SHIFT: Is five days really enough time to grieve?

Canada's provincial bereavement leave policies range from one to seven days away from work to manage the loss of a family member, some paid, but mostly unpaid. Is this the best we can do?

Lisa Machado 7 minute read January 31, 2022
Alone in a Crowd

How can anyone be expected to pick up the pieces of their life, and that of three little ones in five days? GETTY

“It’s like some people have so much bad stuff, they don’t know what to do with it all. They can’t get the time to take care of themselves and then they end up just covering up.”

This from the nurse drawing blood for a recent six-month check up at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

She still remembers me from the first time I had my blood taken, just days after finding out I had leukemia. Not having anyone to look after my kids, I had brought them with me. My daughter, with red bouncy curls, bright blue eyes and a fast giggle, was three; my son, with a dimply smile and adorable squishy hands — one clutching a soft book about dump trucks, the other a blue container of Cheerios — was one. They both sat on my knee, intently watching my blood slowly fill plastic tubes with different coloured covers — that day, there were 22.

The nurse had told me my kids were my good luck.

She has seen a lot in her time at the hospital. She once told me that she feels like crying every time she sees patients alive and well years after a cancer diagnosis.

‘There is so much loss’

She was catching me up on the state of things in the lab: too many patients, everyone is tired, and lagging supplies of syringes and blood collection tubes are stressing the staff, she said. “Plus, there is so much loss.” She was referring to the stories she kept hearing from patients about what it was like to lose loved ones during a pandemic. Her bright brown eyes clouded for a moment, as she looked at me over the thick red frames of her glasses, untying the yellow tourniquet from my arm. “People aren’t taking the time they need to heal.”

It made me think of a friend who recently lost her husband to cancer — it felt fast to me, I can’t imagine how quick it must have seemed to her and her three children. But now, for her, every day is molasses-slow, every minute filled with grief and sadness as she searches for some sense of normalcy.

She needs time — time to process that now-empty space in her bed; time to hold her kids and absorb their pain; time to figure out what life moving forward looks like.

And it’s going to take more than the five paid days her workplace allows.

After all, recovery isn’t like a load of laundry that you squeeze into the spare minutes between Zoom meetings and deadlines — it’s a deep, all-encompassing, soul-dissolving task. Add in all of the logistics around loss — informing family and friends, arranging the funeral, emptying closets — and well, you’ve got yourself a gigantic-sized, heart-breaking hurdle to get over, and who knows how long it’s going to take.

A week to recover from grief sounds bananas to me

Some corporations, like where my friend works, have decided that a week is about right — sounds bananas to me. After all, how can anyone be expected to pick up the pieces of their life, and that of three little ones in five days? Still, her company’s bereavement policy is actually better than the usual two or three that most employees who have suffered a significant loss get across Canada.

With the exception of Nunavut, all provinces and territories have employment legislation policies that include some version of a bereavement policy, according to Benefits Canada magazine. Still, these aren’t necessarily policies that scream compassion and empathy: some depend on when and where the funeral is, with most leaves ranging from three to seven days — 104 weeks in the case of the death of a child in the Yukon and Quebec. All are unpaid, with the exception of Quebec, which gives workers a maximum of five unpaid days off, including two paid days for the death of an immediate family member, while PEI offers employees one paid day and up to two unpaid days.

Certainly, employers are not required to pay bereavement leave. That is, unless the employee’s job is with a federally regulated company and falls under the Canada Labour Code — babysitters, bankers, federal government workers and pilots, for example — which was recently updated to allow for a leave of up to ten days in the event of the death of an immediate family member. For employees employed for at least three consecutive months, the first three days are paid.

It is worth pointing out though, that while employers are not tied to these standard bereavement policies, they can choose to take larger and more significant steps to better meet the needs of their employees — if they wanted to.

In 2017, Meta (formerly Facebook) upped its bereavement leave policy for employees to 20 paid days (from 10) when a family member passes away, and up to 10 days after the death of an extended family member.

“People deserve time to heal and shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs during the hardest moment in their lives,” COO Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband suddenly in 2015, told Built In.

The experts agree.

“A bereavement policy needs to allow an employee to come to terms with a new normal,” says human resources specialist Mary Faulkner in an interview with the HR Certification Institute. She urges employers to stop looking at bereavement policies as one-size-fits-all, and instead pay attention to each employee’s individual needs.

People should be focused on healing, not work

“Instead of having a hard-and-fast policy, approach bereavement as a set of guidelines,” she says. “This leaves room for handling each situation on a case-by-case basis.”

And, sure, call it semantics if you want, but calling them “guidelines” feels more flexible — and perhaps more compassionate — than “policies,” doesn’t it?

This willingness to meet the employee where they are in terms of their needs can also help mitigate some of the whopping costs in lost productivity that bereaved employees generate.

According to The Grief Institute’s 2017 Grief Index, the death of an employee’s loved one costs employers US$49.3 billion in lost productivity. That number drops to US$9.2 in the cases of losing an extended family member, friends and colleagues, while the death of a pet comes in around US$3.1 billion. So it’s not only good for employees to have enough time off work to process their grief — it also makes smart business sense.

Although grief experts say that a minimum of five business days is a solid start to a bereavement leave policy, they also note that flexibility is important — grieving employees should be able to come back sooner if they want, or work out ways to get more time if necessary. And while how much time a person needs after the loss of a loved one is a personal decision, almost all of the people who responded to the 2020 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Employee Benefits Survey who had three days of bereavement leave said they either took extra vacation time or sick leave, or asked for more time off to extend the leave.

In addition to providing leave that’s not so rigid and financially helpful, access to robust employee assistance plans can provide much-needed relief and help while processing grief. It’s also important to remember that mourning, and the sadness that comes from losing someone, doesn’t have a set end date, and that people experience it differently. While someone may choose to be working at their job through their grief, another may need to show up only part-time, and yet others may need a complete disconnection from the workplace.

Angela Nino, founder and CEO of Empathic Workplace, notes that for some employees, the weeks and months after a significant loss will be even more difficult than the immediate days following the death — particularly significant days, like birthdays. She suggests adding “grief days” into the year that follows a major loss to give an employee the space to mark these memories.

I am not sure what my friend would think of that, but there is something to be said for organizations taking that extra step to really connect with their employees when they are struggling — whether it be because of the loss of a loved one (pets count, too), or a divorce, or even dealing with their child’s mental health.

And think of it as not only helping the employee. Empathy shown towards them reaches their families, as well, in the form of less stress and anxiety, perhaps less worry about finances, and maybe, just maybe, it lightens the emotional burden a little.

It’s what’s so great about compassion and empathy — it’s good for everyone.

Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing. She can be reached at
This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.
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