Advice column: if you're struggling at work due to a bereavement and not getting much sympathy, what can you do?

Dear Ash,

My mum recently died after a sudden illness and I’m finding it difficult to cope at work. I initially took two weeks’ leave to try to cope with the funeral and upset but was asked by the HR manager to return to work on the instruction of my manager. Unfortunately since returning about a month ago, I have been feeling somewhat alienated and am finding it difficult to cope. My manager did not even speak to me on my return and seems awkward around me. I’m also finding it difficult to concentrate and have made some silly mistakes in documents, resulting in the HR manager instructing me to attend an urgent meeting with the head of department and my manager. The head of department advised that although she was sympathetic, she did not understand why I couldn’t just get on with things. She made clear that she had lost her elderly mum last year and that if she could get on with things then I had no excuse even if my mum was considerably younger! I was so surprised by the lack of apparent empathy that I didn’t say much. However I was told that if issues continued then I could be disciplined. I’m shocked by the lack of understanding at work and don’t know how to respond.

Ash replies:

Losing a parent is one of the most traumatic events a person can experience. The void and pain left behind by the loss is often very difficult to cope with. Talking from experience, time is not the clichéd “healer” it is claimed to be, but certainly with the passing of time you do learn to adapt and to cope better with the loss.

However, the amount of time required to deal with such grief is indeterminable and every person deals with such emotions differently. Although an employer will have policies for determining the time normally deemed reasonable for taking time off to deal with such loss, it is unreasonable for the head of department to try to compare your situation to her own, especially in order to gauge what is reasonable. Employers can often handle more sensitive issues quite badly, as is evident in your case. Your manager may not realise he is being insensitive and may just be unable to deal with your situation. Unfortunately many managers are so focused upon maintaining their idea of professionalism that they tend to block out any expression of genuine emotion in the workplace. If you feel able, you may wish to simply email your manager about how you are presently feeling and your response to the points raised at the meeting.

It is evident that you are not ready to deal with a return to work at this stage and I suggest you visit your doctor to see if you can be signed off for a couple of weeks in order to help you recuperate. You may be experiencing physical symptoms of exhaustion, sleep deprivation or even headaches, as well as feelings of depression or anxiety, and it is important to seek medical advice. You should also ask the doctor about whether counselling could be an option for you. There is also support available from charities such as Cruse Bereavement Care who offer support to the bereaved. More information can be found on their website (

You need support and understanding to deal with the bereavement before you can think about focusing on work. Do not punish yourself for taking longer to go through the grieving process: some people find solace in keeping busy and promptly returning to some form of routine; others need more time to reflect and to adapt.

Life inevitably will carry on and in time you will focus less on mourning the past and will hopefully be able to look to your future. 

“Ash” is a solicitor who is willing to answer work-related queries from solicitors and trainees, which can be put to her via the editor:, or mail to Studio 2001, Mile End, Paisley PA1 1JS. Confidence will be respected and any advice published will be anonymised.
  • Please note that letters to Ash are not received at the Law Society of Scotland. The Society offers a support service for trainees through its Registrar’s Department. For one-to-one advice contact Katie Wood, Manager in the Registrar’s Department on 0131 476 8105/8200, or
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