How Long Should You Take Off Work After a Death?

Certified Grief Counselor

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Dealing with the loss of a loved one can upend your day-to-day life as you know it, and can make even the smallest things seem insurmountable. After getting the news, you may not want to get out of bed, shower, or dress for a few days. One of the last things on your mind will likely be having to go to work.  

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When grief takes over, it’s typical to not care about anything other than mourning your loss. Having to report to work may not even register for a few hours or days after the initial shock wears off.

However, it is important to know what’s expected of you during this initial period of bereavement and how you can manage your grief while still keeping your job. 

How Long Do People Normally Take Off Work After a Death? 

The time you take off of work after suffering the loss of a loved one will depend on what your employer allows. It can be hard to think about, but it is important to consider how much time you think you’ll need. You want to keep in mind your emotional well-being and ultimately what you can afford if your bereavement leave is unpaid.

People normally take three to five days off of work after a death in the family. Your employee handbook should outline the number of days you’re allowed to take off of work, whether you’ll be paid during that time, and what’s expected of you as far as giving notice is concerned.

Be mindful that an employer is able to terminate your employment if you’re a “no-call no-show” when failing to report for work duty. 

Bereavement leave

The time that you take off of work after the death of a loved one is called bereavement leave. This time off is meant to help you get through the initial shock of your loss, make funeral arrangements or attend the funeral, and for mourning. Your bereavement time off doesn’t determine how long grief lasts. In the end, bereavement leave is a courtesy some employers offer to their employees who are grieving the loss of a loved one. 

There are no federal bereavement leave laws in place requiring an employer to give their employees time off from work following the death of a loved one. In the U.S., only Oregon requires employers to give their employees time off for grieving. Illinois and Maine also have limited state bereavement leave requirements for certain protected individuals.

Other ways you might be eligible for mandated bereavement leave is if it is written into your employment contract, it’s company policy, or you’re a member of a union that has negotiated this benefit on your behalf.

Knowing how to ask for bereavement leave may be important in minimizing the risk of losing your job. Most employers will still want you to ask for bereavement leave in writing and may require you to show up to work until your leave is approved.

A no-show can be grounds for dismissal from your job. And since there are no federal or state laws to protect you from getting fired, your continued employment is at the discretion of your employer, except in the states of Oregon, Illinois, and Maine. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Signs You’re Ready to Go Back to Work After a Death

For most people, bereavement leave of three to five days isn't enough to process the death of their loved one. Depending on your relationship with the person that has died, you may have trouble even returning to work at all. Usually, the death of a spouse, parent, or child will take longer for you to process and accept.

Forcing yourself to go to work while in the early stages of grief can affect your mood and job performance. Talk with your employer if you think that you’re not ready to go back to work. They may be able to accommodate a longer bereavement leave for you. Also, consider asking that they guarantee your job. Extended time off allows you the necessary time needed for grief healing. 

The following signs will tell you when you’re ready to return to work:

The fog has lifted

After you’ve had sufficient time to process your loss, you’ll begin to feel better and notice that you’re able to concentrate on things that you weren’t able to before. The time it takes for you to reach this level of healing is different for everyone.

For some, it may be just a few days, but for others, it can take months for things to go back to normal. When you’re able to focus on what’s in front of you, it is safe for you to return to work. 

You have motivation

For many, after suffering a significant loss, it’s difficult to find the motivation to do anything other than exist. After a while, you’ll notice that you start having the urge to resume some of the activities that you enjoyed before your loss.

Your energy levels might be back to normal, and you’ll find that you have the motivation to return phone calls, clean the house, and exercise. Heading back to work at this point is a good idea to help ease you back into your normal routines. 

You have clarity

Having clarity in your everyday thinking is a sure sign that you will fare well in returning to work. This is especially true if you’re in a position of having to make important business-related decisions.

Once you reach this level of healing, have the confidence that returning to work is a good thing for you.

You need the money

This is a sore point for many who aren’t ready to face their co-workers but need to head back in order to stay financially afloat. Unless you have someone you can rely on to help you with your finances, you may need to go back to work sooner than you’d like.

Have an honest conversation with your employer and coworkers about how you’re feeling. Feel free to set some boundaries but don’t forget to thank coworkers for their sympathy.

Signs You’re Not Ready to Go Back to Work After a Death

Sometimes you have to return to work even when you’re not ready. Not everyone can afford to stay home for extended periods to properly grieve their losses. Many people often have to and do report back to work while they are still grieving.

Whether it’s for financial or other reasons, it’s not uncommon to see people return to work before they’re ready. Here are some signs that you’re not ready to go back to work, and should consider delaying your return date if at all possible.

You are absentminded

Immediately after hearing the news that your loved one has died, you’ll likely go into a state of shock. This may continue for days, weeks, even months following their death. Grief causes you to temporarily lose your rational thinking and become quite absentminded.

Some of the biggest differences in being absent-minded versus being forgetful are that when you’re absent-minded you’re:

  • Habitually forgetful
  • Not aware of your surroundings
  • Lost in thought
  • Easily distracted
  • Preoccupied 

You’re forgetful

Everyone forgets things from time to time. This is normal for most people. Consider paying close attention to the things that seem to be escaping you.

Notate each time you forget something whether losing your car keys or forgetting to turn the water faucet off. In a few days, you’ll be able to tell if you’re experiencing the normal type of forgetfulness associated with everyday life, or if you’re still in mourning and not ready to go back to work. 

You’re depressed

Depression can strike at any time during your grief process. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the difference between sadness and depression. If you’re feeling a chronic sadness that doesn’t lift from time to time, you may be feeling the effects of depression.

Consider seeking counseling or therapy to help you cope with your grief. 

You can’t control your emotions

When you’re grieving the loss of your loved one, it’s understandable to feel sad and overwhelmed with emotions. Your employer and co-workers may expect that to happen.

But when you’re unable to control your emotions, especially at crucial times when dealing with clients or co-workers, you can create an awkward situation for everyone involved. Consider sitting out on major work meetings or projects if you run the risk of crying or having an emotional outburst in the middle of your responsibilities.

You aren’t ready to talk about your loss

Expect that your co-workers will approach you with words of sympathy and condolences once you return to work.

You may not be ready for a rush of attention and people asking you what happened and how you’re feeling. If you find yourself feeling withdrawn and not ready to have these conversations, you might ask for more time off or permission to work from home temporarily.

You’re at an increased risk for injury

For those who have particularly high-risk jobs, returning to work before you’re able to fully concentrate on your duties may put you and others at risk for injury or death.

Consider whether you’re unable to focus properly on your work and if you’d be better off sitting it out for a few more days before going back. Try explaining to your employer what you’re going through and be truthful when expressing your concerns. 

Taking Bereavement Leave 

There’s nothing wrong or shameful in having to ask for time off of work to grieve your loss. Most employers are understanding and want to see you successfully handle your grief before coming back to work.

You may not be able to take all the time you need, but even a few extra days can help you overcome the initial shock of loss. 

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