How My Own Grief Helped Me Better Support My Employees Through the Hard Stuff

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Having lost my father to cancer when I was only nine years old, I always knew how deeply losing someone you love can change your life. What I didn’t expect was that another major loss would inspire me to start my own business.

But when my grandmother died in my late 20s and I was left in charge of her end-of-life planning, I saw some opportunity in the struggle. I had no idea how to manage all the complicated logistics, in fact I had no idea there would be so many logistics! and I felt overwhelmed in the midst of trying to deal with my own pain. The experience made me realize how unprepared most people are to deal with death and thus inspired me to co-found my company, Lantern, which provides tools, content and services to guide people through the end-of-life process.

Navigating the loss while working full-time also made me realize how unprepared I was entrepreneurs are to support their employees through bereavement. I was working at a startup at the time, and while the company wasn’t incompatible, they struggled to figure out how they could really help (while also keeping business operations running smoothly). I always felt supported with a caveat: take all the time you need…but make sure nothing gets left behind. We don’t have an official policy…but don’t take too much time off. And after my bereavement leave was over, I felt like I was expected to be done bereavement.

When I started my own company, my co-founder and I knew we wanted to do things differently, both to better support our employees and to be a role model for companies large and small. Here are some of the ways my experience has informed the bereavement benefits and bereavement inclusion policies we’ve implemented in our small team.

I wanted to have a policy in place from the start

As an employer, I talk to so many employers who don’t even have an official bereavement policy. “We’ll just figure it out when it happens,” they say, or, “We’ll let people work it out with their manager on an individual basis.” When I lost my grandmother, the startup I was working for had this mindset.

There are some problems with this approach. For one thing, you’re putting the burden on the grieving person to figure out what’s appropriate to ask for, which is a terrible feeling when you’re already dealing with so much. I wanted all the time I could get when I lost my grandma, so I would have liked some guidance on how much was reasonable.

The other problem is that there is a lot of potential inequality in this situation. For example, a manager who is very close to his employees may be happy to give them as much time as they need, while another may not approve of so much time off.

Being very clear about what we offer from the start eliminates both of these problems. Our little team at Lantern has been lucky enough not to need an extended bereavement leave yet, but I’m glad to know that when it inevitably happens, we won’t have to scramble to resolve a policy or leave employees feeling uncertain.

I wanted our policy to reflect real needs (not just a random number)

The standard bereavement leave policy is three days for the death of an immediate family member, perhaps one for non-immediate family members or friends, and this time off is generally expected to be taken right after the loss.

Meanwhile, Lantern research estimates that it takes more than 150 hours of work (most of which must be completed during business hours) just to navigate the logistical aspects of a death, if responsible. This was certainly the case for me, and trying to balance these tasks with limited free time while also doing my job felt completely unattainable. Also, it didn’t even give me time to process the grief. When I got to a place where I could do that, everyone else seemed to have expected me to move on (even though data shows that grief affects people for years, potentially a lifetime, after the actual loss).

I’m not saying employers should give people years of bereavement leave, but three days seems like an arbitrary and unrealistic number. Our baseline at Lantern is three weeks of paid leave for an immediate family member and one week for an extended family member, with a few key details that support different processing needs and timelines:

  • This number is a floor, not a ceiling. We hope people take at least that, but if they feel they need more, that becomes a conversation with their manager.
  • These days can be divided and taken at any timewhether employees need time before the death, immediately after, or even months or years later (such as taking a day off on the anniversary of the death).
  • The relationship of the deceased is defined by our employees. After all, who are we to say that a best friend shouldn’t be considered an immediate family member, that their death isn’t as hard as a sibling? We trust our employees to tell us what they need.

If business owners aren’t sure how much time to give, I always encourage them to think about what they would want for themselves and think about giving that to their employees. If you put yourself in the position of losing someone, would three days be enough?

I wanted to create systems so that employees could log out seamlessly

Even when I was on leave after my grandmother died, I felt like I had to be ready for my team. There were things that needed me to keep things moving, and I didn’t want to leave anything behind. So I made myself available, but it was hard to take care of myself when my brain was still half working.

At Lantern, we’re trying to create the expectation that people can and should truly disconnect during their downtime, and we’ll keep the business running for them. When business owners worry about lost productivity during this time, there are a few things I like to remind them. First, even if your employee is technically on the clock, they’re not working at full capacity if they’re grieving, so they’re likely to lose that productivity anyway.

But more than that, if the business can’t physically function when one of your teammates is away, that’s a business problem, not an individual problem. We try to increase access and transparency to how each employee operates on our team so that nothing is completely dependent on one person. For example, we keep up-to-date documentation on ongoing projects, all our CRM data is centralized in Hubspot, and every employee has a formal or informal “buddy” with whom they are in constant communication about the things we’re working on.

Think about how you would prepare for someone to go on parental leave or sabbatical, then build that into your day-to-day systems so that someone else can step in at any time (since you usually can’t plan for when the death will happen). Make sure that after a loss, employees have to give as little as possible and that the team doesn’t have to ping them while they’re grieving.

I wanted support to go beyond permission

Finally, I wanted to make sure that our grief support goes beyond giving time to our employees. Even when I was done with my leave after losing my grandmother and ready to go back to work, it’s not like I could get a break in my grief when I walked into the office. We wanted to have a culture of grief inclusion so employees didn’t feel like they had to hide what they were going through.

A big part of this is delivering our ‘Bereavement in the Workplace’ training to our employees, so that everyone understands how to talk to a grieving teammate and what they can actually do to support them. We also recognize that grief occurs beyond the home, so we recognize when major world events can affect our employees and give them time and space to do so as well.

While some may argue that it’s not a company’s job to help employees cope with grief, if it affects your employees, it affects your business. If you put the human before the business and give your team the space and support to process, they will feel more engaged, more loyal to your company and more confident that they can return to work (when they) are ready).

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