5 things I learned from taking bereavement leave

My dad died on a Saturday in March 2022. An expected, yet unexpected, passing, I learn in the hospital that I am listed as his agent on the Advanced Health Care Directive. I had no idea prior to that. Having the surprise responsibility of making decisions to remove life support is a decision I wish no one ever has to make. I have the support of my family, of course, but signing that paper in the waiting room that day will forever be etched in my mind.

Flash forward to Monday: I legit thought I’d be back at work, answering customer emails and participating in Zoom meetings.

When my mom passed away in 2015, I didn’t take any time off of work. While I was supported by my team, it was a busy time at the company and I didn’t feel I could take that time away. I also thought the distraction of work would help me get through the grief.

Going back even further, when my grandparents passed away in the early 2000s, I was told to just go back to school. I didn’t learn from those around me that it is acceptable to take time to heal when you lose someone.

I used to speak at business conferences about self-care, like Zendesk Relate. I say, on repeat, “In order to take the best care of others, you must first take the best care of yourself.”

I know I need to be an example, to practice what I preach. I just feel so guilty. 

Talking with my current boss, she “highly recommends” that I take the 5 days of bereavement leave offered by our company.

Bereavement leave is time off granted to an employee in the event that a loved one passes away. The intention is to allow for employees to grieve, attend funeral services or a memorial, or deal with financial and legal matters that may come up after death. (Source: BetterUp)

Most companies have a bereavement policy that provides you with paid time away outlined in an employee handbook. This may be 2 days up to 20 days, or more. Companies are not legally required to offer bereavement leave. In fact, some may simply require you to take unpaid time off, if you can even get the time off approved, that is. If you’re unsure about your company policy, contact your HR manager.

Employees are not required to take bereavement leave. In the past, I have had it available for me and chose not to take it. It is a personal choice. I also understand it is a privilege to have it available and I do not take this for granted.

This time with my dad’s passing felt different. I initially experienced a heavy bout of selfishness coupled with gut wrenching guilt when I thought of taking time off. But, I knew that I should take my boss up on her recommendation. I’m really glad I did.

5 things I learned from taking bereavement leave when my dad died

Work is not always a good distraction

I was overwhelmed, sad and my mood was incredibly low after my dad passed. I had a hard time focusing and my brain felt like mush. Using work as a distraction may end up causing more harm than good. How can I support customers in this state? I may make some big mistakes, mess up a customer’s experience or say something to a teammate out of a reactive state. Distractions are not always bad things. They can help in certain circumstances! For me at this time, I realized that I couldn’t be my best self to support my team and customers if I used work as a distraction.

You don’t have to use the time wisely

There were a lot of overwhelming logistics to organize with my dad’s cemetery and financial plans. On top of this already on my plate, with the 5 days of bereavement leave, I started to go into planning mode to “use the time wisely”. The thing is, you can’t plan how to grieve. It just doesn’t work like that. I forced myself to not plan anything and instead, woke up each day and saw how I felt. Did I want to go for a walk? Sleep in? Get to a hot yoga class? Meet a friend? Sit alone under a tree and cry for hours? I made choices based on how I felt each day and kicked “doing things wisely” part to the curb.

You need more than 5 days to grieve

There’s no set amount of time to grieve the loss of someone you cared about. You can’t put a number on it and expect that when you do go back to work, you’re going to be your tip-top best self again, able to put customers first and push your grief aside. A true leader and fellow teammates recognize this too. A company that generously offers the flexibility to take bereavement leave might also be a company that weaves flexibility, compassion and understanding into the culture. When I returned to work, I knew that my boss and team were fully supportive of what I was going through. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to work, it just meant that I can respectfully advocate for and receive the flexibility I need to deal with everything going on. It’s truly a gift and I’m grateful for my company!

Grief shows up in weird, unexpected ways

Returning to work, I quickly found my groove in supporting customers. I was productive and organized. It felt good to be back at the computer answering questions and getting stuff done. Until it wasn’t. A technical bug popped up that impacted a large amount of customers. My typical self would be fueled to get to work with my team to resolve it. Instead, I felt apathetic. Exhausted. Passive. I had to push myself to research the issue. I did the work, of course, but it just wasn’t my usual passionate self, full of creative solutions. I had zero energy for that. Grief can surprise you like that. Luckily, my coworker Jeff noticed this and stepped up to the plate to offer support.

You don’t really know what you need

I’m lucky to have amazingly supportive and loving friends, family, colleagues and coworkers. Some sent beautiful flowers and cards, some called and sent texts, some gave hugs and many asked me to let them know if I need anything. The thing is, I had no idea what I needed. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. This is totally normal when you lose someone. I know I’ve said this to others when they have lost someone, too. The last thing the grieving person can think about is what you really want or need in that moment because you have so much else going on. Leslie O’Flahavan has a wonderful article titled, “How to Write a Condolence for a Coworker” that offers insight and suggestions on how to communicate during this difficult time.

I’m a flawed, imperfect human, just like you, learning new lessons every day. This post doesn’t serve as everything I’ve learned but it does capture the freshest lessons.

My dad was a Vietnam veteran, a quiet man who enjoyed gardening, bbqing and crosswords. He worked at the same company for 36 years. He worked a lot when I was young and was very distant. Not too long before he passed away, he told me that he regretted spending so much time at work. He was grateful to be able to provide for his family but did wish that he spent more time with us as we grew up. I’ll keep that in mind for me in my life as time goes on.

If you’ve lost a loved one, I send you my condolences. I’ll make you a lasagna and give you a big hug. I’ll sit in silence with you if you want. I’ll leave you be if that’s what you want. In the meantime, consider taking your bereavement leave, if you have it available. If not, that’s fine too. You do you, boo.

What have YOU personally learned from taking or not taking bereavement leave? Share with me in the comments or over on Twitter

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One comment

  • Jeremy Watkin

    Thank you for sharing your story, Jenny. I know for a fact that your experience will help others, including myself, as they grieve.

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