bereavement leave in a very competitive workplace

A reader writes:

Nearly 3 months ago, my husband and I experienced the loss of our only child. It happened suddenly and I haven’t returned to work since. I have kept in contact with my supervisor from time to time just to check in. The standard bereavement leave is three days but they made an exception, given my extreme circumstance and the large amount of leave time I had banked.

My supervisor and the Executive Director of the advertising firm I work for have expressed interest in knowing when I might be returning, seeing as how a big project is coming up. I even get calls from the Human Resource office in an attempt to check in with me. I am not asking for help on deciding when or whether I should go back. I know that has to come from me. I am, however, unsure of how to proceed. I don’t know if I am ready to return to work. My workplace and the industry I work in is notoriously cut-throat in my area. My co-workers rarely take vacations and those who do tend to left behind and/or are eventually laid off. I am curious whether returning to work would even be worth it, considering I don’t think I can muster a passion for anything at the moment.

I had recently decided to approach my supervisor about possibly returning in a limited capacity for a brief time. My friends (they all work in advertising) say this would probably be a bad idea and is generally frowned upon. I was curious if this was an industry standard. I liked my job and I guess I still do. I would hate to burn bridges by asking for this.

Also, if I did leave the workforce at this point and wished to enter it again when things settled down a bit, how would I explain my absence during this time? Would it seem like a point of weakness to a potential employer?

I am obviously unable to really think too clearly about the issue so I thought a little insight from the prospective of a manager might give me some help in approaching this situation. Thank you for any advice you offer.

I’m so sorry. How terrible.

I think you should probably ignore your friends who say that asking to return part-time for a while is a bad idea. While I don’t know the advertising industry, I do know that your situation is uncommon enough that it’s unlikely that there’s an established custom of looking down on people doing this in your specific situation. (After all, before this happened, would you have looked down on someone who did this? I bet you wouldn’t have.) It’s more likely that your friends are applying things they’ve seen in different circumstances to your own situation, which they can’t really accurately do.

A better bet would be to have a candid conversation with your boss. Say that you’d like to talk about the possibility of coming back in a limited capacity until you’re ready for more, and ask for her candid thoughts on that. Make it clear that you understand she might not be able to say yes to that, but that you thought it could be a good way to get yourself back to work in some capacity right now. Even if she ultimately says no (which I bet she won’t; most people are desperate for a way to help people in your circumstances), you certainly won’t have burned a bridge by asking. You’ll be indicating that you’re trying to meet their needs, as well as your own — that’s not a bridge-burner.

Also, keep in mind that you have nothing to lose by trying this out. If you go back for a while and realize it wasn’t the right decision, you can just be straightforward and explain that. People will understand. So if you try it, it’s not an irreversible decision.

However, if you decide not to do that and instead decide to leave the workforce for a while, you’d explain to prospective employers later that you were dealing with a death in the family. Most employers will understand (and those that don’t are ones you don’t want to work for). That said, from a purely practical standpoint, if you’re up to going back in a limited capacity, you might find it easier than leaving altogether and looking for work later while you’re unemployed, since in general it tends to be easier to find a new job when you already have one (although other factors, like a really strong network, can cancel that out in individual cases).

But I’d just be honest with your boss about what you’d like and see if it’s possible. Assume that people probably want to help, and let them know how they can.

I’m so sorry you’re facing this entire situation and hope that this particular piece of it works out for you as best as it can.

{ 88 comments… read them below }

  1. EngineerGirl*

    My concern is if the old job was a creative one? Unfortunately, grief and depression an really affect creativity. After my parents died, it was like trying to push through thick goo for the answers to problems. Considering how competitive the advertising workplace is, anything like that could be a real problem.

    Another problem is what “part time” means. A lot of managers will agree to part time, but then give you 40 hours of work. That would be “part time” if everyone else is working 60-80 hour weeks. The employee will have to be the one justifying that it isn’t a part time load.

    Not to be negative, but these things have to be considered. If you do decide to return I suggest having very clear lines defined. What hours will you work? Will you be point person (not recommended)? What role will you have? Get these down on paper up front.

    Allison, I’m going to disagree with you that magement will understand. Some do, some don’t. Some people haven’t lost close family members so are really clueless at knowing how it affects people.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve just never encountered anyone who didn’t want to be sensitive to this type of situation. I’m sure some are out there, but they are hardly the norm!

      I agree about making sure that you clearly define what part-time will mean.

      1. Suzanne*

        Never encountered anyone who didn’t want to be sensitive to this type of situation? Good for you, but I can tell you that they are out there in droves. I believe I’ve mentioned here before my temp job at which a pregnant co-worker was reprimanded for returning late to work from a doctor’s appointment with her ob/gyn which she scheduled due to problems she was experiencing. She miscarried over the week-end. Time off for that? Not a chance, unless she didn’t want a job.
        At another position, this time in a religious based institution, a student worker was called under the carpet for being late. He was one of our best workers, had just become a father for the first time a week or so before this, it was the dead of winter, and his car didn’t want to start. No sympathy shown to him by higher ups.

        I feel awful for the OP. It would be horrific to lose a child and then have to worry about your job. 10 years ago I would have thought that any sensible employer who valued that employee would have been understanding and caring. In today’s business environment, I don’t see it.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t disagree that they’re out there, but they’re not the norm. (Which isn’t surprising — most people don’t turn into terrible people just because they move into a management position.) She should go by the signals she’s getting from her manager, since that’s what’s going to be most important in her own situation.

          1. Student*

            I think that depends a lot on how the management perceives depression, stress, and anxiety. There are still a lot of people who view depression as a contagion to be shunned rather than an illness to be treated. It’s got a pretty heavy stigma attached to it, and even if she isn’t diagnosed as depressed that’s what her co-workers will assume. Then there are those who aren’t malicious, but just clueless and think they know what’s best for everyone else – those people who will say “Walk it off!” no matter what’s happened because they really think that works best for everyone.

