"It’s not already covered under FMLA?!”
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I have yet to talk to a person about my upcoming trip to D.C. who has not responded in a similar way. Expressions of surprise, disbelief, and confusion have been the norm. These reactions are part of my motivation for travelling to our nation's capital this February 2013 with author and CEO of the MISS Foundation, Barry Kluger and author and founder of The Grieving Dads Project, Kelly Farley. These two bereaved fathers are the originators of the Farley-Kluger Initiative to amend the current Family Medical Leave Act (widely known as FMLA) to include the death of a child as a covered condition for taking the unpaid leave guaranteed by the Act.
The current FMLA allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (or to substitute accrued paid leave) with the security of knowing their jobs are protected when they return. The Act, created in 1993 as a major part of President Bill Clinton's first term agenda, allows leave to be taken in the event of the birth of a child, adoption, becoming a foster parent, to care for a spouse, son, daughter or a parent with a serious health
condition, if the employee him or herself has a serious health condition, and in the event that the need arises due to a spouse's, son's or daughter's active military duty. As is, there is currently no ability to utilize this federally mandated job protection leave for a parent whose child has died (This is where most people say, "What?! That's not covered!? I can't believe that!").
As a bereaved mother, I want to say that I also have a difficult time believing that the death of a child is not included in the
current FMLA. But, also, as a bereaved mother, I can sadly say that I am really not surprised. We live in an incredibly death denying society. Our society does not like to talk or think
about death. This is particularly true regarding the deaths of children. Child death is not pretty, or sexy, or happy. Generally
speaking, talk and thoughts of death make our society very uncomfortable. So, therefore, unless death is thrust into our view and we are made to look at it, we try very hard not to do so. And even when we are made to do so, we (generally) try very hard to look the other way. As soon as possible.
The death of one's child is often labeled a tragedy that is
"unimaginable." That actually isn't true. It isn't easy or pleasant to imagine, but it is, in fact, imaginable. That said, if an event is thought to be "unimaginable," how can anyone other than a person who has actually experienced said event really be
expected to be thinking of it on a regular basis? I'm pretty sure (and I did do some research, and can't find anything to the
contrary, though I could still be wrong) that the crafters and supporters of the original FMLA did not have dead children. After nearly seven years of living my life without my son, I have come
to realize that the great majority of people in my life are not thinking of him daily. They are also not thinking of what it's like to live my life as it stretches out before me, without him in it
day after day, year upon year. They cannot help it. Feel free to extrapolate this basically to mean that the people who are not thinking of the inalterable fact of child death, because they have not experienced it, cannot help it. This is simply because it hasn't happened to them. They are generally unable and unwilling to allow themselves to imagine what such a reality is like. That's no
excuse, it's just reality, I think. They usually can't help it.
What's more tragic than their seeming inability to imagine such a tragedy day in and day out, is the sad and true fact of the lives
of those who are no longer required to imagine such a terrible thing, because it is our actual reality. We live it daily. I could go on with this, but will spare you. Either you already know what it's like, or you don't want to have to tolerate it being repeated in various ways ad infinitum, and I don't really want you to stop reading.
So, because of the general lacking in the non-bereaved person's capability to imagine the plight of a bereaved parent, it's clear that it would take a bereaved parent to point out the conspicuousness of the fact that the death of a child must, surely must, be included in an act passed by the Federal Government of the United States of America meant to provide job protection for its citizens during life's most crucial transitions. Death of a child is currently not included because unless and until it happens to you, it just isn't something that is on your mind. It's
the absolute furthest thing from your mind. Inconceivable, unthinkable, absolutely unimaginable. Until it is. And that's exactly why it should be included in the FMLA. That is my take as a bereaved mother.
As a clinician and therapist working very often and very closely with those who are grieving the deaths of their children, I cannot
express my professional support of this initiative enough. Because there does not exist the possibility for individuals to utilize FMLA due to the death of a child, a bereaved parent must figure out another way to make it work so they can take time off (beyond the generally allowed, even more unbelievable, 3-day
bereavement leave) without losing their jobs. In order to take the much needed time to… [insert here whatever words make sense to you in regards to a bereaved parent being able to find space and ability to "function"]. Here are some suggestions: to regain some sense of stability, to feel you might be able to go about as a "normal" person in the world again, to come to a place where maybe you don't feel that you must hide your grief or stuff your tears, to come to a place where you consider yourself to be almost like a "real person" again, to feel that you can get out of bed without throwing up, to find the motivation to take a shower today, to feel hopeful that you can go to the grocery store and
not fall apart in the aisles, to think that you are not a complete liar when you say, "I'm okay," when asked the socially prescribed, "how are you," to feel able to look other people in the eye again, etc. In order to have the space and time to do those things and more under the currently allowed FMLA, a bereaved parent
must have a professional (doctor, therapist, psychologist, etc.) assert that he or she has a "serious health condition."
