Following the death of a loved one, bereavement leave gives the individual time and space to begin the grieving process. Of course, grief can last for a long time. However, bereavement leave gives people the opportunity to pay attention to their loss without the distractions of work.
But how do you request bereavement leave and what should you do to utilize your time in a healthy way? In this article, we’ll help you with understanding the bereavement leave process and give you some tips on how to make the most of it for your healing and well-being.
Bereavement leave is a specific type of absence reserved for employees experiencing the death of a loved one. It is time given to the employee so that they can grieve as well as take care of all of the funeral arrangements and other matters.
In the United States, there are no federal laws mandating the terms of bereavement leave policies or that employers must offer bereavement leave at all. Therefore, some employers have no formal policy, while others have generous paid leave options for their employees. However, at this point, many organizations have designed some form of bereavement leave for their employees, ranging in length and whether or not it is paid. Furthermore, since there is no federal law about bereavement leave, a few states have created employment law that obligates employers to offer an unpaid or paid bereavement leave program.
The exact bereavement leave requirements will vary by employer. Some may provide bereavement leave for any major loss while others will only offer leave for specific scenarios. Read on to learn more about how much bereavement leave can vary.
At the bare minimum, many employees will be granted bereavement leave from their employer for the death of an immediate family member. However, bereavement leave may not be granted in the cases of the loss of other loved ones such as a close friend, close relative, or extended family member. Other employers only approve bereavement leave on a case by case basis, especially regarding the loss of a distant family member or friend.
Furthermore, the definition of family member (especially an immediate or close family member) may vary by employer. For example, some employers may count step-children as immediate family members while others don’t.
How much time an employee is allowed also varies by employer. Some employees are only given a paid day or two to attend the funeral services while other organizations may provide up to two weeks or up to four weeks of bereavement leave.
Some organizations require employees to work for a certain amount of time before they can access any form of paid leave including bereavement. Companies may not offer any bereavement to new hires (employees who have been with the company for less than 90 days) and others only provide bereavement leave to full time employees.
In addition to all the factors mentioned already, it is important to know that some employers only offer unpaid bereavement leave or limited paid bereavement leave. Since there is no law mandating any terms of bereavement leave policy, some employers choose to offer it but don’t pay the employee for it.
Some companies offer paid bereavement leave, but they are usually large or medium sized businesses that have the money to cover this benefit. Furthermore, paid bereavement may limit how long bereavement leave is for employees. For example, such leave is sometimes limited to one paid day to cover the funeral date. It is very rare that employers are generous in how much time they provide for paid leave.
Of course, not having paid leave to care for your well-being during this difficult time can be very hard. But it is possible to use other forms of leave to cover the time you need for mourning and to arrange the funeral. For example, some people use vacation time or sick leave to cover their bereavement if bereavement leave is not available. However, make sure to talk to the human resources department about this leave request, as using vacation time or sick leave in this manner could be a violation of company guidelines.
Before you request bereavement leave with your human resources department, you should check your company’s guidelines or collective bargaining unit to see what your employer’s bereavement leave policies are.
Keep in mind it is often up to employees to take and request bereavement leave. Just because you experience a death in the family does not mean the company will automatically put you on leave. You must make a formal request with your superior or human resources to take advantage of this benefit.
When you request bereavement leave, human resources may require some evidence that a loved one passed away. This can include a death certificate, prayer card, or a funeral program. Other employers may be more trusting and not require a death certificate or any other document to grant the bereavement leave request.
While bereavement leave may be a busy whirlwind, it's important to take care of yourself, too. Because just when you're trying to process what's just happened, you also have to attend memorial services and a funeral. You may have to socialize with friends, relatives, and acquaintances - some of whom you may not have seen in years.
Needless to say, it's a lot to take in while you go through heartbreak. That's why it's so important to incorporate healing practices in your bereavement leave. And if the thought of doing or trying something new sounds overwhelming at a time of great loss, remember this:
These practices can support you as you grieve. They are never intended to do away with grief, or to make you "feel better." They are simple ways to take care of yourself and experience grief in a way that supports you.
