Normalcy wasn’t something I expected to hurt so much after losing our child. By the time the casserole dishes from the funeral were cleared, it seemed everyone else went back to their lives.
Meanwhile I was left in limbo.
The ticking of a clock stung with every passing mark. I willed time to stop, as moving forward made it difficult to breathe. Life needed a pause button.
No matter how much I dug in my heels, the hours turned to days. In the blink of an eye, the bereavement period granted to me (3-5 days) had come to an end. Although I had accumulated weeks of sick time, my boss informed me the death of a child didn’t qualify the use of it. What vacation time I had remaining, was already pending for the year-end holidays.
I remember staring back at the blinking instant message and frowny face my boss sent as if it were yesterday. One short sentence that nearly sent me over the edge, spiraling out of control. Burying my first-born son had seemed unimaginable. I couldn’t fathom how I was expected to dress, function, and get back to work so soon.
My world was upside down. Sleep was impossible, as insomnia attacked me night after night. When my eyes closed, nightmares forced their way back and I relived that terrible evening over and over. Night became day, day became night. Yet somehow I was being asked to pull it all together and be at my desk by Monday.
When you browse an employee manual, one never dwells on the bereavement section long. It isn’t an area you hope to use, even though reality tells you otherwise. But no parent ever sees the unthinkable happening. And when it does, you imagine that human decency would override a human resource policy.
Yet, a decade of service and an impeccable attendance record didn’t mean anything when it mattered most. I’d already lost the most precious thing in the world to me and now I was at risk of losing my job.
Thankfully, I was stricken with shingles.
More than likely nobody else in history has ever been grateful for such a diagnosis. Looking back though, I have no doubt it was a gift from God, not just my body reacting from overwhelming stress. Though the searing physical pain at times matched my breaking heart, it was welcome because it allowed me to use excused sick time. Combined with holiday and vacation, losing Austin on Thanksgiving weekend, it gave me enough of a break to be off until the first of the year.
Even still, not enough time. Anxiety attacks, uncontrolled sobbing, and waves of depression saw me into those first days back. It was the closest I’ve ever come to quitting a job and just walking out. Nothing inside me wanted to return. Going back meant life went on and the nightmare was real.
Having a somewhat flexible position was probably all that saved me. Being in control of my own schedule allowed me to leave, most of the time, for those unexpected triggers and inconsiderate co-workers. It enabled me to work from home on anniversaries or days it was just too difficult. For months, it felt like I was trapped in a cruel version of the movie Groundhog’s Day. I would cry both ways of my commute, giving up on wearing make-up altogether. My productivity suffered, as did my health, for I would endure more sickness the following year than ever before. It was a living hell. And pain I shouldn’t have had to endure on top of the already crushing weight of losing a child.
In this journey, I’ve met many child-loss parents and all share different stories of what happened to them upon returning to work. In my husband’s case, he had no accrued time left, yet his company was willing to give whatever he needed to be off. For him, work was a welcome distraction and he returned much sooner than I. For many though, the stress becomes too much and they quit or lose their job as a result from child loss.
Sadly, there are no federal laws specific to bereavement. There is no safe harbor for those facing child loss. You are left to sink or swim, based on the policy in place when the unimaginable happens. FMLA only covers the birth of a child, adoption, or serious illness. It is up to each individual business to set leave guidelines and they vary greatly from state to state.
The Farley-Kluger Initiative (www.farleykluger.com) supports the extension of coverage and existing benefits allowed by FMLA to employees that have experienced the death of a child. The duo, both child-loss fathers, began their campaign in 2011. The bill was introduced again May 12, 2015, but struggles to make headway. The proposed Parental Bereavement Act (HR2260) or Senate (S1320) amends FMLA by extending benefits to grieving parents and is chaired under Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
You can follow updates on Facebook and sign the petition above to show your support and share your story. Please let these and your own representatives know the loss of a child can happen to anyone at any given time and it doesn’t care what political party you are from.
Until legislation is passed, it will continue to be an individual battle. If you’re facing recent child loss, set a plan to ease back into work. Be gentle with yourself. Expect that, just as with life at home, there will be good days and bad days. Find a support system and have it in place before returning. And take it one day, sometimes one hour, at time.