Rethinking Bereavement Leave

Rethinking Bereavement Leave

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It’s been 20 years since my father died, and I still miss him on his birthday or at other family events. Recently, a close cousin of mine died, and we were very close as children. I have been analyzing my pain and other emotions I’ve been having. My feelings do not follow the textbook version of the five stages of grief.

Bereavement leave should be flexible and immediate, like sick days, because of things like delayed emotions, the effect of keeping busy, triggering events, and compound trauma. Below, I examine my experience of my recent grief.

This article is part of a series related to my previous article, “Hierarchy of Employee NeedsOpens in a new tab..”

Current Common Bereavement Leave Policy

I’m lucky because I’m an independent consultant and can take leave whenever possible. My job is to consult and advise owners and managers on how they should be structuring things like bereavement leave. I’m taking my current loss and grief as an opportunity to better my advice.

My first goal is to create happy employees, thus creating a happy, productive, and profitable organization. Based on my recent experience, we must rethink the standard bereavement leave policies.

Currently, most bereavement leave policies are something like:

  • X amount of bereavement days off for each close family member,
  • X amount of bereavement days off for each death up to X per year, or
  • X number of bereavement days off per year.

In many provinces, states, or countries, there may be legislated minimums that your employer must give you. These legislated minimums make it so your employer must save your position while you’re on bereavement leave.

There can be other policy conditions and rules around taking bereavement leave that make it difficult. Conditions like ensuring you have arranged your cover while you’re away. I don’t know about you, but if my parent or wife were to pass away, I might need a friend to call my boss. I certainly would not be able to spend time calling my co-workers to arrange cover!

Delayed Emotions While Grieving

When I heard about my cousin passing away, I became numb, and it took me a day to start feeling again. Was this a stage of grief? I’m not sure, but this allowed me time to inform people of my loss and that I would not be working for a time.

My cousin’s death was different from when my dad passed away. He was sick for some time with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When I arrived at his deathbed bed, I was able to speak with him one last time and told him I would be fine, so he didn’t have to worry about me. As I write this, I’ve started to cry again as my dad just passed. As the paramedics took my dad’s body away, I was sitting in a chair in the corner, crying. In this case, the grief was powerful and immediate.

My cousin and I were not that close for the last ten years, so the delayed emotions seemed justified to me. If I were working a job, I would have gone to work the next day, but by noon, I would have been an emotional mess.

Everyone and every situation is different, so standard bereavement policy may need to be revised.

Effect of Keeping Busy on Grieving

When my dad passed away, my sister and I got busy trying to keep the family business going. The month my dad passed away was the month the company made the last loan payment. Now, without a hefty monthly loan payment, was the time for the business to save to make repairs and upgrades. Working the business kept us busy and helped me with the grieving.

This time, when my cousin passed, I experienced the effects of staying busy at more of a micro level. I work from home and spend much time alone because I would drop my wife off at work. I noticed that when I was doing something, I was fine. However, when I would stop doing something, it was during the transition that I would get emotional.

For example, if I was eating, I was fine, but when I stood up to take my plate to the kitchen, I would get emotional. I could load and start the dishwasher and be fine, but then, as I walked up the stairs to my home office, I would cry. I can understand when people need to keep busy and even return to work immediately.

Again, everyone is different and keeping busy is part of the process that traditional bereavement policies may need to accommodate.

Trigger Events While Grieving

I had many conversations with my wife and other family members. Some of these conversations triggered me to cry. Other activities also triggered me to cry. A prime example is writing the delayed emotions section above. I was full-on ugly crying for about a minute. At the time of writing this, it had been about two weeks since my cousin passed, and I assumed I was ready.

My HR brain started thinking about this article three days after I heard the news about my cousin. It could be another way for me to keep my mind busy. I waited till now to write it because I knew it would be hard. It has been a trigger event for me, even with the wait.

Employees working in diverse industries may or may not be bombarded with trigger events all day or shift. In some professions, everyone knows there are possible triggers, like first responders, so extra care is needed. However, the average office work environment may have fewer apparent triggers.

Bereavement leave policy must have the ability to address different work environments.

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Compound Trauma While Grieving

In this article, I have been writing about the recent loss of my cousin but also the loss of my dad twenty years ago. I’m going to bring up another loss that happened before I was born. My mother’s dad, my grandfather, passed away in 1975.

My grandfather’s body, found under a train bridge, had a bruise on his head. The police assumed he fell, but his death was not investigated. He was indigenous like me. He was only 47 years old at the time of his death. I think about my grandfather because my cousin had just turned 47 this year. I just turned 46 this year.

I’m constantly counting the ages of the males who passed away in my family because I’m worried about myself. I have compounded my grieving and trauma because of this. Will I be next? Will I make it past 47? Will I make it past 53 because that is what age my dad died of cancer? Whenever I cry, some of those tears are always for my dad.

A death in the family can trigger multiple other memories of death, so bereavement leave policies need to be ready.

Five Stages of Grief

I’m not an expert in the five stages of grief, and I don’t experience them in order. The article “Understanding the Five Stages of Grief” on mentions that you may not experience them in order.

I learned about the five stages briefly in my university psychology course. However, I’m considering reading more from the author and developer Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her books, including “On Death & Dying” (Paid Link), can be found on Amazon.

Bereavement Leave Should Be Flexible

Flexibility in all types of leave is necessary because the world is unpredictable. Benefits like bereavement leave are part of society’s to mitigate fallout from the unexpected. The more conditions we put on benefits, the more it takes away an organization’s ability to adapt to unpredictability.

Some organizations pride themselves on being “Agile,” so they must review their basic policies to see if agility is built into them. The little, standard, and ordinary things make organizations agile or flexible.

I recommend not limiting the number of bereavement days, but also don’t use the term “unlimited.” Make sure you follow any legislation regarding the number of days per year.

Consider allowing employees to use bereavement leave by the hour, half-days, full days, or weeks.

Since typically bereavement leave is unpaid, going above and beyond by considering paid bereavement in some form. You can get creative here by paying $50 per full day away while on bereavement days for up to ten days.

Your employees will value this flexibility, and you will build loyalty.

Bereavement Leave Should Be Immediate

When we wake up sick, we call in sick. This is how bereavement leave should work also! As I wrote above, grief can be intermittent and triggered unexpectedly.

It is silly and unreasonable to think my grief and bereavement will only happen for the next five days and end on the day of the funeral. Humans don’t work that way, so our organizations shouldn’t either.

Suppose a person is triggered months after a death. In that case, it should be reasonable for bereavement leave to adapt to this reality.

What’s Next?

It may be time to review your employee leave policies to see if they follow local legislation, are adequately flexible, and account for immediacy.

A related article you may be interested in is “My Employee Committed SuicideOpens in a new tab..”

For human resources support in Canada, click here to book a free HR needs assessment now. If you’re on a budget, consider joining my Patreon to ask unlimitedOpens in a new tab. HR questions. If you need HR advice sooner, book a consultation via Fiverr here.

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Rethinking Bereavement Leave

Ian Hopfe

Ian Hopfe is the owner of LBH Business Services Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Ian is an Indigenous Human Resources Consultant. He has over ten years experience in HR and over fifteen years experience in management. All blog articles on this website are written by Ian unless a guest writer is indicated on the post.

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