Image courtesy of Avrielle Suleiman
What is bereavement leave?
Bereavement leave (sometimes referred to as funeral leave) is time off from work after the death of a family member or relative.
Is bereavement leave guaranteed in the United States?
No, bereavement leave is not guaranteed in the United States. There is no federal law that mandates employers must provide time away from work after the death of a family member of a friend, paid or unpaid.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor: “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).”
Oregon is the only state with an official ruling on bereavement leave, and it allows 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. Not every business or company in the state is required to offer bereavement leave, however—only those with more than 25 employees.
But your employer may offer it anyway
Around 88 percent of employers still offer full-time employees some type of bereavement leave. These policies can usually be found in your contract, employee handbook, or can be discussed with an HR representative. Occasionally, companies might grant leaves of absence, but that time is typically unpaid. Personal vacation time or paid time off can be used in lieu of an official bereavement policy.
How long is bereavement leave?
Generally, not long enough.
A 2016 survey of more than 2,500 HR professionals about their company’s leave policies by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found the following:
An average of only four days leave is granted following the death of a spouse or child.
An average of only three days leave is granted following the death of a domestic partner, foster child, grandchild, parent, sibling, or grandparent.
Same-sex marriage was made legal in the United States only in June 2015 (in some states before), so these numbers suggest that some employers may have been denying a day of bereavement leave specifically to employees in same-sex partnerships while they were legally prevented from getting married.
An average of only two days leave is granted following the death of other extended family members or a spouse’s relative.
An average of only two days leave is granted following the death of a relative of an opposite-sex partner, while an average of only one day is granted following the death of a relative of a same-sex partner. (Again, note the blatant discrimination.)
An average of only two days leave is granted following a miscarriage.
Many organizations do not provide any bereavement leave following the death of a friend or coworker.
Just a few days is not enough
Claudia Coenen, a certified grief counselor and thanatologist, points out the egregious problem with such short leave policies. “What I hear from my clients is that in general, the bereavement leave is never enough. Corporate America generally offers three days of bereavement leave, and then they expect you to come back as if nothing ever happened, which is so unreasonable. In my opinion, it’s inhumane.”
She continues: “All employers should recognize that their employees are people and that when people have a death in their lives, there should be a system to allow for them to handle those feelings. When somebody dies and there’s no bereavement leave, then how is that person supposed to cope?”
The statistics above demonstrate just how limited the definition of “family” often is when it comes to bereavement leave. The experience of grief is not limited to the loss of those most closely biologically related to you, nor is the reality of what makes a family.
These narrow notions of family disregard the reality of human relationships and multigenerational households, employees who care for (or even are close to) extended family members, people who were raised by people other than their biological parents, same-sex couples, and anyone else who has lost someone they love.
Why bereavement leave is so important
Not only is bereavement time important for making funeral arrangements, settling estates, executing wills, and gathering family members, but it’s also vital for an employee’s mental and physical health.
Grief isn’t something that’s dealt with over the course of a few days. In fact, the effects of grief can still bring on waves of emotions for months after. “Grief goes on for your whole life,” Coenen tells InHerSight. “Though it doesn’t stay the same over the course of your life.”
For employers, it’s in their best interest to offer bereavement leave. Decreased productivity, missing days of work, apathy, depression, lapses in judgement—these are just a few of the symptoms and effects grief can bring, especially when time for properly processing feelings isn’t offered.
According to a recent study by ComRes for the National Council for Palliative Care and Dying Matters, more than 50 percent of responders said they would consider leaving a job that didn’t offer proper bereavement support. Additionally, around one-third of recently grieving people felt that their employers didn’t treat them with empathy and compassion.
Employee rights to bereavement leave
“If an employee does not have FMLA protections, her legal rights are limited,” Cynthia Thomas Calvert, employment lawyer and the principal of law firm Workforce 21C, says. “She may have rights based on a collective bargaining agreement, civil service rules, an employer’s personnel policies, or an employment contract.”
Also, discrimination laws may give her limited rights,” Calvert continues. “For example, if she is treated differently based on a protected characteristic, such as race or ethnicity or age, that could be illegal discrimination—such as if an employer gives unpaid personal leave to white employees or young employees for extended vacations but refuses to give unpaid personal leave to a Black employee or an older employee for bereavement—but that usually requires getting a lawyer involved.”
