workplace. Furthermore, as well as coming to terms with Edward’s death, we have been learning to adjust to life without a sick child and all the medication and anxiety that came with it. We had been in a permanent, 4 year state of anxiety (that I would return to in a flash if I could), and it’s only in retrospect that I can now see how much effect it had.
Let me give you a work related example. I use Linked In for networking, but had not updated my bio since 2010. I thought I had written something professional about setting up a consultancy to help brands combine ethics with profitability. Over the years I noticed that lots of people looked at it, but wasn’t concerned about the lack of enquiries because I always had a couple of decent contracts on the go. However, I looked at it in detail for the first time last week and saw to my horror (and amusement) that it was awful. I had basically told everybody that they are evil bastards ruining the world with their greed and consumption and that I was on a rampage to sort them all out. Hardly an encouraging welcome for prospective clients.
In retrospect it wasn’t surprising. I wrote it when I was still coming to terms with the birth of a seriously ill child. I was angry with the world and looking for a fight. I have since changed it but perhaps too late for one potential client who I talked to on the phone a few days ago. The call went really well but I haven’t heard from him since. I then noticed that he had viewed my old profile on Linked In. Oops. He probably thinks I’m a psychotic hippy and I can’t blame him. Oh well, shit happens. Onwards and upwards. (But if he’s reading this…call me, let’s have lunch, you sounded very handsome and strong, we can go places etc etc…….)
Returning to work also means that I will have to end my self-imposed social and professional exile. I have cocooned myself away from almost all non-family contact, slipping quietly to and from my client’s office without letting anyone know I’m around. I knew this had to change so last week I took my first steps. I stayed overnight in London for the first time with one of my oldest friends and met up with another for lunch the next day. Between them their kindness reduced me to tears several times. They talked about how I could start networking again, who I could speak to and who they knew who could help. They even mapped out a plan to help get me back on my feet and arranged some meetings. It was very emotional but also reassuring – I know that I don’t have to do this alone and that they will be there to support me if the demons come calling. Thank you, both of you.
They say that it’s at times like this that you find out who you’re real friends are. All too often it’s said negatively, as if to reinforce that most of the people you know aren’t genuine friends. But I see it in a completely different light, as a positive expression of just how good the friends you have are. I may only have a small group of them, but they are fantastic.
The previous evening we had a meal at a restaurant after which we went to a bar with a great view over the city. I walked out onto the balcony and saw for the first time since July 28, the day Edward died, the London Eye and, directly behind it, the Evelina Children’s Hospital. I froze, fearing the worst, but the tears didn’t come. It was upsetting but, I also knew how many critically ill children and babies were in there right there and then fighting for their lives. Any anger I had was mis-directed at such a place, filled as it is with talented and dedicated surgeons, doctors and nurses working to make sure these children survive, just as they had tried so hard for Edward.
This is progress. Just a few weeks earlier I would have broken down and railed at the injustice of Edward’s fate but I am slowly developing a harder exterior and a more positive perspective. I still have issues with some of the decisions the doctors made but I know they did their best. I’ve also developed coping mechanisms that allow me to continue whatever I’m doing most of the time without my emotions getting in the way. It’s like an autopilot that I can switch on and off when needed. The pain is still within, but my body has learnt to keep it there at least until I am in private. It must be nature’s way of letting bereaved parents start life again.
I first noticed this just after Christmas which was, as expected, awful. I won’t dwell on it because I’ve spoken in detail about the depths of grief in previous posts and I want to focus on the positives here. On 28 December, something genuinely significant happened. Apart from a two day period on holiday in August, I had cried every single day since July 28th. Not just tears, but proper crying – the sort that only stops because you need to take a breath.
On this day, we were staying with my best friend and his family. He’s been living in San Francisco for a year so we hadn’t had the chance to talk about Edward like we normally would. We stayed up late and we talked, in depth, about the day he died. I fully expected the tears to come but they never did. Not one. My voice didn’t even break. I was surprised but full of mixed emotions; on the one hand recognising the achievement but on the other feeling guilty and disrespectful to my son for not crying about his death. Bitter sweet, but still progress.
I’m sure that this had been made possible by a huge emotional blowout a few days earlier on Christmas Eve. Mrs Berry, the lady that runs the lovely nursery that all our children went to, presented us with a beautiful book of photos of Edward throughout his time there. Clare warned me that it was hard viewing so I took it upstairs to read alone. She was right – we will treasure it for the rest of our lives but it was also heartbreaking. Picture after picture of our boys playing together, full of smiles and preparing for a future that would never come. I sat on the bedroom floor and sobbed, stopping only when a child’s hand settled on my shoulder. It was Alice. She had heard me and come to give me a hug. We sat together for a few minutes and smiled at her brother’s pictures.
