I got the call to come home on a Thursday, as I was walking to work. It would be four days before my mom died. “I let them admit me to the hospital,” my mom said on the phone. She explained that she could no longer manage her pain at home or complete the complex and hours-long process of administering the IV nutrition that was keeping her alive. She mentioned hospice. “I think you can come home now,” she said, suggesting this for the first time. “I love you. Don’t be scared.” I didn’t realize at the time that these would be her last words to me.
Then I had to go into work, at a company that was in a chaotic tizzy: The big annual event that was the reason for the company’s existence was less than five weeks away. I got to my desk, called an airline from the stairwell, and got a ticket home for the following morning. I asked my boss if we could talk in the kitchen, and I was already crying as we walked down the long hallway. I told him that it was time for hospice and that I had to go home again. He hugged me and said, “So you’ll be gone through the weekend?” I blinked. “Yes, through the weekend… at least.” It was then that I realized he wasn’t getting it. It was understandable. I doubt he’d ever been in this situation, and all of us were 100 percent laser-focused on one thing: that big event. We were in crunch time, and nobody took a sick day, went on vacation, or left the office before 9 p.m.—let alone left to go home without a return date.
When I got back to my desk, I emailed the heads of other departments I worked closely with. They were all, coincidentally, women. All wrote back something along the lines of: “Go home and do not even think about [the big event].” They wrote things like: “We pretend it’s everything, but it doesn’t matter, nothing here matters, take the time you need, and do not even check email.” These were my office role models, women who worked harder than anyone, the ones truly responsible for the success of the event. Their words were such a comfort to me.
I wrote up a memo for my boss, direct reports, and a few colleagues with the status of all my projects. I assigned them to the appropriate people and tried to get as much done as I could, letting people outside the company know that I would be gone for “a family loss” and giving them a new contact person. I remember having a bizarre thought on the plane the next day: What if my mom actually was okay? Would everyone at work think I was crying wolf? That’s how blinded by work culture I was. Pathological, but unfortunately the norm.
Also while in midair, I read the company’s bereavement leave policies, which spelled out the number of days employees would get in the event of the death of different family members. I believe it was five days for the death of a parent, which is considered generous, but other family relationships merited less time: The death of a daughter-in-law, for example, meant only one day off. If you think about it, the death of a daughter-in-law is statistically likely to involve grandchildren losing their mother, and you get the equivalent of a three-day weekend to help your son or daughter with that?
When I got to the hospital the next day, it was apparent that I had not been clear enough at work. My phone was blowing up with questions that I did my best to answer, but I would eventually get a text request to join a conference call as I sat tearfully signing the papers to remove my mom from life support. I went into a little room at the hospital and wrote an email, cc’ing HR, that said I would be completely out of contact for several days because my mom was—and I had just learned this phrase from doctors—actively dying. For once, I don’t think I apologized. I deleted work email notifications from my phone, and the calls and texts stopped abruptly, at least for the next few days.
The women at my job were right: When someone you love is dying, work doesn’t matter, and no job is important enough to come first. There will always be someone at work (sometimes a very nice person!) who can focus only on work, and you need to be as explicit as possible with them in situations where real life intrudes. “Be as up-front as you are comfortable being, but don’t feel that you need to share every detail or substantiate any choices you are making,” says Jane Scudder, a leadership and career coach based in Chicago. I know I should have been more blunt at the beginning. I was counting on “hospice” to be a code word (which it can be for people who understand what exactly that means), but I should have made it crystal clear that I was about to be gone-gone. Like, gone. For real.
“If you don’t draw your own lines in some areas of your life, those lines will be drawn for you,” says Rebecca Soffer of Modern Loss. “When you’re in your twenties and thirties, that’s a really hard time to lose a parent. You’re working hard, trying to prove yourself. You might feel a little intimidated vocalizing what you need. But think about what really might be the most helpful thing to you. Is it taking off a couple of weeks so you can deal with a lot of immediate issues that no one else is going to be able to deal with? Or is it coming back and taking that time a few months later?”
Bereavement policies vary from company to company, and you should familiarize yourself with yours. Maybe even do a little math if you first realize you might need this particular kind of time off. “There is no guarantee that you will be paid for any of this time you take off,” Soffer says. “Sometimes it really does depend on the magnanimity of your boss, of the company you work for.”
I ended up taking 10 days off to be home with my family — five bereavement and five vacation days. That gave me time to be there for her death, plan the funeral, and then a full week after to walk around in the woods with my siblings and to teach my dad how to grocery shop for himself. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had to leave them the day after the funeral. That time was so important. When I got back to the office, three weeks before the big work event, it was fine. My co-workers had stepped up during my absence, and many things that had seemed important turned out to not be. The big event was a total success.
“At the end of the day, there will be very few (if any) jobs you hold where something human doesn’t happen,” Scudder says. “At some point, someone’s loved one will get ill and maybe die, a colleague may get very sick, someone will have a baby… Life is always happening, and the best leaders and employees acknowledge that.”