You also have the right to not be retaliated against. For example, if you have formerly filed a complaint against your employer (like complaining about discrimination) and they deny you bereavement leave, then that could be considered retaliation, and that’s illegal.
Using FMLA for bereavement leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is designed to help employees get the additional time off that they need in the face of serious circumstances, like recovering after a miscarriage or caring for an immediate family member who is ill. It provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.
To qualify for the FMLA, you must work at a company for at least 12 months and the company must have more than 50 employees who work within a 75-mile radius of the primary workplace. Eligible companies include:
Public and private schools
Companies with 50+ employees
The FMLA is in place for bereaved employees who require grief counseling or who suffer a serious health condition related to the passing of a loved one. During the 12 weeks off, employers are still legally obligated to cover health benefits for the employee, though they are not required to pay the employee.
Bereavement leave after the loss of a pregnancy
Some employers include miscarriage in their bereavement leave policies, but if yours doesn’t, you may be able to use FMLA to take time away. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, “a pregnant woman can take FMLA leave for incapacity due to serious health conditions related to pregnancy, such as miscarriage.”
“If the bereavement is related to the loss of a pregnancy,” Calvert says, “the employee may have additional rights to leave under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and/or state and local laws requiring accommodation of pregnant employees. Those laws could entitle the employee to time off for recovery from the loss, including postpartum depression.”
Anticipatory grief in the workplace
Grief often begins before the death of a loved one. If your friend or family member has been diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening condition, you may experience anticipatory grief, which can manifest as depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, loneliness, fear, and guilt, as well as changes in eating patterns, memory problems, and aches and pains.
Coenen notes that anticipatory grief is “a very real aspect of grief. I don’t see much difference between anticipatory grief and grief after someone dies.”
You may be able to use FMLA to care for an immediate family member. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this act entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 work weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to care for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious health condition. However, you and your employer must meet the requirements to be covered by this law, and as Calvert points out, “once that family member passes away, the employee’s right to FMLA leave ends.”
How to ask for bereavement leave from work + email examples you can use
Especially if bereavement leave isn’t guaranteed at your company, asking for that time off can be uncomfortable. Luckily, most employers have a system for requesting bereavement leave or other time off, which is often documented in the employee handbook. Otherwise, simply set up a conversation with your manager and with HR, if your employer has one.
Many people prefer to ask about policies discreetly, in the interest of privacy. Email your supervisor or HR department to set up a before or after hours meeting or phone call.
Example #1 - Setting up the meeting
I would like to grab a few minutes with you this morning. I've had a family emergency and will need to talk to you about my plan for a leave of absence.
Example #2 - Notification of bereavement leave
I've had a death in the family and will not be at work today. I will be in touch with you by the end of the day to discuss my time away from work. Thank you for your understanding and support.
How to have the conversation
Once you're ready for the conversation, here's some language you might use.
My father passed away yesterday evening and I need to be with my family in California. I'll be leaving this afternoon. I've reviewed the company's bereavement leave policy and will be taking the two weeks available to me.
Marcia will be handling my Wednesday shift in my absence, but I will need you to assist in getting my Thursday evening shift covered.
In case your employer doesn’t have a documented bereavement leave, you might say:
I checked the employee handbook and could find no information about bereavement leave. Can you let me know if this is available? I need to take some time away from work to be with my family as we deal with this loss.
What to include in your bereavement leave request
Tell your boss that you need to take bereavement leave.
Let them know what day you will leave, and if you can, what day you plan to return. Consider leaving yourself some wiggle room if possible should you need more time.
Make it clear who will be handling your important responsibilities while you're out and whether you'll need to push back deadlines or reschedule meetings.
Unfortunately, some employers might be wary of employees abusing bereavement leave and require proof that it’s being used appropriately. While this is cold, just be prepared and have obituary information, funeral programs, or basic information on hand—just in case.
If your return date changes while you're on leave, communicate it clearly and as soon as you know.
What if you aren't able to take bereavement leave?
Despite your need, despite the fact that you should be able to take bereavement leave, you might come up against an employer that just doesn't want to let you take time away. It's wrong, but it's real.
See if you can negotiate with your employer to set a flexible schedule, work from home, or take more breaks during the workday. Perhaps they’d be willing to let you take on a lighter workload for a few weeks or months.
Consider also seeing a counselor or therapist who can help you process your feelings and experience (information about how to find free or low-cost mental health support here). You can also create a self-care plan. Talk to friends, family, or coworkers you trust about your experience. Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel.
