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Bereavement in the Workplace

Sally’s husband died on a Saturday. It was expected and they had taken care of the planning. What Sally hadn’t planned on was the grief she would experience and how it would affect her ability to work. She had used most of her paid time off during her husband’s illness and was forced to return to work shortly after his death. Her family thought that returning to work was a good thing because it would help distract her from the absence of her beloved husband.

When Sally returned to work, she put on a happy face and pretended that she was doing OK. Her co-workers awkwardly paid their condolences and got back to work. They didn’t really know what to say, or how to respond to Sally so they said nothing. They tried to keep her mood light by joking with her and each other. They did the best they knew how to do but they had never experienced a situation like this. They didn’t know how to act when a co-worker was grieving.

This is all too common. Our society doesn’t like to talk about death so we don’t know what to say. That’s a good starting point. Just say “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” You are acknowledging the person who has experienced the death of a loved one. We don’t have to have profound words to help a grief-stricken co-worker.

Some other ways to help a co-worker who has experienced the death of a loved one is to offer to lighten their workload. Maybe take on an extra task they would normally do. Better yet, donate a day or two of your paid time off so they can take that unexpected mental health day when they feel they just can't get out of bed due to sorrow.

Full-time employees are usually granted just 3 days of paid leave after the death of a spouse or immediate family member. The thought is that it is enough time to plan and attend a funeral. The grief process, as we know, is much longer than 3 days. In America, we do not have a legal right to take time off to grieve, we are expected to return to work. In Sally’s case, the death of her husband was anticipated. Imagine how much more difficult it is for the sudden, unexpected death of a family member.

We all experience grief in our own unique, personal way. There is no roadmap to follow, no right or wrong way to grieve. Without taking time to properly grieve we are delaying the grief process. This can lead to unresolved grief that can be with us for years to come.

Grief is our natural human response after any kind of loss. It is our way to process and furthermore, it leads to emotional healing. When we suppress this natural healing process we can have a myriad of symptoms such as inability to focus, apathy, irritability, and more.

Employers face a substantial financial loss when a grieving employee returns to work too soon. They might be on the job physically, but their attention is elsewhere. There is a higher rate of absenteeism and when in the office they have a harder time focusing on the job. The early days of grief are usually the hardest. Trying to find the way to a new normal takes time and life can be a bit chaotic.

Bereavement care in America needs an overhaul. Covid-19 has brought grief and bereavement front and center in American society. We are experiencing a crisis because of the way our loved ones are dying, often alone without the support of those that matter most to them. Families are suffering because we cannot celebrate and honor the death of our loved ones with funerals and life celebrations that we are used to. Oftentimes the service is postponed or done over zoom with an unfulfilling way to say good-bye to someone who meant so much to us.

An organization is leading the charge to change the way America responds to bereavement. Evermore is the nation’s center for the advancement of bereavement care. Check them out and become an advocate for change. You never know when you might be the one needing bereavement care.


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