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August 02, 2023
Work Appropriate
Grief at Work with Dina Gachman

In This Episode

As the saying goes, death is a part of life. So why are workplaces so ill-equipped to provide employees with compassionate and expansive bereavement leave? Dina Gachman, author of So Sorry For Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer listeners’ questions about dealing with grief at work.

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen. And this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] For a show about work, we talk a whole lot about not working. This is appropriate because contrary to conservative talking points, we don’t, as a population, really have a problem with working too little. If anything, we need help figuring out how to work less, how to convince ourselves and others that the ideal worker is not in fact a robot, but someone who needs rest, who needs a vacation. And this is an important one. Also has a life outside of work. And you know what’s part of that life outside of work? People and animals, friends and family and people and animals and friends and family die. Sometimes we see those deaths coming for a long time and spend months or years in anticipatory grief. Sometimes those deaths come suddenly and we’re grappling with shock in addition to overwhelming sadness. Some workplaces have bereavement policies in place that allow workers to take a day, maybe slightly more, to attend a funeral. But often those allowances are only for close family members. Even though devastating grief is by no means limited to blood or legal relation. So today I wanted to take some time to think about how we can be more expansive and how we make space for grief in the workplace. In the policy we create, in the way we respect the needs of coworkers in public and in private. I’ll note here that we got so many questions about dealing with pregnancy loss that we decided to turn that into its own future episode. But we have questions dealing with so many other forms of grief and a co-host, as you’ll see, who spent a whole lot of time thinking through how we can be better at making space to grieve both for ourselves and for others. [music plays]

 

Dina Gachman: My name is Dina Gachman and I am a journalist and author of the new book So Sorry For Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what is the story behind the book? Why did you feel like you needed to write it? 

 

Dina Gachman: So I’ve been a writer for many years. I didn’t write about grief until my mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2015, and she died in 2018. And then my sister Jackie died of alcoholism two years later. So it was this kind of double blow in our family. And I had started writing about grief a little bit after my mom died, just essays and things like that. And then when my sister died, I somebody had given me like a book of Zen quotes about grief. And I just it made me really angry [laughs] because I love a good Zen quote, but like, I did not want to be soothed and I didn’t want to read about, like, babbling brooks I wanted to be really angry [laughter] and, you know, pissed and all the things. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And so I just felt like I’m a writer. We have this experience of, you know, losing two people. And then also my sister’s alcoholism. I thought just maybe I had something to add to the grief books that are already out there that are already amazing. So it was about a couple of months after my sister died when I thought, okay, maybe I actually should write about this. And I also wanted to look at grief like straight in the face. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: instead of avoiding it because it had come into my life in such profound ways, I was like, You know what? Let me just get in there and figure this out. And I think kind of the journalist in me wanted to learn more about it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: So I sort of dove in and interviewed, people. And so it’s part memoir, part reporting. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, you know, the alcoholism bit, I think people are used to, for lack of a better phrase, knowing how to comfort someone when they die from the from cancer. Right. But I think losing someone to alcoholism or drug addiction or there’s lots of other just variations, like it’s complicated. It’s really complicated. 

 

Dina Gachman: It is people people don’t know what to say in general with grief, I think. But. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. Definitely like saying like, oh, she’s not suffering anymore. Like, isn’t like the best thing to say to someone who lost a sibling. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: To alcoholism, so yeah, I think people don’t know how to deal with it. And, you know, there’s a type of grief when they’re here, right? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: I mean, yeah, when they’re still living, you’re like grieving the relationship you want to have with them. And so that’s a whole other thing that isn’t. I think I didn’t understand it till I started writing the book. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well, or like grieving a parent or a relative from whom you’re estranged. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That. That’s super complicated, right? People are like, oh, well you weren’t really close with them. I was like, you know, part of the sadness is that I wasn’t really close with them, you know, it]s complicated. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And then we’re going to talk about this more. But, you know, I recently lost a beloved pet. 

 

Dina Gachman: Oh I’m sorry. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And dog grief or pet grief also. Some people really get it. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And then some people are like, it’s just a dog. [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: I know. And they yeah, it’s funny because that was there were two chapters of my book that I got cold feet and I did not want to write. And the one of them. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Was about losing pets because one was about losing children because I was terrified to interview parents. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: But the pet one, I was like, well, I’m talking about losing my sister. I’m talking about all this really hard stuff and there’s humor in the book too by the way, but really hard stuff. And then and then all of a sudden it’s a chapter about pets. And I just thought, oh, maybe that’s too frivolous. And I told the editor and she’s like, no, no, no, you need to keep it. And then we got a dog, like, right at that time. And the minute we brought him home, I was like, this is totally valid. [laughter] I cannot imagine losing this animal. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: The chapter is super important. And so, yeah, I have a friend who just his dog just died and he told me he’s like, this is actually maybe harder than when my dad died. Like, it’s really hard and people don’t acknowledge it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, one thing that I always remember is that a friend of mine who’s a therapist told me that her therapist told her that grief for pets like their relationship we have with pets is so unique, in part because they are such like a pure and open receptacle for our love. The way that you love your pet is really unfettered. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: By societal boundaries, right? [laughs] Like I mean just there is like there’s no baggage there. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And, and so when you lose that, you’re also losing access in some ways to that particular love. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so I think that that was the one of the things that helped me recognize why I was feeling the way that I was feeling. And I understand that people who haven’t lost pets maybe don’t understand how it could be that profound, the same way that people who have never lost someone really important to them until that happens. Right. It’s it’s hard to understand. 