          2. Suzanne*

            But from my experiences, and the stories I hear from others, this type of ruthless management is fast becoming the norm. Maybe it’s just the part of the country I live in, I don’t know.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I hear a load of stories, as you might imagine, and I’m glad to say that I don’t see indications that this is anywhere near the norm, at least not with immediate relatives and certainly not children!

              1. Karyn*

                When my mother’s mother died (after a long, terrible battle with Alzheimer’s during which my mother warned her boss when she thought the end was approaching), he refused to let her take time off the day she passed. His reasoning? “It’s New Year’s Eve, and I want to leave early, so I need you here today.” Then he had the nerve to show up at the funeral two days later. My mother politely but firmly asked him to leave, and when he refused, my father asked again, not so politely.

              2. KayDay*

                I’ve heard stories as well, but I don’t think it’s the norm. Where I work (at a non-profit) everyone was very understanding when my grandmother (with whom I was not very close) became very sick and passed away. They actually asked me if I would like to take time off when I told them she was sick. Even my BF’s large and very competitive company is generous with the bereavement leave (He’s only had/witnessed people taking off for grandparents and extended family).

        2. Ellen M.*

          I am late to the conversation, but it is absolutely true that management and HR at many workplaces behave very badly when an employee has lost a family member. It can even be seen as an opportunity to get rid of an employee that the employer wanted fired anyway – they can say the person took too much time off, or quality of work declined after he/she returned… I saw a lot of this at a former workplace.

          I am very happy that workplace is a *former* one, for me! It was awful to see how they treated people and very demoralizing.

          To the OP, I am very sorry for your loss and to hear what you are going through, and I am sending good thoughts to you.

      2. CatB (Europe)*

        “I’ve just never encountered anyone who didn’t want to be sensitive to this type of situation”.

        I had one such guy as my manager (and company owner). I lost my uncle, who took me and my family in when I had nowhere to stay. He literally died in my arms. After a long night when I took care of the dead body (and preparing for the daunting task of taking care of all and every detail of an Orthodox Christian mourning and funeral) I called him to explain I wouldn’t be able to come to work for at least half of that day. His answer? “Well, good timing your uncle chose to die! You know we have to work on the payroll, now, don’t you?”

        I can’t give any advice about the job, OP, since the business culture I live in is different. But, as a human being, I’m sorry, deeply sorry. I know therapy might help, and switching industry might help as well. For better or for worse, this loss might as well have made you a different person; such experiences have the potential to be life-changing. Look deep inside, when you’ll feel secure to do it, to find what changes you need to perform, and follow your instinct.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t mean to suggest in any way that your boss’s response was anywhere near okay (it wasn’t), but I also can’t imagine even someone like that saying that in response to the death of a child. I think even people who are normally callous are more sensitive when it’s someone’s child.

          1. Jamie*

            I agree – it’s no excuse for the way CatB’s boss behaved – which was unconscionable – but the loss of extended family members is viewed differently. Some people are close and it’s a significant loss and some people go to funerals for extended family out of respect and/or obligation. I would personally err on the side of assuming it was the former.

            A spouse or parent…and especially a child. Those are life-changing losses both emotionally and practically and I believe that is universally understood – even by the most insensitive.

            There can absolutely be life changing losses outside of those groups, but it’s not as clear cut just by the relationship to the person who passed.

          2. CatB (Europe)*

            For the name of God, I hope they are less callous! Though not having experienced such a loss, I was almost there (or so I felt) one December night that I spent at the window of my teenage son’s room, peeking inside and with my cell on 112 (that’s the European 911). I had previously took all and any sharp-pointed, cutting or choking objects from his room, but still the suicide threat was serious. That is why I said this can be life-changing and, for many, it’s almost impossible to understand what that does to a parent.

            Leaving “logic” and “common sense” behind and going with the deep gut, the instinct, about how one can go on is, for most, among the best strategies to come out into the light. But that might prove difficult when the environment is constantly reminding of what life was before. That’s why a change in industry, town and / or anything else with memory potential can prove to be the firts step towards the light.

            That’s what I did, anyway.

    2. Piper*

      Advertising is notoriously cut-throat, no matter where you live and in the past, I’ve dealt with managers who would not understand this situation. Seriously. They would just tell you to suck it up or get another job. There’s a reason advertising has such a high burnout rate.

    3. Anonymous_J*

      The creativity comes back, but after such a blow, it can take a long time. If this OP can manage part time, that’s probably ideal, but I feel she should not push it, for the reason you’ve stated. If you try to push creativity, you can burn out, but I DO understand the practical need to stay connected to her employer.

      OP, I am also very sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine how that must feel! I can’t tell for sure, but it sounds like you have a good relationship with your employer. I think AAM’s advice is perfect.

      On a personal note–you don’t need to answer this–are you considering counseling, if you don’t feel your healing process is moving forward? That might also help you to transition back to work, once you are ready.

      Very, very sorry for your loss. Please take what time you need to heal!

  2. Nathan A.*

    Being candid in any situation has its benefits – this certainly is not the exception. In this situation though, being candid with your boss is critical: manager her expectations and she will manage yours.

  3. Mary M.*

    This happened to me – 10 years ago, when i gave birth to a stillborn baby. There is nothing on this planet more devasting than losing a child. Its not simply a family member, it’s a child and unless you been through it, you can’t understand. I didn’t think I would ever go back work, in fact, I didn’t leave the house for 3 months. Finally, my husband begged me to get some help, and I found a great therapist and got alot of therapy that gave me the tools to cope with outside world including work. I went back 2 months later, and it was best decision I made. And yes, I did ask to go back part time, and I was able to ease back into my crazy busy workload. My employer was extemely accomodating. There aren’t any rules for this kind of thing, and no one can tell you when you should be ready, but I hope the OP does reach out and get help whether it’s counselling or intense therapy, and does ask about making a work arrangement, you would be surprised how compassionate others are when these things happen, even employers. I’m so very sorry for your loss…

    1. JLH*

      I’m so sorry for your loss, OP. Everyone grieves differently, and it is so hard to lose a child, so I hope you aren’t hard on yourself about taking time off and asking your work to make some accommodations to meet you where you’re at, whether or not they agree to do so.