Take Time To Rest
A 2014 study found that people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases after the death of a loved one. This vulnerability increases with elderly individuals.
But why? This is partially due to cortisol, the stress hormone, which increases someone experiences shock and grief. These higher levels of cortisol lower the body's immune system, along with its defenses against illness.
Therefore, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to rest whenever you can. If friends or family members offer to prepare meals, run your errands, clean your home, or do any other services for you, don't be afraid to accept their offers.
Allowing people to help you during bereavement time makes it possible for you to rest and process grief.
You might not want to rest. Instead, you might want to stay busy and distract yourself from the intense grief you feel. And it's easy to stay busy and distracted during bereavement time off. For example, there are memorial services, religious services, and funerals to arrange and organize, not to mention everything in between.
And while these things must get done, they can also prevent you from taking adequate and necessary time to grieve and mourn. But to begin healing - even in the days following the death of a loved one - it's important to grieve, not by avoiding grief, but my taking time to mourn and grieve.
The following suggestions are ways you can mourn and work through your grief during bereavement time off.
Try To Stay Present
It can be very difficult to stay in the present moment when you feel heartbroken. Pain can be immense, all-encompassing and overwhelming. And it can seem scary to sit with your grief head-on.
However, when you stay present with whatever you are feeling, it can keep you from worrying about what the future holds. It can also keep you from looking back in sorrow with any regrets you carry.
Some ways to stay in the present moment - whatever that may look like - is to focus on your breathing and how your physical body feels. You can also try to focus your attention on what is going on around you, including the sounds, smells, sights and sensations you experience. These are all very simple ways to stay present.
Just Focus On Today
When you lose someone, your entire reality is shaken up, along with long-held beliefs about life, faith, and spiritual matters. On top of these deeply painful and emotional experiences, you can worry about how the future will be without your loved one.
It might seem impossible to continue without the person you've lost. You might not be sure how you'll survive and cope with life without them. However, instead of worrying about tomorrow, or the day after, just focus on today during bereavement time.
Ask yourself what needs to happen today - and today only - and just worry about those things. In fact, try to replace the word "worry" with "focus." When you approach the day's tasks, just focus on them. Tomorrow's tasks will come when tomorrow arrives.
Be Compassionate With Yourself
Grief is like an emotional roller coaster. As author and scholar, C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed, "Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a new landscape."
During grief, a wide range of feelings come your way, including fear, guilt, and anger, and it can be a challenge to cope with this emotional onslaught.
As you work through these feelings, it's pretty likely that you'll feel confused at times and forgetful at others. You might also feel disorganized and disoriented. And if you're usually pretty on top of things, this can be doubly frustrating.
In times like this, it's easy to be hard on yourself and critical. But if you can, try to be compassionate with yourself. Some ways to be kind to yourself is to say these loving affirmations:
Everything will work itself out
Another important way to be compassionate with yourself is to set boundaries that give you the respect and rest you need. If you need a break from socializing, or if you're unable to keep up with the commitments set for you, it's okay to decline.
You might want to be strong and do it all, but it's absolutely okay to cancel or postpone appointments - there's nothing weak about this, and you're not a failure for doing so. If anything else, it's a great act of self-love and self-respect.
Talk With Someone Who Cares For You
During bereavement time off, you may or may not want to talk about how you're feeling. But something you can do for yourself is to talk with someone who cares for you.
They might not know what to say or how to help you, but you could tell them exactly what you need. For example, if you're not ready to discuss your thoughts and feelings, just ask them to be there with you. Perhaps just having someone to talk to about anything can help during the difficult bereavement time.
Or, if you do need someone to open up to, let them know that you just need someone to be there for you. Caring friends and family are more than happy to be a shoulder you can lean upon.
Finally, one important thing to remember when it comes to spending time with others is that it's perfectly okay to be selective.
There may be many people who want to help you and be there for you. And you might feel bad declining certain offers. However, it's okay to be "selfish" here, and spend time with people with whom you feel safe, secure and most comforted.