 

Dina Gachman: It is. And you can still sympathize and empathize. But yeah, once you have true deep grief, like I lost grandparents who I adore, but this was a whole other ballgame. So it definitely gives you other layers of understanding. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So we want to talk about the. Intersection between grief and bereavement and workplace. And, you know, I was telling you before we started recording that we previously did not have any questions in our big, long document of questions. We have hundreds and hundreds of questions that people have submitted that are that were specific to this topic. And then I did a call out and we received so many. So many. And so I, I think that that speaks to the fact that this is something that people don’t necessarily immediately think of as a workplace topic, but that is actually a really unaddressed— 

 

Dina Gachman: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —workplace topic. Like it’s something that we need to talk a lot about. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So we’re going to first play two questions back to back from grieving people who don’t fit into the company’s bereavement policy. This is something that I think is really common. There are these narrow bereavement policies that don’t make room for the complexity of human grieving. So first, we’re going to hear from Esther and then from Emily. 

 

Esther: Do you have any advice for workers or managers on requesting bereavement or grief accommodations or on formulating policies for nonstandard kinds of grief and non familial relationships? I lost a close friend to suicide, and my manager kindly treated it as a sibling loss for official leave entitlement purposes. I’m very fortunate that my employer has good bereavement leave policies generally, but they focus entirely on family. I would have been entitled to five days leave for the death of an in-law who I’m not close with, but none at all for an oldest friend. My experience was positive, but I wondered if Anne and the smartest people she knows can speak at all on the theme of complex and or non familial grief in the workplace. Should your employer know your non-related big love people? 

 

Emily: My question is about corporate policies when it comes to grieving chosen family members. I didn’t have grandparents growing up. They had either passed or were estranged. So when the man I considered my grandfather, the man who brought Big Macs from my sixth grade lunchroom, who taught me to love licorice, who always had a smile for me and said he was so proud, passed in 2017. The best way to categorize him to my employer was godfather, however, because he wasn’t one of a select few direct blood relatives listed in the employee handbook for which bereavement leave was eligible and there was no H.R. representative. I was forced to use PTO instead. I’m curious if, as the idea of a chosen family has become more mainstream, if there’s been any movement to create or evolve bereavement plans or definitions to be more inclusive. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So the way that I think we should first address these questions is thinking about why bereavement leave policies are often so specific and strict in the first place. Do you have any thoughts on that? 

 

Dina Gachman: I mean, I think, you know, bereavement leave in America is not I mean, it’s very scarce. [laughs] So any like that first person was saying, they’re pretty lucky because most companies, you maybe get 1 to 5 days. I mean, it’s not great, but, you know, it goes along with those traditional roles of the mother, the father, the sibling. You know, just keeping it at the immediate family. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And I think part of that is kind of a traditional sort of old school way of thinking. And then it may be also they don’t want to start opening it up to like a neighbor, but it is human relationships are complicated. So maybe your neighbor is like the most important person in your life. Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: And it’s hard to explain that to a boss like my neighbor died. I really am struggling. But I think, yeah, I would imagine it’s just looking at things in a more traditional way. And and I don’t think the government really budges much on bereavement leave as of yet. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It reminds me of so many policies that we have in place, both like governmental and organizational, that are really trying to legislate or govern in a way that assumes that everyone is trying to defraud the government or the organization. [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like if you run a I always think of this from my time in teaching, like if you try to run a classroom with the understanding that every student is trying to cheat all the time or always trying to get out of class, for some reason, it’s going to result in a very specific sort of environment and a way that those people feel trusted or valued, whether they’re your students or your family or your employees. And I just like how many employees are trying to, like, come up with fake dead grandmas [laughter] so they can get a few extra days of work, right? 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Sure there are a couple there are a couple people with many fake dead grandmas. But when I was teaching, I always thought if this person has to come up with a reason, like it has to come up with another fake dead grandma, something else is going on, right? 

