Addressing Grief in the Workplace: Bereavement Leave, Empathy, and Memorialization

03 Sep 2019 - Tracey Wallace


We prepare for birth so thoroughly. New parents, family, and friends read books, buy gifts, prepare for the new life that is about to be. It’s a long preparation process –– oftentimes beginning even before the pregnancy itself.

And workplaces prepare as well, with many offering maternity and paternity leaves. In the technology industry, many companies even compete on how long their maternity and paternity leaves are.

And it doesn’t stop with maternity and paternity leave. Many companies also provide reimbursement for in vitro treatments, or other pregnancy-related medical issues and interventions.

For as much as we prepare ourselves for birth, and as much as our workplaces prepare for us to start families –– why are so few of us and our employers unprepared or unwilling to prepare for death and bereavement?

It is just as crucial of a moment in life, just as life-changing, just as affecting, just as important. It is also just as natural. All of us will experience death ourselves, and the death of those we love, with grief following closely behind.

Recent studies suggest that more than 50% of Americans have lost someone close to them over the last 3 years. That’s more than 1 in 2 people at your office who have lost someone incredibly important to them recently.

Yet, no American workplaces are required to offer bereavement leave. Most offer 1-3 days or up to a week. How much time you get off depends so often on where you work, what you do, and how important you are considered to the company.

This issue was brought up not long ago by Sheryl Sandberg when she lost her husband. At the time, she went to her personal Facebook account to talk about her bereavement leave, and then about what it was like returning to work.

She has since written the best selling memoir, Option B, to detail her experience. She considers herself incredibly lucky to have been working at Facebook when she was going through this massive life upheaval and transition.

“I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn’t be,” wrote Sandberg. “People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off.”

In this piece, we’re going to cover a few critical aspects of grief in the workplace:


Bereavement leave is a type of leave –– or absence from work, often paid –– that an employee can take when someone they are closer with had died, for instance an immediate family member, close relative, in-law, stepparents, domestic partner, etc . U.S. employees can use bereavement leave for a variety of reasons including needing to make funeral arrangements, attend a funeral, take care of post-death tasks, and of course, for grieving.

Unfortunately, there are no current federal laws requiring bereavement leave for U.S. employees. However, the FMLA may protect your job depending on the situation.

Either way, it is important for the employee to follow-up with their workplace as soon as possible after a death to understand what the bereavement leave policy is, as well as to work with their employer to secure more time as needed.

Good to know: Bereavement leave is also often known as funeral leave.


Typically, companies are decently compassionate around bereavement. 88% of employees offer full-time employees some types of bereavement leave. The concern comes in here for a few reasons:

  1. That employees often don’t know what their bereavement policies are before said event, nor how flexible they are. This adds yet another task on a long list of to-dos after the loss of someone close.
  2. That those employees considered more vital to an organization may receive increased benefits than others. Bereavement affects all of us differently, but it will affect all of us nonetheless. There should be little to no difference in how an executives are treated versus an entry level employee. Unfortunately, there often are very different under the table policies for these different types of employees. In addition, your boss and your relationship to them may also have a big affect on how many workdays you get off or do not. In other words, bereavement leave can be incredibly subjective.

For those in Oregon: Oregon is the only state with an official ruling, allowing workers to take up to two weeks off for each family death, although the time off must be taken within 60 days of the passing.


Many employers allow employees to take a leave of absence after a bereavement leave, or in place of a bereavement leave. The main difference between bereavement leave and a leave of absence is that bereavement leave is typically paid, and a leave of absence is not.


If you experience the loss of someone close to you –– friend, family member, spouse, pet –– then the very first thing you should do in regards to work is to contact your boss. Text them, email them, do whatever makes the most sense for you, and let them know exactly what has taken place.

When my step-dad passed suddenly while I was already out on vacation, I nearly forgot about work.

After all, so much else comes to mind. Making sure people are OK, contacting a funeral home, getting the arrangements set up, working with any services like the police of hospital staff, and contacting friends, family, their workplace, etc.

There is just so much to do so suddenly –– which is both a blessing and a curse. That busy-ness guides you through the first week of their absence, making it all feel surreal and also very, very real.

It can be easy at this time to put off contacting your own work and letting them know what is going on. But, it is incredibly important. You can say something as simple as:

Hi Cheri,

Needed to send you a quick note and let you know that unfortunately my step-dad has passed suddenly. I’ll be needing bereavement leave. Can you please send over any helpful information about our policies?

Often, workplaces will ask to be included in any details about the services and arrangements. You’ll find that they send flowers or food. These are our natural responses to hearing about loss, and it’s a kind gesture. They should be able to send over an employee handbook that details the bereavement leave policy.

Either way, you need know what your options are, how long you have, and then get back to focusing on the family and what you need to do next, including beginning the grieving process.


Going back to the office can be painful for some folks –– a part of getting things back to normal without the person they loved so much. For others, getting back to work is a way to take their minds of things and to think just for a few hours about something other than the loss in their personal lives.

Whichever way you feel is 100% OK and right for you.

But, you don’t have to. There are a number of websites and support groups you can also seek support from in lieu of your co-workers, if that’s your preference. Remember, though, that you are in your workplace the majority of the week. It’s helpful to consider finding support there as well.