Claudia Coenen provides some tips in the section below for how to cope with grief after you return to the workplace.
Finding support after bereavement leave and returning to work while grieving
Some people will find that returning to work will aid in their grief and healing process, while others will find that taking more time off or returning slowly is best for them.
Coenen points out that even those who find returning to work to be helpful will still experience effects of the loss. “It's true that some people find going back to work and getting involved in what they normally do is actually helpful in their grief process because they have something to keep them busy, but because grief affects you on all levels of being, and in particular it affects us cognitively. It’s difficult to get your work done in the normal way. It’s very hard to concentrate, especially very early on in bereavement.”
How to cope with grief in the workplace
Coenen says the same strategies you use to stay calm during a stressful or upsetting situation can also be used when you’re working through grief on the job.
“If you start to feel overwhelmed, you could take a bathroom break and do some deep breathing and splash some water on your face. Take a tea break. Anything you can do with breathing to help calm yourself is really effective. Stand up and stretch your body while you’re breathing. Moving your body can move that emotion and stuck energy.”
Dealing with grief at home
Taking care of your body and mind should continue when you get home, to the best of your ability. “Eat properly, stay well hydrated, make sure you’re getting as good a night’s rest as you can. If you’re having trouble with that, take a warm bath, watch something silly on TV, or do a crossword puzzle, read something that doesn’t require a lot of brain power, take walks in nature, sit under a tree.”
Don’t forget the power of friendship and community as well. Even if you aren’t able to see friends face to face, call them on the phone, set up a video chat, or write letters. Talking through your emotions with people who know and love you is a good practice for those dealing with grief.
Getting professional help
When you’re putting life back together after the death of a loved one, you may need to speak to a professional counselor or connect with a support group that can help you process and express your emotions.
GriefShare allows you to search by area for support groups close to you, and TalkSpace connect you with licensed therapists and psychiatrists who specialize in grief counseling. You can find more information about finding free or low-cost help here.
How employers can better support workers who have suffered a loss
First, give employees time away from work. Not only is it detrimental to physical and mental health of the bereaved employee, distracted employees can pose incredible risk to their own health and safety and that of their coworkers, depending on the nature of the work.
In 2017, Facebook expanded its bereavement leave to 20 days, paid. When designing your own bereavement leave policy, this is a good place to start.
Other ways employers can support bereaved workers:
Understand that grief is not limited to the loss of immediate family members, so honor employee’s definitions of family and honor their need to grieve, whether or not their loved one is biologically related.
Allow bereaved employees to return in the way that’s best for them, whether that’s working remotely, flexing their hours, or taking on a lighter workload.
Allow the bereaved employee plenty of breaks once they return to work.
Most of all, Coenen encourages employers to have a conversation with workers. “That’s where it becomes more humane,” she says. Sitting down and asking, ‘what do you need right now?’ And working with that employee, negotiating an arrangement.”
How coworkers can help
If you have a good relationship with your bereaved coworker, ask how they would like you to support, and honor their response.
Coenen offers some language you can use to check on your coworker: “You might say to someone, ‘I’m really sorry for your loss, do you need anything or would you like to talk about it?’ They may say, ‘well actually, it’s really better for me to just focus on my work, but thank you for asking,’ or they may say, ‘yeah, maybe later we could get a cup of tea. I’d like the opportunity to talk about my mother/husband/etc.’” Whatever the request, respect it.
Coenen also recommends allowing that person some breathing room. Whether that’s not overwhelming them with requests to support them or not overwhelming them with work-related requests, giving that person some room to find their way back to normal is one of the best ways to support a coworker dealing with loss.
About our sources
Claudia Coenen is a certified grief counselor in private practice in Hudson, New York. Claudia presents workshops on the use of creativity for grief processing and vicarious trauma in the workplace and is the author of Shattered by Grief: Picking Up the Pieces to Become WHOLE Again and The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement. She also developed Karuna Cards, a deck of creative prompts for grief and difficult life transitions.
Cynthia Thomas Calvert is an employment lawyer and the principal of Workforce 21C, which helps businesses manage pregnant employees and employees with family caregiving responsibilities. She is also a senior advisor for the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, where (among other things) she oversees a hotline for employees who believe they have been discriminated against because they are pregnant or breastfeeding or because they care for family members.