 

Dina Gachman: [laughs] Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like there is again, very, very unique experiences where sometimes someone just wants to like, go party and they’re just hung over all the time. But most of the time they need more leave because something else is going on. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, exactly. And you know, it’s not that every employee is going to be like, oh, somebody died because first of all, faking grief is pretty gross. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dina Gachman: Cause grief is like, you know, it’s like a faking of diagnosis or something. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: I mean, it’s such a horrible thing to go through. And yeah, I don’t think every employee, but I think that’s part of it too, is they’re just scared of like, well, you know, if we open it up to any kind of bereavement, people are just going to take advantage. Right. And and that’s just not true. I don’t think. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No, I don’t think so either. But that is always the fear. It’s like if we let people work from home, no one’s going to work. [laughter] Right? If we let people have bereavement leave for a chosen family, everyone’s just going to be grieving all the time. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No. [both speaking]

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, they’re not going to they’re not going to be calling and saying like, so-and-so died. And I love that term that person uses like the big love people. Like, I think that’s—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Dina Gachman: —really sweet, but I think hopefully most bosses or employers would understand, like if you say, like, this is my best friend and they’re not. I mean, it is tricky because that person was lucky, right, that they had a work around and they could, you know, say it was a sibling, but maybe, you know, it’s about like finding work arounds or just explain, you know, why these people are important, but we shouldn’t have to do that is the point. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and this also, I think, connects to the issue of like manager trust. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: If a manager doesn’t trust that you say this was an incredibly important person to me, I need to take a few days to to process this. If they think that you are in some way defrauding you, then they don’t trust you at all. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. Yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Their relationship is a broken one. Fundamentally, it’s about something much larger and most of the time I don’t think that’s the employee’s fault. I think it’s that the manager themselves is not create an environment of trust. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, no. It makes me think. Years ago I was waiting tables at this hotel and I got, like, horrible food poisoning. Like, I was a little, like, green. I mean, it was pretty clear. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And I was like, I got to go, like, I can’t do this. And I remember the manager didn’t believe me. He was like, I don’t know. It doesn’t usually hit that fast. Did you really have it? And like, this is years ago and I’m still mad at him. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: I’m still like, how dare you? Like, I. Yeah, I’m not faking, I’m like, sweating and, like, so it’s like, that’s not grief, but like, I was so, like, that relationship was never the same, you know? It was just so you’re like, you’re saying just there’s no trust there. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: So, you know, I hope that somebody goes to your manager and says, like, I’m in pain. I’m grieving that they’re not going to, you know, think that they’re out to get them or something. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So when we think, though, about like how we can craft policies moving forward, because I think most organizations, just like from a legal standpoint or an H.R. standpoint, are like, we have to have boundaries in some capacity. How are you thinking about what a great bereavement leave policy would look like? 

 

Dina Gachman: I mean, I think so there’s an organization called Evermore that I, the woman who started Joyal Mulheron, I found her I interviewed her for my book. But she I mean, they’re doing a lot. So I think anybody who’s interested should definitely check out Evermore because they’re actually like lobbying Congress and trying to get relief and I think trying to make it more inclusive. Right. Like so so that it’s not these narrow definitions of mother or father sibling. But I think that, you know, right now not I don’t even think you get bereavement relief through FMLA. It’s just up to the company. I mean, on a federal level, that would be great. But I think that, you know, allowing people flexibility, at least, right, if you’re not going to give six weeks paid leave for, you know, grief, I mean, I didn’t get that for maternity leave. I got two weeks. [laughter] So I think that, you know, it would start with acknowledging different kinds of grief and acknowledging the different kinds of relationships and. At least allowing conversations where people can say like, look, if I’m not going to take off three weeks and I’m going to need some flexibility or I’m going to need to work from home. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, because for me, a lot of my initial grieving period was more like, I don’t want to put on my work face and be around people all day. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so you can still oftentimes do some work like I was it was a welcome distraction to do some some work. But I also like having conversations with people made me want to cry. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So like giving giving people that option to like, figure out how to work flexibly, I think is is a good way to do it. I think some companies would be like, you can list six people who are important to you that aren’t your blood relatives. Is that too, I don’t know, regimented? Like it’s like because you would be like your will, right? Like, I’ve got to update my six people. [laughter]

 

Dina Gachman: So it’s kind of a little morbid. Like why do I put my best friends on here, you know, they’re 22. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Or whatever. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: So it’s like hard to say that or like, anticipate like, well, one day, you know, this person is kind of reckless, like. So it’s kind of hard [laughter] to like, you know—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No that’s horrible, that’s horrible. You can’t do that. [laughter]

 

Dina Gachman: No. Uh uh. I don’t know. It’s about communication, right? Like, it should just always be a conversation. Right. Instead of these, like, super strict rules that part of it is I think people don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I mean, I know I didn’t at work. I mean, I would like, we had this alleyway behind. I worked in an office at the time when my mom was diagnosed and when she died and we this alleyway and I would I was constantly in the alleyway walking and crying. You know, that was just my place. And I was scared to show it at work. And I look back and I’m like, you know, if I would have talked to my manager and just been like, look, this is what’s going on with me. My mom is sick. I may have some time where I just need to go take a little break. He would have I think it would have been okay. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: I just was so scared because I think it was the fear of like, okay, if you say that or they’re going to like, judge your work differently or they’re going to think you’re slacking, it’s kind of hard to put it out there. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So this is a great segue into like a kind of sub question that we got related to this. And this is from someone named Katia, whose best friend was just diagnosed with terminal cancer and has 3 to 6 months to live. And the bereavement policy in her workplace does not cover anyone except for her immediate family. But Katia is wondering how and whether to talk to her manager ahead of her friend’s death. What do you think? 