      I second this poster’s wish for you to seek counseling/therapy, in whatever way works best for you, especially if you plan on returning to work (you may experience some guilt for “getting on with your life.”) Find out if there’s a counseling referral system in your area, and feel free to interview prospective therapists/counselors–they should be willing to meet with you for a free consult. Support groups might also be an option in your area.

  4. Clobbered*

    I am sorry for your tragic loss.

    The only thing I have to add is that if you approach you boss for work in a limited capacity that you bring to the table a definition of what limited is. Eg. I will only be in the office 9-3, or I will only look after these clients, or I will only work on this project. That sets some boundaries for you and also let’s your manager judge whether it is a deal with clear advantages to them (eg. they can stop worrying about that one project).

    I don’t care if you are in advertising or an astronaut – it is a perfectly reasonable request under the circumstances and anybody who thinks otherwise needs to figure out which bus they forgot their soul on.

  5. Anon*

    Some workplaces are understanding about the death of a child or spouse, but others are not. As someone whose spouse died unexpectedly, I can sympathize. I’m sure you are having a tougher time than I did.

    Are you in a support group? I would recommend being in a support group or having a therapist before you go back to work, because people will say inappropriate things to you, and you’ll need somewhere to vent where people will understand what you’re going through. Be prepared for people at work to tell you about how they know how you’re feeling because of the person or friend they knew who died or because their beloved dog died or because they’ve been through a divorce (really — widows and widowers get the divorce comparison frequently, and the pet thing isn’t that unusual either). If the child died soon after birth, people may tell you it’s a blessing, and if the child died before becoming an adult, people will tell you that “at least you had x years with child.” It may be helpful to practice some response to the well-meaning so you have an automatic way to answer such idiocies.

    The other problem people in my support group have encountered is that co-workers will have a timeline for your grieving. At some point, someone may suggest you ought to be over it, or the worst of it, or be coping better, or some such fatuous remark. Grief isn’t straightforward and it comes and goes in intensity, but many people don’t understand that. I found after a while that I still liked talking about my spouse when reminiscing was appropriate, but some of my co-workers just didn’t know what to say or how to respond, even to a happy memory. Sometimes I told people I was just having a bad day, so they were forewarned when I felt like being polite but remote.

    Grief can make decisionmaking hard. One night my support group members all talked about how they made certain decisions while they were grieving, and then went back and forth about whether to follow through with the decision or back off. (This is why widows and widowers are advised not to make major decisions for a year or so.) Having trouble deciding whether to go back to work doesn’t sound surprising at all. Do whatever you decide to do, and if it doesn’t work, then do something else.

    A specialized support group may be best for you. A group of people whose children have also died will be more understanding of your specific problems than a general grief group.

    I think Alison’s advice is good. I’m sure she’s right about people wanting to be sensitive, but sometimes their sensitivity will come across as callous disregard for your feelings. There’s no way you can prevent their behavior, but knowing it can happen can blunt the impact.

    The only other thing I’d suggest is that if freelancing is a possibility in the type of work you do, that you might ease back into agency work through freelancing when you’re ready to go back. That may provide a smoother transition back to your career.

    I am so sorry for your loss. Take care.

    1. class factotum*

      people will say inappropriate things to you

      The week after my dad died, my VP expressed his condolences. When I started crying, he asked, “Oh. Were you and your dad close?”

      At least the stupidity of the question stunned me enough that I stopped crying.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Soon after my dad died when I was 27, I ran into a longtime family friend in the drugstore. She said, “It must really bother you that you didn’t get along with him when you were a teenager.”

      2. Jamie*

        I was also in my mid-twenties when I lost both of my parents. My mom died after a long battle with cancer and more than one person told me that I should be happy that she was no longer suffering. Also that she hadn’t really been my mom in a long time because of the illness, and that we should celebrate her life and not mourn her death.

        Uhm – she was still my mom. In fact, she still is. And I had every right to be sad and to mourn. Being told to celebrate wasn’t helpful.

        I never know what anyone else would find comforting so when faced with this situation I just stick with expressing sorrow for their loss and letting them know I’m there if they need anything.

        I do appreciate people who have kind intentions – but words have meaning and in certain situations we need to take care with how they’re used.

        1. AD*

          I try to remember that a lot of people just have no idea what to say, and that they are trying. I lost a parent young, before virtually any of my friends. Many fundamentally did not understand that losing a parent in his 50’s is NOT the same as losing a grandparent in their 70’s or 80’s. So it was frustrating, when people would say stuff like “he lived a good life” or something similar. However, there were a few people in my life who said nothing, never contacted me, etc. THAT was what made me realize the ones saying stupid stuff were doing their best.

    2. Anonymous_J*

      What an excellent reply, and you are so right! People can be dirt-dumb sometimes, and even if they don’t mean it, it can be hurtful.

      You’re right about grieving, too. It’s not a straightforward process. It can hit in waves. When my ex died, I grieved him for about four years (off and on.) I’d be fine, and all of a sudden, something would trigger me, and a wave of sorrow would just wash over me.

      It’s a very individual thing.

  6. Anonymous*

    I don’t know how your relationship is with your co-workers, but it might help if you let them know how you would prefer them to react. It sounds odd, but most people really don’t know what to say or do. And everyone has different needs for grieving, so unless they know you well, they won’t know what you need.

