Returning to Work After Your Spouse Dies

Returning to a job after a spouse’s death is a step that tends to be anticipated with eagerness, dread, or both, at different times. The workplace can seem like a familiar well-ordered refuge where you find many hours of distraction away from your pain. On the other hand, it can represent the ordeal of work pressures, coworkers’ reactions, and a boss’s unrealistic expectations.

Here are some ways to make it through a work day while you’re grieving.

Your Coworkers’ Reactions:

  • While your private world has been drastically changed, your workplace has gone along in its usual way. You may, therefore, initially feel out of sync with the rest of your coworkers.
  • Coworkers will look to you for their cue. Others usually feel awkward about expressing feelings or knowing the “right thing” to say. How you respond to the first expressions of sympathy will convey a message to other coworkers about how and if you want to discuss the loss. Some possible responses include: “Thank you. It’s difficult to talk right now – maybe later.” Or “I appreciate your concern.” Remember, the choice is yours.
  • Some coworkers may not mention the loss. This can feel hurtful and even insulting. Try to keep in mind that people are often afraid of “reminding” or upsetting a grieving person. Expressing sadness can seem especially threatening in a work setting, where personal distress is supposed to take a back seat to the demands of business.

Your Personal Reactions:

Now let’s focus on your own reactions to being back on the job following your loss.

  • Be prepared for unexpected tears. During the first week at work, there may be moments when you find yourself tearful. This lessens with time, but for now, give yourself permission to retreat to the restroom or other secluded area for a good cry or to compose yourself. Many find giving themselves this release helps relieve the pressure of having to control feelings of grief while at work.
  • Be prepared to experience some difficulty with memory and concentration. These are common but temporary grief reactions. While you may feel frustrated and anxious about this change, try to be patient with yourself. It helps to reread and/or go over information or tasks more than once.
  • Your boss or coworkers may have unrealistic expectations. Assure them you’re doing your best, and that any slowdown on your part is temporary.

Despite how others may react, it’s important for you to recognize that what is going on is normal and temporary. With time and patience (especially your own), you will regain the capacity you used to have to do your job.

Laurie Spector

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Laurie Spector, M.S.W. (left) received her Masters Degree in Social Work from UCLA. In addition to a private practice as a psychotherapist, Laurie has worked in psychiatric and medical settings. Inspired by the deaths of her father and brother, Laurie has counseled terminally ill patients and their families as well as conducted bereavement groups. Ruth Webster, M.S.W. (right) received her Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California. The homicide death of her teenaged son was soon followed by her husband’s death by cancer when Ruth was 45. These losses influenced her career choice to counsel the widowed and conduct bereavement groups at a major HMO for over 17 years. These mother/daughter psychotherapists are co-authors of Lost My Partner – What’ll I Do? A Clear, Practical Guide for Coping and Finding Strength When Your Spouse Dies. The Revised and Expanded Edition of Lost My Partner was published in 2008. Learn more about the authors and Lost My Partner at their website: or visit their blog at:

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