We spoke to Colin Lees, a Wellbeing Assistant at the Hospice, about his experience of bereavement in the workplace for Dying Matters Week.
“It was Easter 2021, so we were still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my sister Charmaine and brother-in-law Marcus were travelling back towards Johannesburg from their holiday home in South Africa when sadly, they had a car accident and they were both killed. Also very sadly, their pets travelled with them and also died. Their dogs and a budgie which belonged to my gran. The thought behind their death was that Marcus had a cardiac episode while driving because there were no other vehicles involved.
“I live here in the UK and so does my sister Portia and so Charmaine’s immediate family is based here, but I do have Charmaine’s son, my nephew plus other family and friends in South Africa. Charmaine died at a time where South Africa was deemed a hot spot for COVID-19 and there were no flights leaving from the UK. Trying to get there was impossible and very expensive. You had to travel into Europe first before heading to South Africa and trying to get a flight was difficult, even with the COVID-19 passports. When talking to my line manager to let them know what had happened and what I was going through, he offered everything that you would expect to be available; time off work, bereavement counselling through the Hospice, flexible hours but, he asked me one thing which meant the world, he said “What do you need right now?” What I needed right then was to fly over and be with my family but also in the same breath, I was aware that this was impossible for me due to time and cost.
“I can’t remember if it was the same day, or a few days later but my line manager came back to me and said he had spoken to the HR team and Organisational Development Director who were able to offer me a financial loan from the Hospice, to support with the travel costs for me to be able to fly to South Africa. Considering the difficulty of trying to get there, they also offered a greater time off work, so I could get there and back, which could be difficult due to the pandemic and flights being cancelled or rescheduled. They just put that on the table and it was totally unexpected. These were additional to what was included in the Time-Off policy. The kindness of their support gave me time to gather my thoughts and feelings, and not feel that my instinct to rush over there was silly or unachievable. It allowed me to think rationally about my decision. This really supported my grieving, because I knew I could go if I wanted to and it was my choice. I felt more empowered. It meant the world to me and made me feel like they were seeing me for me, and not a Wellbeing Assistant.
“The way I moved forward was that I chose to stay in the UK and support Portia and I used work to help me through this time. Coming into work helped me to take my mind off the situation and gave me an outlet for me to get through the days, weeks and months, in a very healthy way. Working in the Hospice we have a good understanding of how to check in with each other and ask “How are you feeling or coping?”. I was able to do my work, flexibly at points where I needed, and to be emotional in a safe space amongst colleagues, or on my own. The Hospice provided me with a stable foundation to work through my grief.
“It can be difficult to talk about death and bereavement but the important thing is that my journey started with one question from my manager – what do you need Colin? All you can ask for at work is that at a very difficult time, there is support. That you know it’s there and you can access it when or if you are ready and that you are not forced to take up that support if it’s not the right time for you. I haven’t yet received any bereavement support from the Hospice as I still don’t feel it’s the right time for me, but I know it’s there when I need it.
“At every point during my bereavement at work I have felt empowered to make the decisions for myself based on what’s been provided. When I was asked to share my story for Dying Matters Week, it happened to be two years to the day when my sister died, which made sharing my story and journey through the grieving process at work even more poignant.”