    Some people want more attention, others want to be left alone. Some want everyone to acknowledge their loss, others want things to just continue as normal so they can think about other things.

    I’ve learned that even a simple “sorry for your loss” can turn someone from functional to a sobbing wreck…so I no longer even say that unless I know that is what the person wants to hear. Don’t assume co-workers who seem cold don’t care. They might have just had similar experiences.

    If you can let your office know what helps you cope best, it will be easier for everyone. Just pass the word through your manager or closest office friend.

    1. sr*

      this. I was just about to ask someone who’s been through a tragic time to give suggestions on what people can say that’s not an ‘idiocy’. I try silence sometimes, or asking questions, and of course listening is one of the best things someone can do, but at some point a conversation has to be a two way street…

    2. Anonymous*

      I sooooo agree with you. People cope differently, but if you are in the camp where you don’t want people to bring it up to you/you don’t want to discuss it with your co-workers, I would certainly advise asking your manager to tell your co-workers to please not bring it up or offer their condolences. I am in this camp, and after returning to work after a loss to get my mind off of it, people simply stating “Sorry for your loss” sent me into a crying shambles.

    3. Danielle*


      I had a co-worker who had a miscarriage, and she had one of our other co-workers go around and tell everybody to please not bring it up at all.

      Everyone handles these situations differently, so please don’t think the worst of someone if they don’t say the “right” thing. Some people honestly don’t know, or are doing/saying what THEY’D want to hear in that situation.

      1. Jamie*

        “Everyone handles these situations differently, so please don’t think the worst of someone if they don’t say the “right” thing. Some people honestly don’t know, or are doing/saying what THEY’D want to hear in that situation.”

        This is really good advice. Both of my parents passed away within months of each other when I was younger. I was devastated by some of the comments of well meaning people, who truly were just trying to be comforting.

        It took me a couple of years to get to the place where I could appreciate the supportive sentiments despite the phrasing.

        It should always be up to the bereaved person to decide if, when, and how much they want to share.

      2. March Bereavement OP*

        I’m the person from the UK that asked about telling bosses about expected bereavement back in March.

        Well the parent in question did pass on in April and I took a two days off to pull myself back together before coming back in the office. I told the boss on the phone as long as people didn’t ask direct questions or “are you OK” I would be fine to be back in the office. I think he did make sure people knew not to ask as no one really mentioned it unless I mentioned it first.

        My other parent did really amazingly and was back at work within a week, but did ask that no-one be particularly overly nice to them so that she could stay strong in the office. They also were able to tell about some of the more “funny” details of the funeral (which was a little hilarious due to weather) a few weeks later without too much stress.

        In both cases the instruction not to mention it helped greatly – no one felt guilty about not doing so. (Although the office did do a collection for a relevant charity and a card which was nicely welcomed and softly handled).

        OP, I’m sorry about the situation you are in. Taking some time out now will not look bad to later employers (certainly not ones that you want to work for!).

        I agree with other people who say to consider some therapy – at least to help you rationalise your thought process about returning to work.

        My thoughts are with you and I hope you find the right answers for you.

    4. Anon*

      Agreed. Shortly after I started a new job, a coworker lost her terminally-ill mother over a holiday weekend. I was surprised to see her back at work that Monday, and she asked me how my weekend was. I was speechless, and didn’t acknowledge her mother’s death because I had no idea what to say. Normally when someone asks me how my weekend was, I say something like, “Great! How was yours?” but I assumed her weekend had been far from great and I just didn’t know how to respond. I wish I’d handled it better.

    5. K.*

      I completely agree. I’m a private person, and I also don’t really like hugs from people I don’t know well (if I just met you and you give me a hug instead of a handshake, it makes me uncomfortable), so when I lost my grandparents* and people would come up to me and just want to talk and talk and TALK about it, or give me hugs … I get that the inclination comes from a good place, but it just made me really uncomfortable. So I’d say “I’m dealing with it in my own way, but thanks. I’ll let you know if I need anything” and take a step back from open arms with a “Thanks, but I’m good.” And after a while, people would just say “I heard about your grandmother, I’m so sorry. Please let me know if I can help,” and I’d say “Thanks, I will,” and we’d move on. You might even be more explicit than that by saying to your manager, “Please let the team know that I really don’t want to talk about it” or whatever you’d prefer. Nothing you are feeling is wrong.

      *I would not presume to liken my loss to yours, OP. My dad’s parents were in their 70s and 80s when they died, and they died on their own terms after illness. My deepest, deepest condolences on the loss of your child.

  7. MaryTerry*

    I’m so so sorry. I can’t imagine losing a child, and totally understand the inability to make a decision. It brings to mind a similar situation I had when I was home, not working, didn’t know what to do, didn’t want to do anything except sleep.

    At some point, you may need to push yourself to get outside the house and do something, whether it’s going back to work part time, or volunteering, or something else. This may or may not be the time. I was lucky enough to be able to start working 4 hours a day, then expanded hours as I felt ready. It helped me having a commitment to do something (i.e., be at work).

    As others have said, if you do something and it’s not the right thing, then you can change what you’re doing. Sometimes doing anything at all routinely can help you get back on an even keel.

  8. Rachel B*

    I am sorry for your loss. I think Allison’s advice is solid.

    I worked for a large ad agency until recently. During my tenure, I encountered some of the nastiest, most cutthroat people I’ve ever met. I also met some incredibly creative, thoughtful people, too. If you find that the industry isn’t right for you any longer, you can transition to one that is.

    Also, there are so many non-profits that are looking for website/marketing/advertising/fundraising volunteers. If your manager can’t let you work part-time, or if you start and feel terrible about it, volunteering could help affirm that you’re capable of doing good in the world, without a high profile title.

  9. Jamie*

    First, I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t even begin to imagine your grief.