 

Dina Gachman: I mean, I think as soon as you feel comfortable, I mean, or even before you feel comfortable, because it’s never really com— It’s always hard to talk. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: I’m like a wimp. I was always scared to talk to managers [laughs] about anything, but I think as soon as possible, because then they’re going to understand what you’re going through and maybe they can check in with you or just have that extra care with you so you don’t feel like you have to hold it in. And that’s a lot. I mean, to have that on you that your best friend is dying in this in a certain amount of time is just so much to hold. And so I would say as soon as possible and just have the conversation. So at least I would imagine it would probably make them feel better rather than worse to get it out there. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well, and the other thing is that at some point, probably you’re going to break under the load. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: If you’re trying to pretend like nothing is happening, at some point, there is going to be not not like an explosion or like it’s just things are going to fall apart. Right? And so if you can be anticipatory and keep that line of communication a little bit more open, I think that’s really important. I don’t think that you have to say like you don’t have to disclose this person’s private information. Like you can just say they’re dying. 

 

Dina Gachman: I think that’s enough. [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Hopefully people wouldn’t pry me on that. But yeah, just say like, this is what’s going on. This is what I’m dealing with and it’s going to be coming on the horizon, just so you know. And I would think a manager would appreciate knowing that, right? Because it’s hard when it’s just all of a sudden like, oh, this happened and I got to go, right? I mean. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And so if maybe everyone knows that and they feel like they’re being communicated to, I just think it would make it better on everybody, especially when that person does have to take time off and then maybe they can have a not a surprise conversation, but a conversation about like, actually, can I you know, if there’s a bereavement policy in place, like can I use some of that time, like to just go and bring it up? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Gosh it’s so hard that, like your best friend, you don’t get time for that. 

 

Dina Gachman: Ugh, it’s, yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Just pretend like your best friend is your sister. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is from Dani, and it’s about a different sort of grief. 

 

Dani: I recently lost my dog Potato back in March. He’d been with me for over a decade. I feel lucky that this is the first major and immediate loss that I’ve suffered as an adult. But navigating a new job onboarding and training during his illness and passing was an absolute nightmare. I took one full day off to say goodbye, but didn’t have any means of effectively communicating how much I was struggling and how much pain I was in. I would love your perspective on how to manage this kind of unusual grief and bereavement at work. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: This is very close to home for me because I lost my dog a couple of months ago, a very, very special dog who had been through a lot with us. And I was able to take time off because I’m my own boss. But for people in traditional work settings. What advice do you have for this type of grief? 

 

Dina Gachman: Well, I’m glad so glad somebody asked about pets, because like I was telling you before, I there’s a chapter in my book about pets and it was one that I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if it should be in there or is it too frivolous? And then I got a dog and the whole thing. You know, I was like, animals are incredibly important. People sort of brush it off like it’s a dog, it’s a cat, it’s a lizard, you know, whatever animal you love. But again, communicating and trying to explain to somebody why it’s so important. There’s a, I actually interviewed a guy who specializes in like grief psychology for people who lost pets. And it’s like his whole business. And, you know, his whole thing is grief is grief. And he talked about the fact that sometimes that actually pet loss can hurt worse because it is pure and because it can actually bring up other things like, say, you lost your mother a couple of years ago and then your pet dies. It can all kind of come rushing through together. So it’s really nothing to scoff at. And so, you know, I think if you’ve lost an animal and you’re devastated, I would talk, not have that shame. Like don’t have that shame of like, oh, they’re going to think this is so stupid. They’re going to think I’m being like, wimpy and just own that it really is devastating. And, you know, maybe just telling them like, you know, I know it’s a pet, but I’m truly devastated. I loved this animal. And most feeling humans would hopefully understand that. But I think there is a little bit of like embarrassment around it, which should change, because for those of us who love our animals, we understand that it’s it’s totally devastating. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Well, and I hope people, too, who maybe don’t have that relationship with animals or with their pets like and they’re listening to this, maybe just have an openness to understand, like you might not totally identify with the feeling of that loss, but maybe you can make space. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: To imagine how someone might feel differently. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. And not judge it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, exactly. Because I think that’s that’s part of it, too, is that there is this judgment and I’ve seen this. I really I saw it happen not not with me personally, but like other people who have grieved pets for especially for extended period of time, it’s like, well, why can’t they just get over it. Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Or like, that’s a little much, don’t you think? [laughter]

 

Dina Gachman: And every grieving person’s favorite thing. Like, when are you going to get over this? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like, never. 

