While it can take months or even years to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, most people realize that time doesn’t pause during that period. Life and responsibilities go on and require attention. While some people find returning to a regular routine helpful, it can be extremely challenging for others. This can be a tricky situation for a manager when a volunteer suffers a loss. But with a little planning, you can make the transition easier for your returning volunteer.

Why It’s Hard

Whether it’s working or volunteering, everyone knows that the first day back with an organization can be a bit of a challenge. Especially when one expects colleagues to react with sympathy and questions. It’s typical for people to have the same automatic, though well-intentioned, reaction of, “I’m sorry.”  They may ask how the volunteer is doing or what happened. Try to anticipate some of the behaviors and responses that might come from your team and prepare them ahead of time to be sensitive to the feelings of the returning volunteer. Even a casual mention of going easy with the questions and concern can be enough to let others know to tread lightly. Obviously the returning volunteer is under no obligation to share any information, which is also worth mentioning.

While grieving, many people find it difficult to concentrate and retain information. This can be especially troublesome if the returning volunteer has tight deadlines or little room for mistakes.

Anticipate the week’s requirements and see what can be moved around to give the grieving volunteer the option of easing back into their routine. The volunteer might have bouts of intense emotions that can strike randomly, particularly in front of colleagues or even in a meeting. If this happens, be sure to follow up with the volunteer to see how they’re doing. Sometimes small offers of support and recognition can go a long way. Consider, too, the other circumstances the volunteer may be going through. For example, if the volunteer is active in her community as part of her addiction recovery process, there may be a unique set of circumstances to understand.

Setting Up For A Return

Before the volunteer returns to work, try sharing necessary information with anyone in the organization who needs to know what is going on. If a volunteer is coming back after suffering an especially tragic loss, survey the team to see if anyone is interested in setting up a meal drop off or helping with the volunteer’s children or family.

If the situation allows, encourage your returning volunteer to meet with colleagues before they return to help get past the first encounters and “I’m so sorry” comments. This can make it easier for the one returning to focus on their assignments within the organization. If your organization has the resources, try to arrange for a grief therapist to meet with your team so that they’re more aware of how to interact with a mourning coworker. This is especially helpful if the death was sudden or traumatic, such as the death of the volunteer’s child.

Depending on the work your organization does, consider finding a way to galvanize the team to to provide a group method of support. For example if your volunteer lost a loved one from breast cancer, maybe the team can organize a walk and raise money to donate to a specific cancer charity. Not only does this give the team something tangible to do in a way of showing support, but it can also be highly effective in helping the grieving volunteer feel comforted and inspired. 

Once You’re Back

As mentioned before, give your volunteer the option to ease back into their work. Perhaps they can provide help from home for a week or two, or suggest that they time their days for more important events or needs. Just be sure to maintain communication with your volunteer.

Try arranging regular meetings when they first return so you can check on their mental health and determine whether they need more time away. As best you can, let your volunteer know that if they feel intense emotions coming on, they are absolutely encouraged to step outside for fresh air, go for a short walk, sit in their car, or take a few minutes in the restroom.

Communication with your team is also important. Most people want to help but don’t know what to. Talk with your volunteer’s closest peers about how to help on bad days, whether it’s a cup of coffee or just space to be alone. Remember that the volunteer’s focus and thinking may be clouded, and they may need assistance with projects or deadlines, especially in the beginning.

Getting Emotional Support

It’s normal for your grieving volunteer to open up to their peers. Be mindful, however, of whether your volunteer is sharing too much or too often. If it becomes obvious that they are oversharing, it’s likely they need someone to talk to. Look for help outside of the organization that can be of service to your volunteer. Suggest they spend time finding online bereavement resources - many are free and available to anyone going through the grieving process. In addition, there are blogs, websites, and books about grieving. Some are general, while others focus on specific people who were lost, such as a spouse or child. Support groups can meet in person or online, and some people benefit from meeting with a mental health professional.

Getting back into a routine is an important part of the grieving process. However, that doesn’t mean your volunteer has to dive in without a safety net. You can provide this for them by planning ahead and communicating with your team and your volunteer. A little preparation will help your volunteer transition back into their schedule more successfully and easily.