    I have no first hand experience with this situation, but I can’t imagine that this would be treated by anyone as if it were the same as other time off in a competitive environment.

    There can absolutely be consequences for those who take earned vacations in such an environment (whether that should be the case or not is irrelevant – it’s a fact) but this isn’t a matter of not conforming to a workplace custom – I have to believe humanity trumps that and I wouldn’t want to work at a place where it didn’t.

  10. Corey Feldman*

    Completely agree. If I was interviewing someone and asked about a gap in their employment record and they said they lost a child, there is no way I would hold that against them. I can’t imagine your loss, its every parents worst nightmare. I am so sorry

  11. The recruiter.*

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    One thing I want to point out that hasn’t been brought up is that communication is really important here. I got the sense that you’ve been avoiding the company from your letter (and that’s totally understandable) but it’s necessary to communicate where you’re at in order to work out a balance that will work for everyone. If the HR folks have been calling you and you haven’t been responsive, I can’t urge you strongly enough to return those calls – even if it’s just to say “I need more time and am not in a position to discuss this.”

    The more communicative you are with them, the more likely they’re going to be flexible with you if/when you’re ready to go back.

    One other thing that might be an option (and buy you more time) is that if you’re struggling with depression, FMLA might be an option that gives you up to 12 workweeks of job-protected leave (if you qualify).

  12. Student*

    I’m sorry for your loss, OP.

    Please go to some sort of bereavement counseling, whether it’s through a support group, a therapist, or a religious authority. The loss of a child is a terrible tragedy, and I’m glad your employer has been accommodating. Your response to it is entirely normal and reasonable. However, going back to work doesn’t need to somehow be tied to not mourning your child any more – and for your own sake, you should get some professional counseling so that you can continue living while you mourn. A counselor could help you talk through possible job changes or going back to your original job. A good counselor doesn’t make decisions for you, but he/she can help you work though the “not thinking clearly” problem.

    AAM gives great advice, but sometimes there’s nothing that can replace face-to-face discussions. This sounds like one of those times.

  13. Anonymous*

    I don’t have anything to add beyond what’s already been said. As a mother as well, your letter touched me, and you have my condolences. I am so sorry to hear this happened to you.

  14. Another Advertising Person*

    OP, I am so sorry for your loss.

    I have to agree with the other posters who said “it depends.” I have worked at some agencies where people would be totally understanding, and at others where, if you do return to work, it would be expected that you’d “gotten over it” already (as if the loss of a child can ever truly be “gotten over”), and where any accommodation would breed resentment among others who wish they had your (limited hours, not having to deal directly with the client, whatever). Never mind that they would NEVER wish on themselves the circumstances that led you to those accommodations — that part of the equation simply does not enter the minds of some people I’ve worked with.

    So, OP, I think it makes a difference how long you’ve been with your current agency (it sounds like a long time, if you have a lot of leave accrued) and what your relationships with your coworkers are like. You say your supervisor has expressed interest in your coming back — what was his/her tone when asking that question? If it was, “If you’re feeling up to it, we’d love to have you back, but I completely understand if not,” that’s one thing, but if it was, “We’re launching Product X in a month and we need you right now!” that is something else.

    1. OP*

      You say your supervisor has expressed interest in your coming back — what was his/her tone when asking that question?

      This is actually a really good question. Their tone was sort in the middle of your examples. I have a very important client that I generally work for, and although he is very understanding of my loss, he is very eager for us to start on a project that he needs completed very soon. They expressed their sympathy and understanding but did let me know that the client expressed interest in my return and was very eager for me to work on the project.

      I fully understand the clients thinking of this. Work doesn’t stop needing to done. I just want to handle in a way that allows everyone to make the best out of the situation.

      My workplace is very competitive. A lot of my co-workers would gladly take on my projects. Part of me doesn’t want to lose those projects because I have spent years cultivating those relationships.

      1. Anonymous_J*

        What about handling that client, then, THROUGH your agency, but on a consultation basis?

        It really DOES depend on how ready you feel and how well you feel you can apply yourself to the work, but to do it as a consultant might lend a bit more flexibility.

        That said, if you are not ready, you are not ready. Don’t push yourself.

        Good luck to you, whatever you decide.

  15. Cruella Da Boss*

    I am so sorry for your loss and (while I’m sure it’s not pc here, I will say it anyway) will be remembering your family in my prayers. It is times like this that am reminded, that while I am “da boss,” I am a mother first.

    Grieving is a complex process. Everyone handles it differently. I can not imagine that your employer would say ” no” to some sort of attempt to come back to work. Take it at your own pace. Your employer will understand.

  16. Anonymous*

    I am so sorry for your loss. I will share my experience, if it is helpful.

    A few years ago, I had a child who spent nearly 5 months in the hospital (and is fine now, thankfully). Thus, I was out of work for 5 months (combination of saved leave, donated leave and FMLA). I had exhausted all unpaid leave options by the time he came home from the hospital. However, as soon as I came back (hey, somebody has to pay the bills – LOL), they were much more willing to work with me (i.e. work from home and unpaid leave when needed). I think my return served as concrete evidence that I truly was coming back, and thus alternate schedule negotiations were much easier.

    Obviously, your experience may be very different. Best wishes to you.

  17. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I am so sorry for your loss and (while I’m sure it’s not pc here, I will say it anyway) will be remembering your family in my prayers.

    For what it’s worth, that sentiment is welcome here.

  18. OP*

    I am the original poster. I just wanted to thank everyone for their condolences and advice. It is all very appreciated.

    To clarify a bit on some questions that were raised.