 

Dina Gachman: Never. [laughter] I’ll be sad forever. But it’s okay. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like, I’m, like, tearing up, just talking about it. And we’re not even talking about my dog. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I think that is such an opportunity for you to not be an asshole. [laughter]

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like, to just be, like, offer some grace for someone going through something that you might not understand. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I have. When I was 22, my ex-boyfriend, who is an incredibly important person to me, was killed in Iraq. And. I went to the funeral and was just like dev— I mean, I was devastated for when it happened. And then I went to the funeral in Arlington and I was staying with a friend. And like, just some people in that larger orbit were like, I don’t understand why she’s such a wreck. Right. Like, they weren’t even dating. I’m like, yeah, it was more than that. Like, it was so much more important than that. And like, I have never forgiven that people who reacted that way. 

 

Dina Gachman: Oh, I don’t blame you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so I think that if you look at it as an opportunity to be really understanding of someone. That’s a really great way to think about it. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And also, I think people sometimes they don’t know how to react until they’ve been through it themselves. Once you’ve been through it yourself, think of every single opportunity when someone is grieving, you’re like, okay, I’m going to be the person I wish all the people in my orbit would have been when I was grieving. Whether it’s a pet or human like it, it doesn’t matter. So our next question is from Mindy, who’s wondering about dealing with death as part of her work. 

 

Mindy: I work in a job where people don’t expect a lot of death, a pediatric PT to be specific. I have been in the field for about 12 years and have had almost 20 kiddos pass. We find out these kids die and then have to act as if nothing is wrong to treat our other little kids. We don’t get bereavement for them, although our hearts break. We have to use PTO to go to their funerals. Is there a way to have some type of bereavement for the ones we work with and love so dearly but not have to use our small PTO to grieve that loss? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I mean, it’s just so hard. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. First of all, God bless the person for doing that job. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Which is to have to like use PTO to go to a funeral or, you know, like for someone you cared for is horrible. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: But I just I mean, not so much loss like, like they’re saying it’s not all the time. And it, I mean it’s it’s a lot. Once is enough. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Right.

 

Dina Gachman: So. That’s really tough. And one thing I talked to a lot of people about and I did interview parents who lost children and I learned a lot from them. And I think, like a ritual can be really helpful for people. So, you know, in a lot of ways, like a funeral is a ritual. Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: But if that’s hard or you can’t take time off like something like finding something else. There’s a Japanese ritual called mizuko kuyo, and I found out about it I was researching, and it’s basically for parents, but I would imagine this person definitely could do this. And you can probably find it at most like Zen temples, but you go and it’s honoring a child who’s died or it’s for miscarriage, stillbirth. But what you do is you go to the ceremony and they say the name of the child, and then you can dedicate a statue in a garden like it’s called a jizo statue. And you can like go visit it. So that’s one example of like something that maybe you could just do yourself to help like mark that loss, because it sounds like it’s like the the missing of the marking of the loss is really hard. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. This is something where I think the policy is just like so inattentive to the the actual trauma of doing the work that that is necessary and so important but like really, really hard. And if you don’t want your employees to burn out or to become callous and cold, like you need to develop mechanisms that allow that grief to be processed. Right. And. If attending funerals is one of the things that I think maybe some workers would find that too much, but some workers would really, really like it as a a means of like seeing all of the people who who loved that kid. Right. Who there are all of the ways that that kid was special and beloved like that should be part of the work day. Right. That is that is part of your job. 

 

Dina Gachman: 100%. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: If you choose to make it part of your job and allowing for that, that’s something that either like can happen top down or if this person is part of any sort of union, which a lot of health care professionals are like that, that is a lobbying point, being able to have leave for that sort of thing. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, and like you’re saying it. I mean, talk about burnout, right? I mean, that’s why so many nurses and doctors, I mean, there’s just so much burnout. And yeah, if you’re dealing with this, but you’re not allowed to be human at your job and your job is such a like, emotional one. I mean, I know people. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Are like oh, they’re in the medical profession they need, you know. But no, you’re human. You’re taking care of children. That. Yeah, it should it would lead to burnout or just somebody feeling like, why am I doing this? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: It makes it feel less meaningful if but if somebody could say, hey, I want to go to this child’s funeral, we really bonded, then that absolutely should be an option. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And on the flip too just as like a human, I think it’s also meaningful to parents to see the health care professionals—

 