If you’re able to receive emotional or task-based support from managers or team members, accept it. Alyssa Powell, a digital marketer living in Oregon says:

“I think having an empathetic manager is key to making things easier. This is the person that you’re direct reporting to and spend the most time in one on one dialogue with. Having a team that encourages human aspects of life is also helpful. Since we do spend a majority of time with one another, allowing some vulnerability to come through builds trust and allows us to empower one another to share our best talents and skills.”


Our culture and society is not one that embraces conversations around death. We aren’t taught how to help people who are grieving. We don’t always know what the right things are to say. As a result, we often feel awkward and try to avoid the topic.

However, avoiding the topic is one of the worst things we can do. It looks shallow, and often makes us say the wrong things. It minimizes the situation. And it can really hurt the person who is grieving.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin to interact with your bereaved coworker to help in both small and large ways.


Ask about who they were, what some of their favorite memories are together, what their favorite music was, and so on. Focus on individual details about the person and encourage storytelling. Then, just listen.

These kinds of questions help to reset a grievers framework and refocus them on the life of the one they loved, not the way they passed.

Remember, of course: If you’re co-worker does not want to talk about it, don’t talk about it. This brings us to point #2.


Dealing with death in the workplace can be awkward because it’s a type of loss that is so profoundly personal. Many people don’t know what to do to lessen the pain and suffering of a coworker and at times, will try to share a story of a time when they also experienced grief over a loved one.

While each death and grief process deserves its own respect, each is uniquely individual. While sharing what you did while grieving your child for example, does not lessen the pain of someone else grieving their child.

This is not the time to drum up your own experiences with loss. For those who are grieving, this can feel as though you are comparing grief and loss. Instead, focus on the here and now, as well as stories about their loved one if they are willing to talk about it.

As for the here and now, ask questions like:

“How are you doing today?” rather than “How are you doing?” They aren’t doing incredibly well. But different days fare better than others. Be specific about your questions.


Be kind and considerate as you coworker comes back to work. Do not expect them to pick up their full load of work immediately. It is likely that their mind is wandering. They may get off task easily. So, help where you can, and where it seems like it is needed.

This does not mean that you need to belittle them, attempt to take their job, outperform them, etc. This is about recognizing where there are small things you can do to make their day a little bit easier. One day, you too will be in this position. Do what you can now to be treated how you’d like to be treated.


Often times when someone dies, we hear familiar platitudes such as “time will heal all wounds” and while there isn’t anything you can say to make things better, these types of sayings certainly don’t help.

Instead, if someone on your team is grieving the death of an immediate family member, friend, or pet, try simply acknowledging that you’re sorry for their loss and offer your ear to listen, should they decide to share anything with you. In this case, often times less is more.


If you are in the position of management at your company and someone working beneath you experiences a loss, you may feel a certain amount of responsibility towards supporting this person during their time of grief.

And indeed, there is a lot you can do as their manager or as the company’s HR representative to help.


While listening, as mentioned above, will still be important –– as a manager, see if there’s a way you can demonstrate listening via tangible actions.

For example, Alyssa Powell’s manager advised her on talking to Human Resources after the death of her Uncle and that conversation later lead to a company wide policy change on bereavement.

It’s helpful for you, too, to advocate for the bereaved with HR. Again, everyone will experience grief in their lives –– and it’s important that company policies support managers as well as their employees during times in which an absence is needed.

Work is what we do to fill time as we live. People and pets are who we share that time with. One is more important than the other –– and our companies should recognize that.

Some organizations are even considering help beyond bereavement leave, offering payment toward memorialization options like memorial diamonds, similar to what some companies do for in vitro or other pregnancy-related issues.

Leave is one thing. Additional options to help folks re-shape their relationship to grief can be another. We are all human. We will all experience this. The least we can do is be thoughtful about the options we provide to those in need.


Even if you can’t advocate for company change, giving your colleague flexibility during the initial time of grieving can be extremely helpful.

On some teams, this means giving immediate time off if possible, while on others it may mean redistributing the workload and delegating work to be done instead by yourself or other teammates until the grieving colleague can assume normal responsibilities.

A good manager is also a good project manager, to put those skills to use to give your employee the time and space they need to get back to a work schedule and output that makes sense for them.

And keep in mind, many people come back to work heavily focused on output. It helps them take their minds off of things. So, have conversations, understand what they need, and do what you can to be a good manager and a good human at this critical point in their lives.


Many companies will have some kind of unpaid leave of absence or short paid bereavement policy, both of which leave a lot to be desired when it comes to offering support to those who are grieving a loved one.

However, this type of policy isn’t helpful for many and so to understand what your colleague needs to be successful during their time of grief, take the time to ask what they need.

Keeping communication open about how you can best be a resource for them, and not assuming that a one-size fits all policy works for everyone is important.


No matter what the federal bereavement policy is, or whether your company has a good one or not, empathy is the best policy and it starts with you –– the co-worker and the manager.

Demonstrate compassion toward a coworker experiencing the loss of a loved one. If you can help ease a colleague’s workload by helping with distributed work, give the person time off, or simply offer an ear for hearing about what they’re experiencing or learning more about the remarkable person they lost. Showing empathy is the most important thing to remember for helping a grieving colleague.

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