'Everybody needs time': Open letter urges President Biden to create national bereavement leave policy

Rachel Grumman Bender
·6 min read
Rebecca Soffer, the CEO of Modern Loss, wrote an open letter to President Biden urging his administration to implement a National Bereavement Policy. (Photos: Left, Rebecca Soffer, Courtest; Right, President Joe Biden, Getty Images)
Rebecca Soffer, the CEO of Modern Loss, posted an open letter — and joined by nearly 100 other organizations — to President Biden urging his administration to implement a national bereavement leave policy. (Photos: Left, Rebecca Soffer, Courtest; Right, President Joe Biden, Getty Images)

After the passing of a loved one, people are left coping with not only grief but also, in some cases, all of the time-consuming logistics in death’s wake, from making funeral arrangements to getting a loved one’s affairs in order. But taking off the time needed from work can hit some people hard financially and even mean putting their job at risk.

Some companies have bereavement leave policies in place, but they’re not always comprehensive, while freelancers and gig workers are often left to fend for themselves. “Most people don’t have the ability to take any time off while not getting paid, and if they do it’s just not enough and it’s not flexible,” Rebecca Soffer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Modern Loss, a site that offers resources and community to people who are grieving, tells Yahoo Life. She adds: “Many people use up vacation days while caring for ill loved ones and when they die, they find themselves with no time off left to use.”

Soffer and Joyal Mulheron, a Washington, D.C., public policy expert and founder of Evermore, a nonprofit that helps bereaved families, are hoping to change that.

In an open letter to President Joe Biden, Mulheron, who wrote the letter, and Soffer are joined by nearly 100 other organizations calling for the president to institute a national bereavement leave policy as part of his agenda to expand family leave benefits and protections. The letter proposes job protections such as 10 days of unpaid leave following the death of a family member or loved one and defining the age of a child up to age 26 “bringing age parity with existing health care and tax law.”

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The letter states that “millions of Americans who have lost a loved one have no legal right to take leave, with narrow exceptions in two states and two localities. Currently, bereavement is not acceptable grounds for taking unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, except for miscarriage or stillbirth losses or when a solider is killed in action,” arguing that this “leaves millions of Americans at risk for losing their job.”

Depending on how and where a loved one dies, Mulheron tells Yahoo Life that “families face a whirlwind of decisions beyond funeral planning.” She explains: “Often, there are death investigations, judicial proceedings, medical billing or just piecing back together what happened in the moments or days before they died. Some are at-risk of losing their housing, credit cards need to be frozen, car titles moved or just simply going through belongings, which is so painful.”

As Soffer puts it: “Everybody needs time not only to emotionally wrap their heads around the enormity of their own particular situation and readjust and find their bearings to get through the short term of it all, but also logistically, there are so many tasks that are necessary that have not been officially recognized as paid time off and [part of] job security.”

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The unexpected death of a loved one is “the most common traumatic experience Americans report and it's the worst experience of their life,” says Mulheron. Worrying about job security on top of that only adds to the stress. “Today, there are multiple national tragedies from COVID-19, overdoses, suicides, homicide and mass murder events leaving millions of newly bereaved Americans at risk of losing their job,” she says. “No one should lose their job because a loved one dies.”

Instituting a national bereavement policy is especially important now, notes Soffer, while we’re “in the throes of a pandemic that has killed [nearly] 600,000 people” in the U.S. Soffer adds: “Think about how many grieving people there are in this world and how much support they need and how much better they’d feel if they had support from the onset — and be able to figure out what kind of support they need emotionally and logistically.”

David Kessler, who runs grief support groups on Grief.com and is the author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, believes that creating a national bereavement leave policy would be helpful, telling Yahoo Life that current U.S. bereavement policies are “inadequate.”

Kessler also points out that employers often have “unrealistic expectations of what death looks like,” noting that getting a loved one’s affairs in order, such as closing their accounts “can take hours, and hours quickly turn into days.” He adds: “I think that people underestimate the time the logistics take.” Kessler says that taking time off to deal with these administrative matters and “marking a life may not fit into the business plan, but it needs to.”

Another part of the problem is that, as a society, we typically don’t discuss death openly. “We haven't done a good enough job of helping our society to become grief literate – aware and understanding of how loss can affect every single aspect of life, from finances to friendships to intimate relationships and career and beyond,” says Soffer. “When we don't talk about and normalize a thing that is one of the most universal experiences a living being can have, all we do is make it harder for ourselves whenever it's our turn, because it remains a stigma.”

As Kessler points out, “the death rate is 100 percent.” Referring to the proposed national bereavement leave policy, he adds: “Is there ever a piece of legislation that will affect 100 percent of the population? Literally everyone.”

Mulheron and Soffer are counting on President Biden, who is intimately aware of grief himself, having lost his first wife and 13-month-old child in a fatal car accident in 1972, followed by the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in 2015. “I spoke to Biden after his own son had died,” Kessler shares, “and he certainly is someone who knows that language of grief.” He adds: “This is the right time for this to happen. I think Biden is the right president for this to happen.”

Soffer says she’s “very hopeful” that a national bereavement leave policy might become a reality. “If there's a president who understands grief it’s him,” she says, adding: “We all understand grief and loss right now in this country.”

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