The following was sent to me by a fellow grieving dad to let me know how he was treated at is place of employment after the death of his children. I can’t tell you how much this pisses me off and how I would like to have a few moments with these workplace bullies. This is exactly the reason we need to get the Parental Bereavement Act of 2013 passed in DC. Bereaved parents need time to catch their breath without the additional stress and fear of losing their job. Let me know if you want to help us on this initiative. www.FarleyKluger.com
Kept it All to Myself
written by Ken W.
What if your child died, and when you returned to work your employer greeted you with indifference or hostility?
My daughter Cassie died in early 2012, victim of a rare and horrific progressive fatal neurological disorder called Batten Disease. The same disease had killed Cassie’s older sister Lindsay in 2007. I work in information technology, my profession for nearly 30 years. My employer when Cassie died was an IT service provider that specializes in Cloud based business solutions and subsidiary of a large “Big Box” electronics store chain whose name we all know. My job was to install and support computer systems for our small business customers.
Having exhausted three days’ bereavement pay and then another week of unpaid leave, I returned to work. Or better put, I returned to work in body. Everyday work I had handled easily before Cassie died was often beyond me. I couldn’t connect the dots on the simplest of IT tasks. I made mistakes left and right. I missed meetings when they were right in front of me on my calendar. I would look at the computer screen and see nothing but odd arrays of meaningless characters and numbers. Nearly everything I knew about how to do my job was tucked far away, under wraps inside my head, to be extracted only with the force of a crowbar. This scared me to my core. I knew something was wrong and that it was affecting my ability to work.
I felt I was losing my mind and I kept it all to myself. I have since asked myself why I didn’t let anybody at work know. I conclude it was a combination of things. First, I was scared of the stigma that would attach to me if I announced I was in trouble. Second, I was in a haze. I doubt I could have described the problem, and I would not have known who to call on for help. Finally, the atmosphere at my company was indifferent to anything resembling a personal problem.
After Cassie died, I received little acknowledgment of my loss. It was as if her death were a dark secret. There might have been a card and flowers – I’m not sure. My boss and two co-workers showed up for Cassie’s memorial service. A select few people said nice things by way of email and I got a phone call from a highly placed company executive offering condolences. His call caught me by surprise and it meant a great deal to me.
All in all, though, there was silence. The message was clear – there’s no place for grief in the workplace and my job was to go on as if nothing had happened. I renewed my driver’s license a month after Cassie died; I look at my picture and I see the hollow stare of the bereaved. That was the face I carried on the job when I returned to work. That is the person people saw in the hallways. They had to have seen I was suffering. It was unmistakable.
A few weeks after Cassie died my supervisor tapped me on the shoulder and asked that I step into his office. In a far corner chair was his boss. Both faces were grim. He began by telling me I was on the brink of being fired for my recent job performance and that I was going to be placed on something known as a “PIP.” I had to ask what he meant, as I did not know that PIP in human resources parlance is an acronym for “Personnel Improvement Plan.” Throughout my career in information technology I have been a top performer. The idea of being on some sort of corporate disciplinary status was foreign to me.
Although the meeting lasted about an hour it seemed to go on forever. In raised voices each boss took turns reciting from a yellow legal pad a long list of recent failings. I could see passers-by peering through the office window, wondering what all the noise was about. Many of the items the two bosses read off had merit. In fact, I could have help write their list for them. At the same time, nothing was cause for dismissal. The truly “fire-able” stuff I had managed to catch and correct before anybody noticed. Other transgressions seemed to be tossed in for cruel and vindictive good measure. My immediate boss appeared to be enjoying himself at certain moments as he took full advantage of his vested power.
Neither supervisor, young men in their 30s with children at home, even acknowledged Cassie. They knew my daughter had just died – one had attended her memorial service, for which I suspect he filled out an expense report. There was an unacknowledged 800-pound gorilla in the room. Phrases such as “horrible disappointment,” “we expect so much more from you” and “this gives me grave doubts about you” rang in my ears. I felt about two inches tall. I had no voice. I had been torn to the ground. I left the meeting dazed and about as low as a man can be.