    1) Our child was 7 years old. I am not sure if this has any value in the conversation but my son attend the company sponsored daycare down the street from time to time. A lot of my co-workers and their children interacted with him frequently.
    2) I have been at my firm for nearly 8 years but have only briefly worked at one other place in the industry.
    3) My supervisor and the Executive Director seem to be understanding. They attended the funeral. They are generally very supportive when they do call, but I can understand how they would be eager for me to set a time to return. I know that they have to be the work done regardless of whether I am there or not.
    4) Human Resource seems understanding too. I don’t avoid their calls and they have seemed satisfied with my updates.
    5) The agency I work for is about mid-sized so it has a fairly large employee base. There are many in that company that would jump at the chance take on my clients on a more permanent basis. Although the firm is understanding to the needs of the employee outside work they have often encourage and rewarded competitiveness and those who make work their first priority. I am not saying this is wrong. It is how the agency and, in my experience, the industry work. Of course I am speaking from my prospective and workplace only.

    I can’t thank AAM enough for advice. I have never been a manager. In my position, I mostly work by myself or with a small team where we are equal. I needed that perspective in order to approach my supervisor in a manner that would be most beneficial to the issue.

    There were a lot of responses so I hope I was able to briefly answer a few questions that were raised here.

    Again, thank you for the advice and the kind words. It means a lot.

    1. OP*

      I would also like to acknowledge that returning is a limited or part-time capacity is something I would like to try.

      1. Riki*

        It might be worth it to ask about working on a project basis as a consultant. You will still be in the mix, but your will have a lot flexibility. A friend of mine works in marketing and became a consultant after a particularly intense year (new baby and parent diagnosed with cancer). It’s worked out worked out well for her.

        If you choose not to go back to work at all or switch industries, then do NOT worry about how your extended leave will look to new employers. Normal people will get it and anyone who thinks less of you for it is not the type of person you want to work with or for. I did not work for nearly a year after my father passed away. When I’ve been asked about the gap, I say it was because of a death in my family. No one has ever pressed for more details or tried to shame me for my extended leave.

        Take care, OP! My thoughts are with you.

        1. Emily*

          You mentioned working with one client, in particular, that has a big project coming up, and you said that you’re used to working by yourself or in a small group. I wonder if you could arrange to go back to work on this one particular project in a consultant capacity and select a colleague who could be your partner on the account. That way, you could ease your way back in to the routine, but know that if you needed a day off here or there, or even if you found that going back full time isn’t what you want to do, you’d be able to leave the project and the account in capable hands. That could ease your mind as you move forward, and should you decide to enter the workforce again later, you’ll be able to show the steps you took to tie up loose ends for your current firm and your current clients.

          I also just want to offer my condolences to you and your husband, and to say how much I admire your courage. You wrote that you’re not able to think too clearly about the situation, but it sounds to me like you’ve given it a lot of thought, like you’re taking care of yourself, and asking for help when it feels right. I respect that; I think a lot of people do.

  19. Anonymous*

    First of all, I’m very sorry for your loss.

    Secondly, I’m going to buck the trend here slightly because I get the impression from your letter that you really don’t want to go back to your office. I get a strong sense that you want to take some time, and figure things out, and then find a new position elsewhere, but your biggest concern is that you feel like you are “supposed” to go back. I say this because from your letter, it sounds you didn’t even begin thinking about what returning to the office might entail until your supervisor called to see if you might be coming back soon. (I totally understand and respect that you have been dealing with far heavier issues during this leave, so that is not meant as a judgment of your actions, just an observation that your preferences seem to lie away from your current employer)

    In my own life, I’ve found that I have to listen to my heart. If something doesn’t feel “right” to me, then it’s never the right move to try to do it, even if logic would dictate otherwise. I can appreciate that you are feeling very raw and that decisions can seem almost impossible to make. Your supervisor seems to be showing you consideration and kindness, which is always a positive. But if your work place is as cut-throat as you describe, it doesn’t sound like an environment where you are going to feel able to safely build your emotional strength back up. I get a strong sense that you already instinctively know this, and are just looking for the right explanation for why you aren’t going to return.

    If I’m totally off base here, then feel free to ignore what I’ve said. It’s hard to convey all of the details of a situation in a short letter, and I might totally have gotten the wrong impression. But if you do agree with my observations, then you should step away from this job with no regrets. When you are ready, you will find the right words to explain the gap in your employment history, and what seems like a liability from this vantage point (walking away from a job for personal reasons) may actually work in your favor down the line for what you eventually might want to be doing.

    1. OP*

      You aren’t necessarily off base. I am unable to really decide if I truly want to go back. My inability to make a decision is unfair to the employer in the long term. I know that I will eventually have to make a decision.
      Part of me doesn’t want to lose those projects because I have spent years cultivating those relationships.

      I am fearful that when I have had time to grieve and some sort of normality returns to my life ( I guess it does eventually. I don’t know) then I will regret giving up such a huge part of my life.

      Right now, returning in a limited capacity is something I would like to try.

      You raise some valid points for me to think about. Thank you for the advice.

      1. fposte*

        I think it’s totally understandable not to know exactly what you want right now, and I think you’re looking pretty clearly at the possibilities.

        I hear you talking about both going back to work and not as if they’re irrevocable, though, and I don’t know that that’s how things have to be. I think it might be helpful, if your office allows this, to think–and talk–about coming in to work “on the Johnson project” rather than just a certain amount of time, and then using that experience to decide if work is right for you just now.

        I also think that having hungry colleagues take over some of the work that was yours might actually be okay, and that it’s not the same thing as you being perceived as weak and unable to cut it in a way that damages your reputation long-term. Your approaching work differently right now is not a hard thing to explain.

        It sounds to me a little like you’ve tended to be extremely reliable and that you’ve considered that an important part of yourself, and that this doesn’t feel like what reliable people do–a lot of your concerns are based on what you expect people’s negative responses to be, after all, rather than anything people have said. But I don’t think people will see a long leave and a delegation of responsibilities for a mourning period as being unreliable; I think they’ll see it as an understandable response to tragedy.