Dina Gachman: Oh yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Who worked with their kid who like, were like this person was special to me. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like, I, I recognize this person not just as a patient, but as a person. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I have heard of different health care professionals who do do like small services or remembrances for patients like in in the workplace, just as a way of maybe reproducing some of that feeling of closure and and of like honoring that person. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I so that’s something that I think could be developed on your own. But I personally I think it should be structural. I think that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the workers to make space for this, like it should be part of how the employer understands mental health for the people doing this job. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point too. So that it’s not placing the burden on the person to figure it out. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: But, you know, I think that, you know, I think it could be a lobbying point. I don’t know if anybody’s like pushing for that, but I would think in a profession like that, it would be incredible to allow for that. Right. And then and then again, yeah, it brings back the meaning to their work, right? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: They’re not just feeling like they’re just, you know, rounded up and pushing patients through the door. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I do know that a lot of places like this is bereavement leave, and the specifics around bereavement leave are becoming a flash point, for lack of a better word. And a lot of contract negotiations both on like the state level and I think it’s Illinois who just pushed through a more expansive understanding of bereavement to include chosen family. It’s not paid time off, but it is time off. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so I think we’re seeing that. And as it becomes more commonplace, hopefully this can become something that like becomes a center point of as we refine the workplace to try to make it a place where we can be more human just generally and less productivity robots.

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, there are a couple of states that are further along than others, but and it is, I do think, you know, coming through the pandemic that’s opened up all kinds of conversations that weren’t open before because I don’t know how you can not be touched by grief in some sort of way. And also because we’ve we had more flexibility just because of no one was going anywhere. I think it is making people rethink and be less afraid to bring those things up, to be like, look, I’m going to want to work from home. I want I need some flexibility. And so hopefully it just continues and that people keep pushing it. But the key is, I don’t know. I feel like the culture of work, like the way we talked to our bosses and things is changing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dina Gachman: I think there used to be so much more fear and now people there were always the people are be like, I’m busting in there and asking for a raise. But many people do not. But I do think it’s hopefully shifting to like, you don’t have to be so timid. It’s a boss. It’s a person like you can advocate for yourself and ask for things and hopefully people are more vocal about that. 

 

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Anne Helen Petersen: So our next question is about the kind of like administrative situation that can make a huge difference for someone who’s grieving. This is from Alexis. 

 

Alexis: My question is what you think the best practices on how to announce a death in a coworker’s family? And I’m asking this because when my dad died, some people at my work knew and I informed my immediate supervisor, but she did not tell the whole office. So they had no idea why I was out for a few days and then I was just obviously very out of it and grieving when I got back. I get it’s an awkward conversation for a boss to have, but I do think it’s worth to leave the grieving employee to explain but I understand I may have a dirty lens on that. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. This is a tricky one. So what do you think? What could have gone differently here? 

 

Dina Gachman: Well, I think, first of all, it’s up to the individual, obviously. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Everyone’s different. Everybody handles grief different. Some people want to be super private. So I was working and then my mom went into hospice like, it was like it was a very quick thing. Like we knew it was going to happen at some point, but when it happened, it was like, okay, I got a good plane ticket, I got to go. So I think I told my boss, I think my boss did ask me like, do you want me to tell people? And I said, yes, because I didn’t. What am I gonna send an email blast? [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hey, right. 

 

Dina Gachman: So he did ask me, which I appreciated. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And I think he just told at least my closest coworkers so I could share the work. But I think it’s up to the person. But I do think that having a boss maybe let people know is nice because yeah, then you don’t have to go in and feel like, okay, is everyone looking at me? Nobody knows. There’s this big secret hanging in the room. I would want a boss to let everyone know what’s going on and why I was gone. And then maybe they can do something nice for you or, you know, just have patience and understanding when you come back. So they’re not like, okay, so you’ve been gone for five days. Where’s this, you know, file that we need? And then you just burst into tears. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And you have to explain yourself, you know? So I would think having them say something would be the best.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well and I think the employee can also set the parameters too, a good manager, would set up a few options, would say, I can tell people that you’re going through something, and that’s going to be the case for a little bit and you’d prefer not to have any questions about it. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Or you could say, and because some people want this right, they want to say her dad’s dying. She really would love to talk about him. 

 

Dina Gachman: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Some people love to be asked questions so they can just, like, tell stories about the person that they loved. Right. Or they process that way. And even if it’s a coworker, maybe they don’t feel awkward doing that. Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, because there is that weird feeling. Like, I remember the first day I went back my mom’s funeral was on a Wednesday. I went back on Monday because I had already been gone about ten days. And I. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: I think part of me was like, okay, I’m just gonna get back to routine and get back to work. Yeah, I’ve already taken time. And part of it was guilt. Like I’m already taking time off. Let me just get back to work and it will distract me, you know? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And I remember that first meeting in the morning. I was just. I it felt awkward, even though I knew that everyone knew. But I was just like. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Is everyone looking at me as, like, the one that lost the mom. And are they wondering if I’m going to burst into tears and am I gonna bust into tears, like, it felt kind of awkward, but people came up and said, you know, I’m so sorry. And that was that helped me, right? That I didn’t have to sit there and go, this is why I was gone. And I still ended up bursting into tears like an hour later. And that’s just going to happen. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: I think that’s another part of it is just, you know, we’re always supposed to not cry at work, but when this kind of thing happens, you know, it may and probably will happen. And that’s just human. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I think one thing that could do a lot of heavy lifting is an out of office reply. 

