Many grieving parents have mentioned less-than-ideal support in the workplace after loss of a child. At worst, people say nothing and the broken parent is back in the workplace feeling isolated and overwhelmed with grief. Productivity is profoundly affected by loss of a child and workplace support including a kinder bereavement policy could help make the transition easier. (This could also be applied to loss of a spouse or sibling.)
The hard facts are that parents who lose a child still have to eat and pay mortgages, make car payments and do real life things like taxes. A loss of this magnitude makes it harder to function even on the most basic level. Bereaved parents are confused, overwhelmed, and less able to execute projects with multiple steps.
With suicide rates increasing and the opioid crisis still at a peak, how can human resources and small businesses answer a growing challenge of addressing death of a child in the workplace?
First of all, do understand I am just a parent, one who lost a child to suicide and experienced the painful and awkward event of going back to work after loss and these are my observations over the years having talked with hundreds of parents on this subject.
Bereavement policies of a week off for loss of a child is too limited and I would recommend a more thoughtful transition back to the workplace. I get that businesses feel they can’t “afford” to grant more time off. But the truth is, parents who’ve lost a child are not going to be productive for forty hours a week after one week off no matter how much the c-suite wants them to be. And recognizing that can help “sell” a friendlier bereavement policy that supports a more gradual return.
Let’s start with the one week-off policy for loss of a child
This is standard at most corporations. Ideally, parents should have the option of two weeks since planning services and handling death certificates, a dead body and a lot of paperwork at a time when a parent can’t even put one foot in front of the other is challenging enough.
Make week two optional, offering employees the opportunity to work the hours they can or want in that second week following the death is one way to show compassion, ease that transition and letting them get their feet wet without committing to a whole day. Again, we can’t force productivity when someone is devastated. From there, a slow transition back starting at week three and four with part time hours helps both co-workers and the bereaved parent. After that, perhaps it’s a case-by-case basis with the understanding that it will take that employee a long time to be able to contribute as they did before. Compassion and support help in that regard, too.
Some employees will take a leave of absence but I recommend parents try to go back after two weeks, at least part time, to bring some normalcy back into their lives. Too much isolation can be more devastating.
Loss of a baby or early pregnancy is often ignored and written off by others but to the parent, this is a devastating. Loss by overdose or suicide is particularly stigmatized and others often pass judgment making the grief that much harder to manage. I’ve seen a school memorialize the loss of a child who died in a car accident and the same school then refuse to print the picture of another student who killed himself, further stigmatizing suicide, a public health crisis not a crime. While this is a school example, it illustrates how an institution treated deaths differently and I’m suggesting that all deaths be treated similarly with empathy and compassion.
If it’s company policy to give to a charity in that person’s name or send flowers, then the parent who lost a child to cancer and a parent who lost a child to suicide should both get the same gift or donation to a chosen charity.
What to Do, What to Say
Most of my parents mention the deathly silence at work as it relates to their loss of a child. The return is obscenely awkward with neither the bereaved or the employees knowing what to do or what to say, creating a culture chaos that further isolates the grieving parent. The parent wonders why they are being avoided and no one is saying anything while everyone else freezes in fear over saying the “wrong thing” or “reminding them of the loss” so they say nothing. Saying nothing, from my point of view, was the worst. And there is never a day that goes by that we “forget” we’ve lost a child.
Some education around the topic in the form of a presentation by someone with lived experience, especially in large companies, would prove helpful since it’s likely someone in a large company will lose a child to some cause of death. It offers employees the chance to ask questions in a non-threatening environment with someone who is prepared to answer them without being offended prior to or separate from a bereavement event.
I would suggest having co-worker of the bereaved parent contact that employee to find out their wishes and check in with that parent periodically on a schedule of once a week. For example, one couple in my suicide loss support group enlisted the help of a friend at work to communicate what they wanted or didn’t want to talk about. That designated person shared with HR that they did want to talk about their child and they wanted people to ask.
The only question they did not want anyone to ask was, “How did she take her life?” So when they came back to work (they worked at the same company), co-workers had been updated via the co-worker friend. And with permission from the bereaved parents, these wishes were communicated through the intranet.
I know my husband wanted it acknowledged at work but didn’t want to address details or talk about it in business meetings, preferring it to be addressed outside of that environment. He feared breaking down in tears in front of a group of c-suite executives and having a spotlight on himself around a conference table. Crying in front of others and the awkwardness of that is a very real fear for parents –especially at the beginning when it’s still raw and we have less control over our emotions. It may be awkward for co-workers, but the transition is terrifying for the bereaved parent.
Stating those protocols ahead of time prepares individuals on what to expect. Having an ambassador employee who is years past having experienced the loss of a child represent the company in these cases is helpful. Connection with another who has experienced such a loss was a crucial part of my healing process.
What Not to Say
I can’t write about this subject without at least mentioning phrases that make newly bereaved parents wince. Phrases like, “He’s in a better place,” or “You’ll have another child,” are not the best. In most environments, a hug is often welcomed but for obvious reasons are not always appropriate in workplace situations.
Saying you have no idea what to say but that you want to say something and share your condolences is appropriate.