        I’m really not trying to tell you what to do; I just think that you’re underselling the possibility that it could be okay to do what it sounds like you might want to do.

      2. Natalie*

        “You aren’t necessarily off base. I am unable to really decide if I truly want to go back. My inability to make a decision is unfair to the employer in the long term. I know that I will eventually have to make a decision.”

        If you are open to the idea, this issue is exactly the sort of thing grief counseling could be helpful for. If you have an EAP, they might be able to recommend someone.

      3. Emily*

        Do you have a friend at work with whom you’d feel comfortable having lunch or coffee near your office one day? I wonder if a short visit that isn’t work-related might give you an opportunity to gauge your feelings about going back from a different perspective. I think that feeling that you’re not sure what you want and can’t make a decision can be scary and paralyzing. Trust your gut, and try a little step at a time to see if it feels right.

      4. Anonymous_J*

        Remember that, even if you do move on, the coworkers and clients with whom you’ve had good relationships will still be part of your network, which is a very helpful thing.

        1. Mishsmom*

          OP, are you afraid if you “let go” and don’t go back that later you won’t find a good job when you are ready? feel the fear, but listen to you. this is such a horrible tragedy the only thing you can do is listen to your needs…no one can decide that. make decisions from kindness to yourself, not fears that may or may not come true. i apologize if i’m off base, and my heart goes out to you… :'(

  20. fposte*

    I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be very difficult finding your way around this suddenly very different world.

    I’m another in the “it can’t hurt” camp to ask about part time. You’ve clearly got a supervisor who is willing to find some room for your grieving, and I think whatever you can do to keep yourself from being overwhelmed is good right now. In addition to clarifying what “part time” means, it’s probably good to clarify when you might be planning to return to full time, or at least plan to revisit the subject. The big project might be a useful hinge there–you really wanted to play your part on that even if you’re not ready to work your regular long day, and then when that’s over you can revisit the subject.

    As far as people’s comments go, I think that the really kind ones vastly outnumber the weird ones, and that even the weird ones often come from a place of kindness. Somebody who says “I know, I was wrecked when my goldfish died” isn’t trying to trivialize somebody else’s experience; she’s saying that she knows how much loss can hurt, and she’s sorry that you are in pain, in her own inelegant way. I think it can be more comforting to read through to the intent.

  21. Steve G*

    Is it possible, financially and otherwise, to segueway your advertising experience into another lower pressure job? The dog-eat-dog method of living is fun in your 20s when it is new and interesting, but is certainly not the place to be after this. I don’t see the difference between working part-time and full-time in this case. You will still face the same stresses everyday and will end up dwelling over them all day regardless of how many hours you work.

    And why is advertising so high pressure anyway? Is it the people or the work and deadlines? Asking because I come from a utilities industry that prevents blackouts and there are impossible deadlines and emergencies and long hours all year, yet I wouldn’t classify it as high stress/cut throat because people in the industry tend to be laid-back middle-aged guys. If it is the people, I would want to work somewhere where the people were nicer and more genuine.

    1. Another Advertising Person*

      Utilities have customers. If you annoy a customer (whether he/she has a right to be annoyed or not), you lose…one customer. Or you might not even lose one customer, because it’s a utility, and you may even have a monopoly.

      Ad agencies don’t have customers, they have clients. One client might support the budget to hire a team of five, or ten, or even more. So if you annoy your client — again, whether the client has the right to be annoyed or not — you, and several others, could be out of a job if that client decides to take his or her business somewhere else and the ad agency doesn’t have enough other clients to spread the suddenly-idle hands around.

      Clients have this power, and they know it. Which means something that no one outside of advertising would classify as an emergency (the launch of a new product, for example), becomes one, simply because the client has the power to MAKE it an emergency.

  22. Carrie*

    Firstly, my sincere condolences for your loss OP. I do hope things work out for you and that your employer is understanding of your circumstances.

    I lost my Mum to dreaded cancer in 2007, when I was 24 years old. At the time, I was an Account Executive for a big Advertising agency (2 years in), and wasn’t too happy in my role, so ended up quitting a month before my Mum passed away (she had been terminally ill for several weeks prior to me quitting). My Mum was my best friend, and we were very close. I would have done anything for her, including giving up a dream job to spend time with her in her final days.

    I moved back to my parents city and house to live with and look after my Dad, who was now on his own. For six months I didn’t work, then I found a job as an Account Manager for a print/design firm. Things were good for the next two years until I came to Canada on an OE (I’m from New Zealand). Recruiters and Interviewers were quite concerned about why I had left the agency, and wanted an explanation for the gap in employment (including the odd choices for my next two jobs). In one interview I actually burst into tears because I was overwhelmed by the lack of compassion and empathy (needless to say I didn’t get that job).

    This experience has made me wonder whether my decision to quit and move back home to look after my Dad, now gives recruiters and employers a bad impression of my work ethic? I’m a very hard and honest worker, and have great experience, but do wonder whether my personal decisions override these qualities?

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily taking time off for your dying mother that’s bothering them; I think it’s that you’ve had three jobs in four total years of employment (if I’m counting right) and have now left a country behind. That doesn’t help them think you’ll repay their investment by sticking around.

      The career consequence of a leave from the workforce is going to vary depending on a lot of factors: the work-history-to-gap ratio, the degree of work success, the reason for the gap, what else you’ve been doing, etc. (In your case there might also be a big difference between the employment markets, but I know nothing about those.) You and the OP are, I think, in very different positions because of the difference of so many of those factors.

      If I were you, I’d try to find some nonprofit where I could volunteer my marketing services and stick to it like glue. It’s your proof of stability, it’s your local work history, it’s recent productivity, etc. I’d also consider that I might be aiming too high, and that a company might be more willing to take a chance on me at a lower position, where my extra experience compensates for my career gaps.

