How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief at Work

How to Cope with Anticipatory Grief at Work

By Sabina Nawaz, Image From GrieveWell

Image from GrieveWell:

At the end of a hectic travel season, I was looking forward to a four-day weekend. Right before boarding the plane for home, my phone rang. It was my mother’s assisted living facility. My stomach always tightened when their number displayed on my phone, but usually it would quickly ease. Not this time. Instead of the routine, “Your mother’s fine; we’re calling to inform you about…” this time the nurse said, “Your mother has stopped eating.”

My mother was at the end of her 15-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease and her life. Mom, who used to be an English professor, now had a vocabulary in the single digits. I knew that her quality of life was continually declining. Yet news of her imminent demise was a gut punch. I was thankful for the break in my travel so I could be with her and offer her as much comfort as possible.

Mom and one of my best friends died within a year of each other. In each case, I knew they were going to die, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to experience anticipatory grief — a distinct type of grief different than the grief we experience after a loss. Anticipatory grief involves coming to terms with the impending event, learning how to incorporate it into our reality, and planning our good-byes.

In our society, there is little accommodation for the intensity and duration of the grieving process. The typical length of bereavement leave is three to five days. There is even less institutional support for anticipatory grief. Neither my consulting work with numerous companies nor my research on grief support has uncovered any concrete data on workplace benefits specifically designed to help employees through a season of imminent loss. There are generic family care leave policies in place at about 67% of companies worldwide. A few days of paid leave is typical; additional unpaid leave of several weeks or more is sometimes available. In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides for 12 weeks of job-and-benefit protected leave for certain kinds of family care needs. It’s unpaid and restrictions apply — for example, the employer must have 50 or more employees in the location for an employee to be eligible. Other criteria mean that many people don’t have access, and even if it is available, many employees may be financially unable to take unpaid time off.