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Bereavement Policies Should Give Employees More Space to Grieve

Bereavement Policies Should Give Employees More Space to Grieve

“We are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase,” Dr. Fauci asserted before adding several qualifying statements. And while it has been over two years since the first person in the United States died from COVID-19, the personal impacts of the pandemic are certainly still being felt.

Within two years, I lost my two remaining grandparents. My Abuelita Jovita passed away one month before the United States went into pandemic lockdown and my Abuelito Everardo died 15 months later. Within 24 hours of their deaths, I went back to work to do my job with unwavering dedication – and like clockwork – for salaried pay.

I mourned my grandparents by making time to answer the call, weep, call family members, and prepare some meals before getting back on the computer to send emails and attend meetings. Societal pressures led me to allocate more focus to job priorities than tender grief, attempting to fix my broken heart was to get right back to work.

But my experience is not unique. While my grandparents didn’t die from covid, over 600,000 grandparents did. Furthermore, people across the United States continue to grieve the loss of over 1 million COVID deaths, with prolonged grief now listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, there are no workplace bereavement policies in place that addresses the cumulative loss of immediate and extended family members on a national scale.

60% of organizations across the United States offer three days’ leave after the death of an extended family member. It is less clear how many people take the full three days. America is in an ongoing grief crisis due to a lacking social safety net that offers broader bereavement policies, higher wages, and increased access to healthcare – the same factors that influenced my decision to work a mere 24 hours after the earth shook underneath me from the loss of loved ones.

My behavior while grieving is jarring, but I consider what it feels like as a country during a deadly pandemic. Many people, and particularly people of color (who have the highest mortality rates from covid-19), are close to recent loss and the world has not stopped grieving nor has it stopped moving.

Countless folks are hard at work running organizations, teaching, and caring for others while sharing in a collective grief that is fueling the Great Resignation. Spaciousness is needed to grieve, and employers should prioritize making spaces that support employees who are grieving the loss of immediate and extended family members.

During each loss, I had wonderful women as managers who cared for me as a human first and employee second. The organizations I worked at also had bereavement policies that allowed for the following:

  • Space to acknowledge the loss of extended family members.  I felt seen and heard by my colleagues who knew my Abuelita Jovita showed me how to make tortillas and that I could make my Abuelito Lalo laugh from deep in his belly. A moment to honor extended family members in professional spaces allows employees to show up authentically. Also, employees tend to be more invested in their work when they can show up as their full selves.

  • Delegating work tasks. The morning of my Abuelito Lalo’s funeral, I had a conflicting coalition meeting. I was able to watch the mass honoring his life because  my colleagues took ownership of the meeting. There was work to be done, but during crises, priorities and urgency can be reframed

  • Encouragement to revisit bereavement policies. Not only was I encouraged to review company bereavement policies, I was reminded to take advantage of them without possible repercussions. Eventually, I did take time away from work and I returned with clarity.

My loss and the tenderness of management positively shifted the way I work and my relationships with coworkers – and my experience should be the norm. Inhibiting spaciousness to grieve can cost up to $75 billion in lost workplace productivity each year. But employers and managers can maintain a productive work environment while respecting employees in the aftermath of loss through a more supportive workplace that creates room to meet first as human beings, then as coworkers.

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