Afterwards I called my wife, Lindsay and Cassie’s stepmom, to tell her what had happened. “My God, your daughter just died!” she exclaimed. “What the hell do they expect of you?”
For the first time in weeks I had clarity and I felt a great weight lifting from my shoulders. I knew in that moment that I needed time off. I wasn’t ready to be at work. Not by a long shot. Two of my children had died. I was exhausted. I was grieving. I had nothing in the tank for work. That day I also decided I would never again set foot in the offices of this company – even if it meant being without work.
Diagnosed by my doctor with acute grief, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I went on a six-month medical leave of absence and sought help from a grief counselor. Counseling has been incredibly helpful – allowing me understand that my recent poor job performance had been the direct result of grief. It was a perfectly human reaction. I had no choice in the matter.
Time has been a healer and I am back at work, having found a new and better job in a different state far away from my Minnesota home. I still suffer at times from brain fog, but nothing like before. In fact, I sense I am better today on the job than before and it has nothing to do with my technical abilities. Instead, I feel I have grown as a person. I am far less likely to judge. I take a greater interest in others than before. I feel a calm growing inside me at work, for I understand something about life that not everybody is privileged to know, and I intend to use my experiences for the better.
Most co-workers and supervisors at my current job know that two of my children have died, but nobody knows what happened at my old job. I have kept that to myself until now.
I last spoke with my previous boss on a phone call arranged by human resources a few days after our meeting. He began by saying he couldn’t ask me why I was going on a leave of absence because human resources said it was against the rules to inquire. I told him I had been diagnosed with acute grief and PTSD. “Well, that’s too bad. But when you come back you’ll still be on a PIP.”
What’s funny is that I never officially resigned my job and I never asserted any Family Medical Leave Act rights. There was no exit interview, no opportunity for me to tell anybody within the company my side of the story. My last contact with my former employer was fitting and ironic. About a year ago I received an official-looking envelope in the mail. Inside was a letter on corporate letterhead reminding me I had signed a non-compete clause when I was hired and that there would be severe repercussions should I take a job with a competitor and share my former employer’s corporate trade secrets.
I would hope the managers in most companies have greater compassion skills than my managers did. I have wondered if they ever took stock of the great harm they inflicted on me that fateful day. I conclude they probably did not, since they live in an echo chamber of like-minded horrible management. To be clear, I believe any company has the right to expect good job performance from its employees, and my performance had suffered. Still, there was no excuse for management to have regarded this as a personnel performance issue. To this day, I cannot understand their actions or motives. They could not have done worse had they tried.
My experience is one that could be shared by anybody – even my former bosses. Grief is no respecter of individuals. Rest assured it will knock on the doors of each our homes in time. Sadly, federal and most state laws do not regulate bereavement time. In lieu of a collective bargaining agreement, it is up to the employer to determine how long an employee should be away from the job when their child dies.
This needs to change. Updates to the Family Medical Leave Act now before Congress would recognize the loss of a child as a qualifying event. I am in favor of these changes. I also wish there were no need for such legislation, because what I truly wish is that employers would have mechanisms to support and protect their valued employees built right into their HR programs.
In a larger sense, I fear most of us travel to work each day to places devoid of a compassionate moral compass. Nonetheless, I believe in the collective good will of well-intentioned people, because a parent who loses a child is in the worst place imaginable. I would welcome education within corporate America to make sure that management is trained to know what to do when a grieving parent returns to work and his or her job suffers. It should not be up to the whim of a clueless manager to further devastate an employee already in the midst of the worst days of their life.
Lindsay and Cassie were beautiful children with hearts warm as the sun and wide as the oceans. The world was a better place because of them. There must be a way to honor their goodness, perhaps by letting some of that beauty inside the walls of corporate America.