 

Dina Gachman: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that’s where you personally can do some of the work of deciding how you want people to respond to you or how you want to phrase it. And if you normalize that within your organization, then it’s not weird. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: When you put it on and also gives you some ideas for what the language can look like too. And that’s a way that I think like a really good manager would start having conversations about that already, right? Like because it’s so normal for us to put on an out office responder for when we’re taking PTO for other reasons. 

 

Dina Gachman: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I didn’t put one on, but I kind of wish I did because then I wouldn’t have to deal with, like, responding to emails, being like, I’m sorry I didn’t reply to this. My dog died tragically and very young and I can’t deal with anything. So then instead, like the auto responder is doing the work of broadcasting it to as many people so that they can’t ask things of me. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So that’s something that I think, again, each individual can make the decision on how they like to wield it. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But if you create that atmosphere, like even from the top echelons of leadership, like having that model, that that’s something that you’re allowed to do when not allowed, but encouraged to do when you’re on bereavement leave. Like I think that would be such a great model for an office. 

 

Dina Gachman: I agree, because I think, you know, part of the problem with grief it’s so hard is people are just so scared to talk about it. Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And it’s this hush hush, like funeral’s over get back to life. And people are scared to talk about it because they don’t want to trigger the grieving person when. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: You know, we’re always triggered all the time. And, you know, so it’s just it becomes quiet, right? It just becomes tamps down. It becomes quiet because nobody wants to upset anybody else. But yeah, if it’s made more you know, if it’s normalized, like, okay, it’s okay to write what you want and express yourself. And then I think it would it would help like all levels of people. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, and some people I know too have done things like when they’ve come back to work, they have like dropped their loved one’s obituary in Slack just to be like, this is the person that I was grieving like I was, you know, I want to celebrate him. I want you to know him in some capacity. And so people don’t want to do that at all. So the more that we can have all these different, like models of how grief looks in the workplace, the better, I think. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, I agree. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So our last question is from someone who is basically in charge of making their own policy [laughs] like I did around bereavement leave but doesn’t know how to actually make it happen. This is from Erin. 

 

Erin: I’m self-employed and need some advice about how to handle unexpected bereavement leave. I don’t have a team to take on my extra workload and many of my clients operate with really slim teams too. So if I’m not doing the work, it’s often just not getting done. How do you recommend I approach this type of unexpected, yet necessary time off with clients? 

 

Dina Gachman: That’s a lot of pressure. [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, that’s a lot of pressure. And I also think, though, that people will give you some grace. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yes, I do. I do too. And I think, you know, now working for myself, too, it’s like it’s all, yeah, if I’m not writing the thing, it’s not getting written, you know? So there’s that pressure to be like, well, I don’t want to, I don’t want everything to fall apart, but chances are it won’t and it’ll be okay. But I think. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: You know, yeah. Creating your own boundaries and just saying, look, this is what’s going on. I’m going to need a couple of weeks. And it’s it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to like one thing I have learned is, is just being very kind to yourself. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: And allowing yourself, being patient and being kind and just saying, look, I. I know I’m a hard worker, but if I take these weeks or whatever and just take care of myself and take a bath or whatever I need to do, like then that’s totally okay, because life is going to keep moving and work will happen. And, you know, unless you’re like saving the planet, like it’s going to be okay. And I think, yeah, I think if you just let people in.  

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Even if you’re saving the planet [laughter] honestly, like no matter what your job is like, it’s still going to, still going to be there. 

 

Dina Gachman: It’ll get done. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And, and I think that if you don’t take some time to grieve, it’s going to come back.

 

Dina Gachman:  Yes. Even worse.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Kick you in the ass. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right? It is going to it’s going to be there. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that’s not to say that taking some time is going to make it so that it’s not going to come back and kick you in the ass, but maybe kick you in the ass a little lighter.

 

Dina Gachman: In a different way. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [laughs] But I do think that like, think about if someone came to you and said, I lost someone so special to me, I’m like, I need an extra week on this. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Can you give me a little grace? Of course you’d say yes. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yes of course, how can you model that same sort of compassion? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Towards yourself. I think maybe one thing that this person could do, if it’s useful, reach out to some of their freelancer friends and be like, can I just need you to tell me that this is okay? 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. If a client is going to be horrible about that, then probably, you know, they’re—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: They’re a bad client. [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: They’re bad people. And you know, we need to make money to pay the bills. But like, you know, I’m a big fan of the whole like, life is too short thing. So. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: But yeah I think reaching out like asking friends like would this be okay to do and you know, just talking to clients, I’m sure they would be understanding. And just the thing about grief too is it’s kind of it’s the day by day, moment by moment, like you may think, oh, maybe I take two days off, but then you’re like, actually, I need a week. Or maybe you think I need a week and you’re like two days and you’re like, I actually need work. And so just being flexible with like. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: What you’re going to need in the moment may change. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Dina Gachman: And to be okay with that and just and there’s nothing wrong with that. Right? So. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: Just be be in the moment with like what you need as a person. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Like really listening to yourself. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that’s hard because I think we’re taught when it comes to work to not listen to ourselves. 

