My 60-year-old brother died unexpectedly on August 9.
We were braced for bad news because my mom, who’s 86, had a heart attack on July 24. That it was my brother, rather than my mother (or even my 90-year-old father), broke our hearts.
I run my own business so I’ve been continuing to work, although just really back to full-time this past week. Work does feel like a break from grieving but grieving is absolutely exhausting. I ran out of energy which meant I had to shorten my work days. I had some days where I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I have not ever felt that kind of fatigue before.
I am my own boss so I’ve been really flexible about my time away and about my decisions to continue working, even deciding to lead a training course three days after my brother’s death. Would I have been able to negotiate that kind of flexibility as an employee for another?
I wonder what it’s like in the workplace. I have the blessing of working alone so don’t have to answer questions from co-workers about his death. I returned to the grief support group I co-facilitate on Friday and found discussing my brother’s death almost unbearable.
In essence, I gave myself options by shortening my work day, rescheduling some meetings, deciding how and when I spoke about my brother’s death. What happens when you don’t have options?
How do direct care workers deal with their grief when residents, clients and their own family members die in a workplace that requires them to be constantly caring? How do teachers and professors show up to educate when the fog of grief surrounds them? How do other family caregivers continue to provide the necessary care when the tears can’t stop?
My sister-in-law, who was with my brother when he died, found herself battling the banking system to access funds to pay for my brother’s cemetery plot and funeral. The medical examiner wouldn’t release my brother’s body to a funeral home, who releases the death certificate, until my sister-in-law paid the funeral home to receive his body. Without a death certificate, my sister-in-law struggled to access money. My parents immediately stepped in to cover the costs. The systems in place in our banking systems that the grieving endure is awful.
My sister, who worked in a day care center, couldn’t take phone calls during her work day. My brother-in-law finally reached her to let her know it wasn’t our mom but our brother who had died. My sister immediately alerted her director and said she had to leave. But she couldn’t leave until the director sent a replacement to her room. My sister waited 30 minutes, 30 agonizing minutes, before a replacement arrived. A colleague who could have stood up from her desk and walked down the hall to relieve my sister instead sat at her desk and made phone calls to other employees to find one who could shift into my sister’s room. The day care center had no plans to cover when a teacher had an emergency. By the time a replacement arrived, my sister was beyond herself. Her last words to her director were, “I hate working here. I would quit if I could.” She has since taken Family Medical Leave to help take care of our parents.
We live in a country that gives daily counts of those who have died of COVID yet we live in a country that often remains tone deaf to the pain of those living after a family member’s death.
Rosalynn Carter said: "There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers."
Perhaps we also can say: “There are only three kinds of people: those who currently mourn, those who will mourn and those who will be mourned.”
Death is a part of life. We need to make the grief process a humane, kind one for everyone who mourns and everywhere they mourn — the bank, the workplace, the community.
What’s your experience with grief in the workplace and in the community?