Generally, that most often means a clinician will provide the necessary documentation that a bereaved parent cannot return to work, not because he or she is grieving the death of a child, but because he or she is displaying symptoms of clinical
depression (the symptoms of which, by the way, are nearly identical to those of grief but the two are not the same thing). The professional can then sign off, if he or she chooses, on a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) for use of leave provided under the current FMLA. Or if perhaps this parent exhibits near crippling anxiety, a Panic Disorder could suffice, or maybe when she goes out, she has shortness of breath and extreme nervousness, then perhaps a Social Phobia, or possibly the ever-popular Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Perhaps none of these quite fit, but since the death of his child, he has reported feeling extremely sad, and sometimes very angry or highly energetic and can't stop
working or engaging in other tasks, and maybe can't sleep. Hmmm, maybe we'll give an unspecified affective problem such as Mood Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. If the grieving mother or father is having "intrusive thoughts" (meaning unpleasant, upsetting thoughts that are difficult to manage and which
create problems with every day functioning), nightmares, and feeling especially tense and "on-edge," maybe a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would do it. If the bereaved mother is hearing the cries of a baby who is not in
her arms or in his bassinet (as he should be), or the bereaved father sees his daughter (just for a heartbreakingly fleeting moment, out of the corner of his eye) sitting in the bright shaft of sunlight streaming over the breakfast table, or if, for just a millisecond, the grieving mother smells the dearly remembered perfume of her daughter as she stands in the empty bedroom (which she has no plans to change, not even an iota), or if this bereaved dad hears the laughter of his teenage son, or that grieving mother sometimes thinks she hears the call of "Mom, I'm home!," while she's loading the washer or drying her hair (but, then of course, he's never there when she runs to the door), well, then they can surely qualify for a Psychotic Disorder (with or without Hallucinations, or Delusions, but probably just the garden-variety Unspecified type will suffice).
How many grieving parents have experienced any of these phenomena and more? I know I can check off several on the list. I am fervently opposed to the pathologizing of grief. Grief is not a mental illness or disorder. To paraphrase the founder of the MISS Foundation, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, if grief is a mental illness, so then is love. We grieve in the same measure with which we love. However deep our love, so the depths, breadths and lengths of our grief. For parents whose children have died, that measure is indeed beyond imagining. As so many others who have not lived it (thankfully) cannot imagine what it must be like for your beloved child to die, we who have experienced it cannot imagine the day when our love is not reflected somehow in the immensity and protractedness of our grief. This is not illness. This is normal. This is hard and it is sad, but it is normal.
What we really need is a society that supports us in living with the aftermath. The Farley-Kluger Initiative to add the death of a
child to the list of reasons for eligible leave under FMLA is a huge step in recognizing that grief following the death of a child is a significant event in the life of a family. Because of this, I am honored, pleased, and proud to travel to our nation’s capitol with Barry and Kelly the first week of February 2013 to meet with nearly 30 members of Congress to discuss the initiative. I will do whatever I can, as my son's mother, as a clinician and grief professional, as a member of the MISS Foundation, to support this effort begun by these two dedicated and committed fathers.
Please join me in helping the Farley-Kluger Initiative to amend the current FMLA become a reality. Sign the petition. Help us reach far beyond 50,000 signatures. Forward it to your friends and family. Share the petition on Facebook and Twitter, write your congressional representatives and your senators. In the midst of the worst grief imaginable, no parent should have to fear for job security. Let it be known that we believe parents grieving the deaths of their children deserve to be able to take time and space to grieve and to mourn, without the fear of losing their jobs. Let it be known that we believe bereaved parents should not have to accept the label of a mental illness in order to have time and space to grieve the deaths of their children, also without fear of losing their jobs. Let it be known that we do not believe they should have to return to their workplaces with the stigma of mental illness in addition to the isolating effects of bereavement. This grief is already hard enough. For all these reasons, and for reasons of your own, stand with us. Send the message that we believe all bereaved parents, now and in the future, deserve this recognition of our grief.
It shouldn't take an Act of Congress to send such a
message, but if you and I have anything to do with it, it can, and it will.
Sign the petition
Karla Helbert, LPC