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A time to grieve? Why we should consider a statutory entitlement to compassionate leave

Here’s the thing about grief – you cannot outrun it.

Claire Micks

GRIEVING THE LOSS of somebody close is like being unable to ever fully catch your breath. It is housing a well in the pit of your stomach of nausea and exhaustion, of tension and of pain. It is as indescribable as it is debilitating.

Grief is far more than just an emotional reaction. In many ways, when it is somebody integral to your life that you have lost, you’re not even capable of an emotional reaction – so enormous is the loss to be faced. So, instead, it manifests itself in a physical reaction. Coming to terms with a death is a huge challenge for anyone, and not one for which any of us are particularly well-prepared. It definitely takes its toll.

According to the Irish Hospice Foundation 44% of organisations report an increase in sick leave for employees after a bereavement. And why wouldn’t there be? The world as you knew it has, overnight, been turned upside down. Your lifelong support mechanism, your emotional safety net, be that of the parental or spousal or any other variety for that matter, has been abruptly snatched from under your nose.

So how do we typically react to this? These daunting feelings of emptiness. Pain. Fear of the unknown?

Simple.

We race back to work.

Run, rabbit, run. Run. Run. Run… fast as you can and don’t look back. Instinct takes over and the emotional shutters well and truly come down.

But here’s the thing about grief –  you cannot outrun it.

You can avoid it. But by burying it, it just festers and seeps down further somewhere into our consciousness until it eventually rears its ugly toxic head, often years later, in some other physical or psychological form. This time with a much more indelible mark left behind on your life than had you been afforded the time and space to face up to it earlier.

Why no statutory entitlement for compassionate leave?

Given that our very natural and instinctive reaction is one of escape, denial, avoidance, it strikes me as a great misfortune that we don’t have any laws on this area that would actively encourage some time and space to allow us come to terms with the loss of a loved one. For some reason our social policy doesn’t encourage the bereaved to take time out to allow the enormity of what has just happened to sink in before we ‘Speedy Gonzalas’ our way back to work.

There is a statutory entitlement to ‘force majeure’ leave, which in times of urgent family crisis allows an employee to take up to three days paid leave from work per year. But this doesn’t cover the death of a close family member.

No, really. It doesn’t.

Mad? Yes. Surprising? No, not particularly. Clearly in our legislator’s eyes once they’re actually dead, there’s no particular reason why we shouldn’t be straight back to our desks.

I took 11 months’ maternity leave, four months’ parental leave, and one month off to get married. Oh, and five unscheduled days when my mother died. And it’s only now, many years later, that I am capable of seeing the absurdity in those particular statistics.

But nobody advises you of what’s the ‘norm’, there aren’t any laws dictating what period is sufficiently ‘compassionate’ and the very real ‘run rabbit run’ reaction militates towards people getting back to work sooner rather than later.

Nobody wants to be seen ‘milking it’. That would feel like the ultimate in disrespect to the person you have just lost. By definition, if you’ve just watched someone you love die you are at your most vulnerable; you are incapable of seeing the wood from the trees. So you are definitely in no fit state to gauge what is in your own best interests in the long run.

A recipe for disaster for all concerned

People wheel out vague, well-intended platitudes instructing you to ‘mind yourself’, right before delicately suggesting that you might want to getting back to ‘normal’ as soon as you can. So your instinct is to go back as soon as you can physically make it through the day. Because, rightly or wrongly, that is what is ‘expected’. And who can blame employers, when our laws don’t make any provision to the contrary?

People have often missed time in the run up to a bereavement to care for their loved ones, to deal with the stress and exhaustion that hospitals, and palliative care, and extended family, and saying the final goodbye entails. And once their love one is ‘safely dispatched’ to the other side, those left behind can feel obliged to get back to the day job and make up for lost time. Which can be a recipe for disaster for all concerned.

As a simple exercise I googled how long you should take off work when a parent dies. I got no definitive answers from any official sources. The closest I came across was an Irish Hospice Foundation survey of Irish employers indicating 3-5 days as being the norm. Worse still, any advice from blogs etc about seeking a longer period off work invariably involved a ‘visit to your GP’. Which by definition means that if you’re not ‘over it’ within the week, there is something wrong with you.

Many people’s work contracts cover it. Or their HR policies. Which brings the question right down to brass tacks and makes for difficult reading: one day for a grandparent, generously doubled when you come down a generation, etc etc. Cringe-worthy and painfully arbitrary, but any system of that nature, by definition, has to be. In many ways, it takes a brave employer to tackle the question. Tackling delicate issues is not something we Irish exactly excel at.

Future generations will surely look back aghast at our present attitudes

Generations to come will no doubt have a much better understanding about how our minds function and how stress, and bereavement in particular, impacts upon them, and how they subsequently function. And my own sense is that they will look back aghast at our present attitudes, where no time at all is devoted to coming to terms with a death, and moving on virtually immediately is expected.

One wonders will they take note of our spiralling rates of depression, alcoholism, obesity, cancer and perhaps put two and two together where we currently don’t. It may only be a small contributing factor, but it is a relevant one.

As the Government prepares to publish the Family Leave Bill this autumn, which consolidates our laws on maternity, adoptive, carers and possibly even paternity leave, perhaps they could consider being brave enough to tackle the enormous elephant in the room – the question of compassionate leave. For the sake of all those out there who openly admit that they never really took the time to deal with whatever loss they encountered, and wish they had. Whatever it might cost the exchequer in reimbursement to employers, it would doubtless recoup in spades on avoided sick leave further down the tracks.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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Claire Micks

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