I must have cried a month’s worth of tears because I managed to stay (mostly – see below) composed for the rest of December and have done so through most of January as well. I still cry every day but the debilitating physicality has gone. No more sobbing, heaving stomach or lying on the floor. Just silent tears. Like a pistol with a silencer – potent but quiet and, I hope, more dignified. I often look at others who have suffered the same loss years ago and wonder why they seem so calm and now understand how they have achieved it. Their pain is out of sight.
That said, New Year’s Eve was hard. We spent it up in Sheffield with Clare’s parents but there were no celebrations. 2013, the year that was supposed to give Edward a new life but instead took it away, gave way to a new year that he would never see. Clare retired early at 11pm and I joined her at midnight whilst the noise of the revellers and fireworks resounded outside. We had our moment and remembered Edward together, quietly. Clare went to sleep and I stayed up until almost 5am, deep in thought.
I’ve learnt that the cliche is true – you never get over the death of a child, you just learn to cope with it. You do your best to insulate yourself from obvious pitfalls and keep an eye out for unexpected ones. And they’re never far away. Just a few days ago, for example, lots of people posted an article on social media from The Guardian about coping with the stress of a seriously sick new born baby. It was a very good piece, insightful and full of hope. However, it was also about The Evelina and two of its main subjects were Conal Austin, the surgeon who did all three of Edward’s operations, and Dr. Thomas Krauseman, the man who first told us that he had contracted sepsis. Both talented and dedicated men, one who gave him life and another who told us it was beginning to slip away. It was too much for me.
I suspect that being a bereaved parent has a few things in common with being an alcoholic. They say that once you’re an alcoholic you’ll always be one, and we will always be bereaved parents. I know that I will fall off the wagon many more times, but each time I will get up, punch the sodding horse in the face, and get back on, hopefully for a little longer each time. But, in all honesty, I don’t want to stop falling off completely. It may sound strange but the pain reminds me of Edward and, as hard as it is, there is a perverse sense of comfort that comes with it. Grief has become a kind of friend. As I have said so many times before, it is the price we pay for love – the greater the love, the greater the grief. It is the ultimate badge of honour but one I must learn to wear with dignity and without forcing it upon others.
I also know that grief is different for everybody. There is no template nor rhyme or reason for how it effects you and no right or wrong way to grieve. I am in regular contact with other bereaved parents and we are all grieving in our own way. Even Clare and I grieve differently. We need to respect that and give each other the space to do so. Grief is personal and often very lonely but we have plenty to learn from each other. I have chosen to face it head on because confrontation works for me. I have rationalised that by grabbing it by the throat I can keep it in front of me and look it in the eye, but it doesn’t make my grieving strategy better than anyone else’s.
I have taken great comfort from reading other people’s blogs, talking to them and learning from their experiences. Three ladies in particular have helped me immensely. I can’t name them because I have no right to invade their privacy but they have all lost children. One has lost two, and another has had to go through the harrowing process of legal procedure for medical negligence. The other runs a charity that helps bereaved parents and sent me a number of messages when I was feeling very low at Christmas. Despite their own pain they have all reached out to help me. I know they read this blog, and I thank them all. It’s amazing how much a little, perfectly timed note from someone who has been where you are can help when everything around you seems hopeless. We have different weapons but are fighting the same demons, and with each others help we are keeping them at bay. But it’s not a battle that’s there to be won – it’s a fight that will only end when we ourselves die.
So, that’s where we are today. I have no idea if I am genuinely ready to go back to work full time but there is only one way to find out. I am not the same person but that’s ok. I am sadder but also stronger, wiser and with a more appreciative perspective on life. Considering what I do for a living, you could argue that I am now better qualified to do it. Either way, it’s time to remove the public face of grief that I have worn for the last six months and replace it with a fresh, more positive persona. The fog has started to lift. I can sense that there are blue skies out there somewhere and I am determined to find them. I will also take all the lessons I have learned from my son about love and apply them to the way I work and do my best to make others feel better and be a force for goodness, kindness and laughter wherever I go.
Watch out world. I’m coming back. Well, I’m going to try, anyway……..
(You can read the blog I kept of Edward’s time in hospital here: http://hlhsdiary.com/wp/)
The image at the top is by Tofslie (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tofslie/) and used under a Creative Commons Licence.