The phone call came as I wiggled out of my coat and placed my coffee on my desk. I had just dashed in the door of the Health Room to start my shift as an assistant school nurse at the middle school in our district. I had been running late that morning, mostly because of the stop for the hot coffee that now steamed next to me as I answered my cell.
My mother was on the other end.
She was calling to tell me that my father had been rushed to the hospital in respiratory distress, probably due to the intensive chemotherapy he had been receiving for esophageal cancer. He was being placed on a ventilator and the next few hours would be touch and go.
In the coming hours, I did my best to focus on the tasks of my job as a nurse to teenaged students, but it was nearly impossible to wade through the feelings of panic and nervousness as I waited for texts and updates on his condition.
I was distraught beyond words and, after I knocked over a tray of first aid supplies, my co-worker gently put her arm around me and told me to go home.
But I hesitated.
If I left, I wouldn’t get paid for the hours missed and I’d be leaving my co-worker to handle my duties in my absence. And, I stubbornly tried to tell her that staying busy at work was better than waiting by the phone at home. Eventually, my co-worker convinced me that going home was the best thing I could do for me and my family.
My father passed away a few hours later and I spent the rest of the afternoon coordinating the details of flying my family across the country for the funeral. For the next ten days, I was consumed with all-encompassing grief and the unimaginable tasks of laying my father to rest.
It was a full two weeks before I returned to work and though my employer was gracious to give me such an ample amount of time away, it was uncompensated time and I had barely scratched the surface of my grief journey.
When I returned to work, I was still dealing with crippling grief, anxiety, and deep sadness over his loss. Over the course of the next six months, there were days when I wanted to call in sick simply because the weight of the grief felt too heavy to bear.
I continued to show up for work, though, because “I’m grieving today” didn’t sound like an adequate excuse. Employers can’t “see” grief like they can see a sinus infection, arm cast, or other physical ailment. And there are assumptions about how long and in what ways people should grieve.
But while the wounds of grief aren’t visible to the naked eye, the pain is real and, on some days, grief can feel insurmountable.
People shouldn’t be expected to “just get over it,” and grief — whether from the loss of a loved one, a miscarriage or a divorce — should be an acceptable reason to take a step back from various life obligations, including taking time off from work.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t have an official requirement on funeral leave. As such, policies vary widely from company to company when it comes to paid leave for grief and bereavement. Three days’ time has become the industry standard, but the process of working through grief and bereavement takes much longer. In fact, as anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you, it can take a day or two to even get to the funeral destination, much less plan and attend the funeral of a loved one.
Fortunately, many businesses and corporations are starting to amend their policies in terms of length of paid leave — thanks, in part, to Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg.
After losing her husband unexpectedly in 2015, Sandberg reexamined the bereavement policy for all Facebook employees. In a touching post on her Facebook page, Sandberg wrote: “We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss.”
Facebook employees now receive up to 20 days paid leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member and up to 10 days to grieve the death of an extended family member.
Grief is different for everyone. Some are able to process and compartmentalize the death of a loved one quickly. Others spend years trying to find peace. While it can be argued that long-term grief and depression treatment are already covered under employer long-term disability policies, the fact is that death and grief aren’t events that can be planned or timed conveniently. And no one should have to choose between paying their bills and dealing with their grief on a therapeutic, appropriate timeline.
Grief isn’t a vacation.
Grief is a confusing descent into hell, and it’s compounded when employers are insensitive to their employees’ emotional health.
Which is why programs like the Catastrophic Care Program are crucial. Under the program, employees of San Mateo County are afforded not only a generous leave program for grief and bereavement, but the Human Resources Department takes it one merciful step further: employees are able to donate unused vacation and leave time to those employees who are struggling with grief or a family crisis.
That’s right. Employees can give their coworkers the gift of time off when tragedy strikes by donating their unused paid hours. How amazing is that?
And we need more of that kind of compassion bestowed on us when we are struggling to decide between work obligations and the overwhelming task of saying good bye to a loved one.
Though my father has been gone for almost five years, there are still days that I wish I could take the day off without fear of reprisal from my boss or work obligations, to sit with my feelings and really process my grief.
Because grief never goes away and, some days, it’s hard to focus on anything — much less work — when you are missing someone so much that it hurts.