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A world of numbers, meetings, schedules, and logic cannot reconcile the death of a child.
Especially not the death of my child.
Bottom line, we never dream of outliving our children. It upsets the balance of life. All the platitudes of “there are no words” and “grief has no timeline” are all 100 percent correct. In the western culture, we are extraordinarily uncomfortable discussing death, and our corporate culture is even less comfortable.
This means that Bereavement Leave, as companies define it today, is total and utter bullsh*t.
I’d like to explain why, based on my story—a story of a privileged senior executive who was fortunate enough to work for a company that even deemed it necessary to have a bereavement policy.
This policy determined the acceptable number of days—three, to be exact—to begin and end your period of mourning for a predetermined list of approved relatives (I’m not going to scratch the surface of how that list is formed, since family is defined in so many special ways; no one policy can possibly touch it). These policies assume a church and state/personal and professional life separation that simply does not exist.
In the “special exception,” five days I received from my company. Since the untimely death of my own child was decided to be an extenuating circumstance, I was able to do the following:
Day 1—Perform CPR, ride in an ambulance to the ER, have my son pronounced dead, get interviewed by the police, arrange for organ donations if Connor was eligible to donate, call the office, contact family, and return home…all before noon.
Day 2—Meet with the funeral home to pick a day and time for the funeral, arrange for my son’s cremation, pick an urn from the laughably small collection of choices (since kids aren’t supposed to die), begin planning the logistics of the funeral, and write the obituary.
Day 3—Meet with the people who would be speaking at the funeral, grocery shop since our house was full of family and friends, search our house for all the items the police took when they were “investigating” as a part of protocol, and plan the post-service gathering.
Day 4—Buy a dress to wear for the funeral, create and print the handouts for the funeral, gather photos for the photo display boards, select the music for the funeral, and host more than 50 people at the house for final service preparation.
Day 5—Get lost on the way to the funeral, arrive to find over 400 people at a funeral home only equipped to house 200-ish people, stretch every fiber of my grieving introverted being to hug and thank everyone, watch my son’s funeral from outside my own body, get whisked away to the post-service gathering, consume too much alcohol, and get chauffeured home and put to bed.
Day 6—According to the policy, life begins again. Wait. What? No. This was the first day there was time, real time, to let the reality and permanence of grief settle in like an overly weighted blanket.
I was fortunate.
My compassionate boss agreed that the bereavement leave policy seemed acceptable in theory, but after seeing it in practice, he realized it was heartless. He gave me as much grace and time as I needed. Unfortunately, the work itself could not wait. I was a senior leader with a large team and extremely time-sensitive projects that had, just days before, seemed overwhelmingly important. Now, not so much. However, the calls and inquiries kept coming in. So, one week after my son’s funeral, I reconnected with the office, and a week later, I ventured back into the physical office to retrieve my laptop.
Let me restate that.
I drove the 25-mile stretch into my office to retrieve my laptop and face hundreds of coworkers who had last seen me at my son’s funeral. Not only was I probably not fit to drive, but I was certainly not fit to face large numbers of people. It was just too close a reminder of the funeral. In those early weeks, merely getting out of bed and taking a shower was a massive accomplishment, but now I was expected to have the energy to run a meeting?
I couldn’t remember that last sentence I read, but I was trusted to sign off on vendor contracts? I was so distracted I forgot to eat for days, but at least the company had me back to work, business as usual.
I was unprepared.
I had given no consideration to the simple fact that grief is, at a minimum, a part-time job. Apparently, neither do the companies who endorse the concept of bereavement requiring a policy, one that dictates the acceptable amount of time we need to process our emotions. The companies, post-pandemic, have declared this an acceptable topic to even discuss because it is so visible. No longer can it hide in the shadows.
I would like to open the conversation.
Why don’t we have a compassionate, trusting view of people’s needs regarding bereavement? As an HR professional, I understand policies exist to protect the employees as well as the companies. But, why not trust your employees when they need more time or more flexible time? Or, when they are grieving the death of someone you might not qualify as a “close” family member?
Are we writing policies aimed at the lowest common denominator? Are we assuming employees are looking to lie and take a few extra days off?
Companies, I would argue, if that’s your concern, the driver for your brutal stance regarding bereavement, there needs to be a much deeper discussion about your management and hiring practices.
What is the harm of more generous policies? Less policing and more trust? More empathy? More understanding that grief has no timeline, doesn’t discriminate, and is utterly exhausting? We don’t “get over” or “move on” from our losses, but the grief softens. Wouldn’t you rather have an employee coming back to work who is better able to focus and set boundaries?
Isn’t this worth a broader discussion?