How My Own Grief Helped Me Better Support My Employees Through the Hard Stuff

Having lost my dad to cancer when I was just nine years old, I always knew how deeply losing someone you love can change your life. What I didn’t expect was for another major loss to inspire me to start my own business.

But, when my grandmother passed away during my late 20s and I was left in charge of her end-of-life planning, I saw some opportunity in the struggle. I had no idea how to handle all of the complicated logistics—in fact, I had no idea there would be so many logistics!—and I felt overwhelmed in the midst of trying to deal with my own grief. The experience made me realize how unprepared most people are to deal with death, and thus inspired me to co-found my company, Lantern, which provides tools, content, and services to guide people through the end-of-life process.

Navigating loss while working full time also made me realize how unprepared most employers are for supporting their employees through grief. I was working at a startup at the time and, while the company wasn’t unsupportive, they struggled to figure out how they could really help (while also keeping business operations running smoothly). I always felt like I got support with a caveat: Take all the time you need… but make sure nothing falls behind. We don’t have an official policy… but don’t take too much time off. And once my bereavement leave was over, it felt like I was expected to be done grieving.

When starting my own company, my co-founder and I knew we wanted to do things differently, both to better support our employees and to be a model to companies big and small. Here are some of the ways my experience has informed the bereavement benefits and grief-inclusive policies we’ve implemented on our small team.

I wanted to have a policy in place from the start

As an entrepreneur, I talk to so many business owners who don’t even have an official bereavement policy. “We’ll just figure it out when it happens,” they say, or, “We’ll just let people sort it out with their manager on an individual basis.” When I lost my grandmother, the startup I was working for had this mentality.

There are a few problems with this approach. For one, you’re putting the onus on the grieving person to figure out what’s appropriate to ask for, which is a terrible feeling when you’re already dealing with so much. I wanted as much time as I could get when I lost my grandmother, so I would have loved some guidance on how much was reasonable.

The other issue is that there’s a lot of potential inequity in that situation. For instance, one manager who’s really close with their employees may be happy to give them as much time as they need, while another may not approve as much time off.

Being hyper clear about what we offer from the start removes both of these issues. Our small team at Lantern has been lucky enough to not need extensive bereavement leave yet, but I’m glad to know that, when it inevitably happens, we won’t have to scramble to sort out a policy or leave employees feeling uncertain.

I wanted our policy to reflect real needs (not just be a random number)

The standard bereavement leave policy is three days for the death of an immediate family member, maybe one for non-immediate family or friends, and that time off is generally expected to be taken right after the loss.

Meanwhile, Lantern research estimates that it takes 150+ hours of work (that mostly needs to be completed during business hours) just to navigate the logistical aspects of a death, if you’re in charge of that. That was certainly the case for me, and trying to balance those tasks with limited time off while also doing my job felt completely unattainable. Plus, it didn’t even leave me with time to actually process the grief. By the time I’d gotten to a place where I could do so, it felt like everyone else had expected me to move on (even though the data shows that grief affects people for years, potentially a lifetime, after the actual loss).

I’m not saying employers should give people years off for bereavement leave, but three days feels like an arbitrary and unrealistic number. Our baseline at Lantern is three weeks of paid leave for an immediate family member, and a week for an extended family member, with a few key details that support different needs and timelines for processing:

  • That number is a floor, not a ceiling. We expect that folks will take at least that much, but if they feel like they need more, that becomes a conversation with their manager.
  • Those days can be split up and taken at any point, whether employees need time leading up to the death, immediately after, or even months or years after (such as taking a day off on the anniversary of the death).
  • The relationship of the deceased is defined by our employees. After all, who are we to say that a best friend shouldn’t be considered an immediate family member, that their death isn’t as hard as a sibling? We trust our employees to tell us what they need.

If business owners are unsure of how much time to give, I always encourage them to think about what they would want for themselves and consider if they’re giving that to their employees. If you put yourself in the position of losing someone, would three days be enough?

I wanted to create systems so employees could seamlessly disconnect

Even when I was on leave after the death of my grandmother, it felt like I had to be on point for my team. There were things they needed from me to keep things moving, and I didn’t want to let anything fall behind. So I stayed available, but it was hard to take care of myself when my brain was still half at work.

At Lantern, we’re trying to create the expectation that people can and should truly disconnect during their leave, and we’ll keep the business going in their stead. When business owners worry about lost productivity during that time, there are a few things I like to remind them. First, even if your employee is technically on the clock, they’re not working at full capacity if they’re grieving, so you’re likely losing that productivity anyway.

But, more than that, if the business cannot physically operate when one of your teammates is gone, that’s a business problem, not an individual problem. We try to build access and transparency into how each employee operates across our team so that nothing is completely reliant on one person. For example, we keep updated documentation on in-the-works projects, all of our CRM data is centralized in Hubspot, and each employee has either a formal or informal “buddy” who they’re in constant communication with about the things they’re working on.

Think how you would prepare for someone going on parental leave or sabbatical, and then build that into your everyday systems so someone else can jump in at a moment’s notice (since you typically can’t plan when death will happen). Ensure that, in the wake of a loss, employees have to hand off as little as possible, and that the team won’t have to ping them while they’re grieving.

I wanted support to go beyond leave

Finally, I wanted to make sure our grief support went beyond just giving our employees time away. Even when I was done with my leave after losing my grandmother and ready to return to work, it’s not like I could hit pause on my grief when I entered the office. We wanted to have a grief-inclusive culture so that employees didn’t feel like they had to hide what they’re going through.

A big part of that is giving our “Grief in the Workplace” training to our employees, so that everyone understands how to talk with a grieving teammate and what they can really do to support them. We also recognize that grief plays out beyond the home, so we acknowledge when major world events may be affecting our employees and give them time and space to grieve that, too.

While some may argue it’s not a business’ job to help employees deal with grief, if it’s affecting your employees, it’s affecting your business. By putting the human before the company and giving your team the space and support to process, they’re going to feel more engaged, more loyal to your company, and more confident that they can bring their best selves back to work (when they’re ready).

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