  23. Blue Dog*

    I have been staring at this screen for about half an hour, hoping comforting words would come. They haven’t. I just don’t know what to say.

    But please don’t let me inability to form a coherent response lead you to believe that no one cares. My heart goes out to you and your family.

      1. Anonymous*

        I am so very sorry. This would be the hardest thing to have to go through. May God bless.

  24. Anonymous*

    Having had two of my children pass away not only does my heart go out to you, but Iknow your sorrow. When one of our daughters died I thought I needed to go back to work right away. I thought I was ready – I wasn’t. There are a couple of things I’ve learnt fom my experiences:
    Your grief will always be there, You’ll find a way to live with it.
    Each day for just a few brief moments you will forget before reality sets in.
    The most difficult deaths to live through are losing your “mate” and the death of a child.
    There is no right time to go back to work, until the time is right for you.

    I know that my bosses were very understanding and I trust that yours will be too. If not I pray that they never know a loss like this. Keep yourself busy at something and remember the precious memories that are all yours. In time you will be able to smile.

    May God Bless you and your husband. My thoughts and prayers are with you.


  25. Editor*

    Have you had a checkup lately with your physician? Maybe before you make a decision about work, you could ask your doctor about your own health.

    Some people who are grieving don’t eat or sleep well, and they may skip exercise or exercise obsessively. If you are eating healthy foods and sleeping normally, that might be an indication you can handle work. If working full-time means you live on coffee too much of the time or work hours that don’t allow for normal sleep every night, then maybe you want to set limits for what you will do or wait to go back until grieving isn’t affecting your health as much.

    Having more data about work options, your own health, and feedback from your husband and a therapist might help clarify your thoughts about the decision you’re facing.

    I am so sorry to hear of your situation. I hope you can continue to cope with your very painful loss.

  26. Carrie in Scotland*

    OP, I’m very sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine being where you are, in losing a child.
    This is my story/advice – when my mother died after a short illness, I had 2 weeks compassionate leave and went straight back into my job, which was undergoing some “changes” (we all had to re-interview for full time positions and based on points that would determine if we got 28 hrs/20 hrs/16 hrs etc). The stress of going back to work early/dealing with customer demands (this was retail) etc burnt me out and I ended up having 2 months unpaid leave off and then working my notice because I couln’t cope.
    Since then I’ve kinda bounced around various jobs, and it is only now, some 3 years after my mum died, where I feel some semblance of normal, I’m trying to look after myself physically and emotionally.
    Grief and loss takes alot out of you, and you should be looking after yourself and your husband first and foremost. Everything else should come after that.
    Good luck, OP, and I wish you well. I’m thinking of you.

  27. Anonna Miss*

    Op, I also lost a child. He was 17 days old. I went back to work just 6 weeks after his birth – three and 1/2 weeks after his death. I thought going back to work would be good therapy. This, for me, was not a good choice. I was in a mental fog for about a year and was not a productive team member. Looking back, I would have taken much more time off. It has been 17 years now and I still grieve deeply for him. His birthday being especially difficult. You will never “get over” this loss- but you will get ” thru” it. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this very sad, difficult time.

  28. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I just wanted to say thank you to those of you chipping in with advice and support for the OP, especially those of you who have lost children of your own.

  29. Jesse*

    To the OP: I am very sorry about your loss. My sister died when she was twenty-four days old. I was two and a half at the time.

    What I learned from my grieving experience is that grief is like a fire. At the beginning its a white-hot blistering flame. It hurts to touch, it hurts to look at and its definitely too hot to handle without protective gear. Over time the fire will die down. It will loss its intensity. That doesn’t mean its gone away. It just means you might be able to pick up a half burned stick on the edge of the fire. Over time the fire will die down more. That doesn’t mean your grief is gone. This time you’ll be ready to pick the embers up and place them in a jar. Instead of waiting at the fire, you carry the fire around with you. If you need to rekindle the fire, you’ll have the embers with which to do that.

    Its been twenty-seven years since my sister died. I still think about her time-to-time. If I need to, I grieve. The grief doesn’t go completely away, it just become manageable.

  30. Joe*

    First off, OP, I am so very sorry for your loss. I cannot begin to imagine.

    A couple of people have mentioned grief counseling, but I wanted to point out that some corporate health care plans/policies include counseling services for major life events or personal losses. If you haven’t already availed yourself of a counselor, you might want to find out if this option is provided. Grief counseling can be a very powerful tool at a time like this, and a counselor might be able to help you find the answer to the question of whether or not you want to go back to work.

  31. Elizabeth West*

    *hugs OP* I’m so incredibly sorry for your loss. I hope you get the job thing worked out. I don’t know if going back would be helpful or not. It’s impossible for me to even imagine what you and your husband are going through. FTIW I think Alison’s advice about asking your boss if you can come back in a limited capacity is good.

    You are in my prayers.

  32. DPinTexas*

    My nine year olds daughter’s father (my ex husband) just passed away. I asked if I could get a day off for bereavement to take her to the services. They said no because he isn’t my family. They said I have to take vacation day. This doesn’t sound like fair practice. I have heard of others getting bereavment leave for people who were just close family friends. Does anyone know if their are laws about this? Just seeing what my rights are in this situation.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m sorry for your loss!

      Bereavement leave isn’t required by law, so it depends on the policy of your employer. This is really not kind of them, however.

      1. DPinTexas*

        Thank you. Yes this has been a rough year for sure. I lost my mom in December of cancer. My nine year old is devastated to say the least, after losing two close family members in less than six months. Thank you again for your quick reply.

  33. Danial Garcia*

    I find it strange that the corporate world can get away with not giving leave and so forth. As for the passage, I don’t think that going back in a limited capacity would work. If they expect you to come back they would want you to come back so you can handle your responsibilities.

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