 

Dina Gachman: No mm mm. Yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. To push through whatever. Like I always think about the fact that like I used to be at the office in New York at around like 5:30, 5:45, like I’d have a weird feeling in my stomach and like, my shoulders would be aching and, like, a little headachy, right? All of those were things like my body was screaming at me, stop working. 

 

Dina Gachman: You’re like what is this feeling?

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I’m like oh, why would I listen to my body? [laughs]

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah, it’s a stupid thing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so if you’re so tired, if you can’t sleep, if you can sleep, you can’t stop sleeping. If you’re not hungry, like all of these things, there’s just so many ways that grief manifests in the body. 

 

Dina Gachman: Definitely. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And like figuring out like, okay, that’s grief talking to me like I need to be more attentive to that grief and and spend some time with it. I the thing that I did was I gave myself permission to take the entire week off, which is something like even when I take PTO, I often times like still I’m doing tiny, just tiny little work things. And even though I didn’t know if I would need that whole time, but just giving myself the gift of that week. So allow sounds like she’s about to like allow the grief to breathe. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: To not have that limit on it. And I also I gave myself permission that like oh if you need more after that, like obviously you can figure that out. And the people, you know, whether it’s my wonderful producer for this podcast Melody or, you know, I had a freelance assignment for women’s magazine and I emailed my editor and I’m going to need another week for this. Like, all of it went really well. And I know that other people might not expect that. I think that’s what we’re trained with, trained to think that other people are going to respond really negatively. But maybe we can like hope for the best [laughs] in the way we react to each other. 

 

Dina Gachman: Definitely. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So the last thing that I think that we should address is that there are ways that you can kind of anticipate these moments. And it might be a time when you can’t work because of grief, it might be because of illness or injury. There are so many reasons that you might not be able to to work for a couple of weeks. And do you have any ideas about things that like freelancers in particular like us could do to kind of create that safety net for each other? 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, if you work for yourself and it’s something that somebody else could help with, you know. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: If it if it’s an article you’re supposed to write, you know, hopefully that can just be postponed or if it’s something super timely, maybe there’s somebody that you can say, can I hand this off to you? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Dina Gachman: Or can you take on this project or this client while I’m while I’m gone just to have, you know, so you’re not feeling totally adrift or totally lost and then maybe communicating with the client or whoever you need to work with, say, like, this could happen just so you know? So everybody’s sort of prepared. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. I think that that’s such a great idea that I hadn’t even considered. That if let’s say I really need it, like I just felt incapable of writing for a month. I have other newsletter writers that I’m very close with that I am sure would write a guest post for my newsletter during that time. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like for this podcast, we could find guest hosts to take my place for a couple of weeks. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And you know, some of those things would mean like, oh, maybe I wouldn’t get paid for a couple of weeks for like doing this podcast. But also I hope that one thing that we all have learned to do, for better or worse, is to create a little bit of a cushion. 

 

Dina Gachman: Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Because catastrophes happen in life, and we need to be able to, like, not be so worried about money. 

 

Dina Gachman: Yeah. And not add that to the stress that you’re already feeling. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Dina Gachman: When you’re especially when you’re grieving to just have to worry about that, too. And I know a lot of people don’t have a choice in that. You know, it’s like. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: You have to go back to work. But having money stress on top of it is just it’s too much. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. Sometimes people call it like a fuck off fund. [laughter] Which is like, not like, go fuck around, but like to be able to say, like, if you if you can’t give me an extra week, like, I can absorb that financially. 

 

Dina Gachman: I’ll be fine. Yeah. Good for your mental health. For sure. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So if people want to find more from you, where can they find it? On the Internet? Like, talk to us more about your favorite place to buy your book. 

 

Dina Gachman: [laughs] Your local indie bookstore would be a—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: —would be a good spot, but you can get it anywhere. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Dina Gachman: It’s called So Sorry for Your Loss. And I’m online, as DinaGachmanWrites.com and I’m on. Well, now everybody’s on a million platforms, but. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] I know right.

 

Dina Gachman: I don’t even know where to start, but you know, Twitter and Instagram and then, you know, Threads, of course. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. Thank you so much for this conversation. It was really wonderful. 

 

Dina Gachman: Thank you for having me. [music plays]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we’re here for you. Submit your questions at WorkAppropriate.com or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. We love building episodes around your questions and you can stay as anonymous as you like. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can also follow me on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen or you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study AnneHelen.substack.com. And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice it really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays] 

 

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