This past week, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made news with
the announcement of extended leave benefits for parents following the birth of a child.
This move may come as good news to current "Yahoos," (the company’s name for its
employees), to family minded young professionals searching for work in the web portal industry, or to those who were perhaps put off by Yahoo's recent "no more
work from home" policy that created a small stir in the business world back in February. Mayer, who took over a struggling Yahoo while 5 months pregnant during the summer of 2012, has made several changes that appear to be geared toward more productivity and a collaborative spirit among workers. This one will no doubt appeal to families. The change in paid parental leave is getting press, but it is the same as
Facebook currently offers to employees, and less than that offered to new moms
by Google, which grants up to 22 weeks of paid leave. Non-birth parents (dads or partners) can take up to 7 weeks off at Google while Facebook offers 16 weeks of leave to all new parents, regardless of whether they are the one who gave birth to the baby.
So, a happy first Mother's Day this Sunday, and upcoming in June, a first Father's Day to all the employees of those companies who will able to take the time they need to spend with their new babies. It makes me wonder what would
happen if those families were to face the worst imaginable outcome. What sort of leave policy do any of these companies offer families who, instead of
celebrating the birth of a precious child, must mourn the death of that child?
I am absolutely not knocking the generosity of any of those companies, or any
other company that would allow such a policy. The U.S. overall is far, far
behind all other developed nations in any guaranteed maternity leave. Any U.S.
based company who would increase maternity and paternity leave gets a big
thumbs-up from me. Parents and babies should be together after the birth for as
long as possible. As the mother of two, I know the importance of being able to
spend every waking and sleeping moment with your newborn for as long as you both need to.
But also, as a bereaved mother, I know the pain of what it’s like to bury your beloved child. There is no other pain like it. This is not a comparing of grief, it is simply a fact. There is nothing else in the extensive range of human emotional experiences like the pain of living through the death of your child, at any age. It is simply not something that should happen to anyone. Sadly though, it does happen.
Because we live in such a death-denying society, death and in particular, the death of children, is not a popular topic. Yahoo might get press coverage for offering more than generally accepted (but non-mandated) three days of bereavement leave to parents (or any other grieving person), but I would be willing to bet it wouldn’t be nearly as widely covered by the media.
Imagine for a moment, going through the pain of labor and child birth, but instead of celebrating the birth of your new baby with family and friends, you are planning your baby's funeral. Imagine holding your first born child as he dies in your arms after 6 months of living with a brain tumor. Imagine hearing the news that your teen daughter was killed in a car accident last night.
Now try imagine going back to work three days after that.
The need for support and help following the death of a child is crucial. Bereaved parents need support. They need help. They need understanding. And they need time. Time to, at the very least, find some way to begin to attempt to function at some level approaching normality. Nothing is ever “normal” again after your child dies. But because life does, as they say, go on, we must find ways to cope.
I know what it's like to hold my child in my arms as he takes his last breath. I know what it is to try to function, to focus, to be "normal" after the death of a child. It isn't possible. As a society, as humans, we are very good at coming together after tragedy and helping our fellow humans. There is something very noble in us when everything is falling down around us. Our flaw is that it is so easy to forget as soon as something else catches our attention, when things calm down and it's time to get back to the routine of day in and day out. When sensationalism settles, or shock wears off, or the need for triage passes. But those at the center of the tragedy still must live their day to day realities. The parents of the 26 people--20 of them no older than seven--murdered at Sandy Hook will mourn their children's deaths for the rest of their lives. The parents of the 27 students gunned down at Virginia Tech will continue to grieve. The parents of the 12 students and one teacher killed at Columbine are still in pain.
Much of the focus since the Newtown tragedy has been on the issue of gun control and on how to make schools safer. These are no small things. But another thing we could also do would be to provide a way to support the suffering parents who are now and will always be struggling to find a way to cope with this new life without their children. What if bereaved parents were able to choose leave when their children die as well as when they are born?
There is no leave policy that could ever erase the pain of the death of a child. But having time to grieve, to mourn, to simply be, would be a gift that we could give that could make a difference for those parents and perhaps make things just a little easier while thier lives are a living nightmare.
Currently, there are bills in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate, to amend the current Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The
Parental Bereavement Act of 2013 would change nothing in the current law except allow parents of children who have died the option of using the up-to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per calendar year to have time to grieve. The FMLA uses no funds, costs employers nothing except the continued payment for insurance benefits, is applicable only to companies with over 50 employees and guarantees only that the employee will have their job when they return. This is very little to give in exchange for what a bereaved parent would have the opportunity to gain. Some space and time to grieve.
It is my fervent hope that our lawmakers will see that this is an opportunity to show American workers that they are supported, that our best quality as humans, to take care of those in need and in pain, can be extended to the workplace. Write to your Senators and Representatives, call them and let them know that you support the Farley-Kluger Initiative (H.R. 515 & S. 226).
To amend FMLA with the Parental Bereavement Act would be a true act of
compassion and care. It's time is now.
Visit the website to sign the petition.
"It’s not already covered under FMLA?!”
If you don't feel like reading this whole post, then go ahead and just sign here.
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