Consider Using Rituals
Rituals are ancient practices people use to acknowledge the sacred nature of an event. While it may seem strange to associate heartbreak and loss with anything sacred, doing so may help during the mourning process.
Both religious and non-religious people can incorporate the following rituals into a daily routine:
Eat Regular Meals
During bereavement time off, your appetite may change. And while it's important to honor your body and its needs, it's also important to nourish it with regular meals.
You shouldn't force yourself to eat or to overeat. This might only make you feel worse. But try to honor your regular meal times. And it's perfectly fine if your meals are smaller than usual.
While you may not feel like eating, doing so can nourish your mind and help it process everything it's going through. Healthy fats, such as those in salmon, walnuts, avocados, coconut oil, olive oil and eggs can help support healthy brain function.
Certain foods, spices, and beverages also help to relieve stress and anxiety, such as leafy greens, turmeric, organ meats, turkey and teas, such as chamomile and rooibos.
If possible, you can try to incorporate these foods, in any amount your meals during bereavement time.
Try To Move Your Body
In her Ted Talk, "The brain-changing benefits of exercise," neuroscientists Wendy Suzuki says "exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain."
Now, exercise may be the last thing you want to do during bereavement time off, and for a good reason. And if exercise isn't part of your daily routine, it might not be a good idea to hit the gym when you're going through intense grief.
So, instead of trying to "exercise," just consider moving your body in any way that feels good to you. Perhaps that means going for a 20-minute walk, or taking your bike to a nearby park and seeing how you feel once you start pedaling.
The idea isn't to focus on your abs or your love handles. The idea is to move your body to support your mind simply. And that might mean exercising as usual, or it might mean slowing down a bit.
If this idea doesn't feel right to you, there's no need to push yourself into more discomfort by exercising.
Can You Help Others?
Everyone's experience of grief is different. This means that how you cope and move through grief will be different from others, too. But one way to move through your own experience of sorrow is to help others who are also in pain.
Helping others isn't a form of distraction or a way to avoid grief. Instead, it offers an opportunity to connect with others through a common experience of pain and loss.
If this idea resonates with you, the next question is: how can you help others? Volunteering might come to mind, but this may be too much too soon. If so, look to your immediate circle and see where you might be able to help others.
And help can be a very simple thing. For example, could you walk your dog or your neighbor's dog? If you have house plants, watering them can be a small, but generous act.
What About Family Members and Neighbors?
Even tying a child's shoe, or offering to do the dishes are small, yet meaningful acts that can create a connection - especially at a time when you've lost a meaningful connection.
For Parish Moran, a Buffalo-based artist, helping others happened when she opened her first cafe in 2009, following the death of her son, Stefano.
Moran and her son had done restoration work in Buffalo, and Stefano had noticed that the one thing the main street needed was a coffee shop. After his death, Moran spotted a vacant, Victorian building on that very street, and decided to open a cafe in honor of her son.
She named the cafe, Sweetness_7, which had been Stefano's email address handle. Moran shares that are opening a cafe had been "unexpectedly magical…I want this to inspire anyone…We have to inspire others."
Now, you don't have to buy an old Victorian building and open a coffee shop. But sometimes turning your focus outward and helping others can, in fact, be magical, as Moran discovered.
Speak To A Professional Counselor
Processing grief on your own can be difficult. And even though family and friends mean well, they may not always know how to help. What's more, you may also want to keep a stiff upper lip and forge ahead on your own.
However, there's no shame in seeking a professional therapist if you feel that they can support you as you experience grief and morning.
If you aren't sure where to start, or where to find a nearby professional, consider an online therapist. They provide a safe and open space where you can process your feelings and thoughts without judgment.
If the idea of leaving home or meeting someone new is off-putting, you can meet with an online therapist from the comfort of your home, and on your schedule.
These are healing ways to spend bereavement time off. And because everyone experiences grief differently, feel free to try the suggestions that resonate with you the most. That will allow you to take care of yourself and be gentle with yourself as you move through this difficult time.
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