When loss strikes, where should we turn?
When someone passes away, the toll it takes on those closest to them can be substantial. Beyond the challenging emotional process of grief, many will also be burdened with the administrative tasks that come with loss, such as planning a funeral, administering an estate, closing accounts, and so on. These can be time-consuming, stressful, and draining, and can in turn lead to a whole range of issues from health problems to strained relationships to damaged performance at work.
At Empathy, we have dedicated our efforts to changing the way the world deals with loss, by lightening these burdens for every family that experiences a loved one’s passing. To find the right solutions and improve upon the services we provide to the bereaved, we constantly strive to gain more detailed insight into the nature and severity of the challenges families face.
Our annual report on the Cost of Dying represents our most thorough exploration of this landscape, taking in the big picture of the impacts of loss in America while also delving into specific data about what bereaved families experience, in terms of dollars spent, time lost, health effects suffered, and much more. As in previous years, the 2024 Cost of Dying report shows clearly that the average family is dealing with far too much stress and hardship after a loss. Their daily lives, relationships, and careers are usually impacted—and these effects last for quite some time.
For example, families spent an average of $12,616 on expenses related to their loved one’s passing, and 35% were not fully reimbursed from the estate, meaning they had to shoulder this financial burden themselves. Meanwhile 28% of families were harassed by their loved one’s credit card companies, and 24% had to deal with medical debt—issues that were more common among lower-income families, adding to their already considerable strain.
In addition, the average person took 15 months to complete all of the administrative tasks involved, or 18 months if they were executor of their loved one’s estate. In many cases, these responsibilities amount to a whole second job, one that will take up massive amounts of the grieving person’s free time and compounding their stress and hardship, for over a year.
With so many dealing with these and similar challenges, it is little wonder that 94.5% of our respondents suffered from at least one physical or mental health symptom, with 45% saying they persisted for over a few months. A total of 84% reported that these symptoms had negative effects on their daily life, with nearly half stopping everyday activities, 35% withdrawing from their social circles, and 21% becoming estranged from family members.
It is only with insights like these that we can really hope to offer help to bereaved families in the ways they need it the most. At the same time, we have become increasingly aware that how we reach these families may be just as important as the nature of the services we provide. Where are bereaved families most likely to turn in their time of need, and how can we leverage this understanding to best serve them?
Not coincidentally, 2023 was a year in which questions like this were often at the forefront of the cultural conversation in America. Political developments and advancements in tech have reignited old conversations about the place of the individual within the larger collective—and who we can or should depend on for support when challenges arise.
We spend so much of our lives at work that most of us structure our days and weeks around it. Moreover, a majority of Americans depend on our employers for medical coverage. Employers have come more and more to recognize that they can maintain happier and more productive workforces by offering robust benefits packages that anticipate and serve employee needs so that everyone can bring their full selves to work.
Bereavement should always have been central to this conversation, as both a profound and impactful experience that nearly every employee will go through at some point, and—because it is effectively a second job—a major added source of tasks and stress even during the work day. Employers therefore have an opportunity and a responsibility to address loss in a deep and meaningful way.
For the 2024 Cost of Dying report, we therefore decided to retrieve important data related to the experiences of employees and the state of bereavement support offered by today’s employers. What emerged was a picture of a need that is only partially being met, and a range of available solutions, many of which could be implemented nearly immediately by motivated employers.
We asked the respondents in our survey to tell us about the impacts of their loss on their work life; 47% had experienced at least one specific negative impact, with 21% having to deal with at least three. The most common effects were trouble concentrating and being less productive, but significant numbers were also scared of losing their jobs or considered quitting.
We also spoke to 200+ HR professionals from across a range of industries and company sizes, asking them about how their organizations deal with workers who have experienced loss, and how well they understand what bereaved employees are dealing with. We found that while 80% of employers have some form of policy that addresses bereavement, the average length of bereavement leave offered was 5.56 days. (Grief professionals recommend at least 20 days to process one’s loss.)
On the positive side, 57% of companies offered additional accommodations for employees dealing with loss, such as emotional, administrative, financial or legal support. Looking at the numbers from our survey of employees, however, it is clear that much more can and should be done. Comprehensive bereavement support is the only way to ensure that your workforce can absorb the shocks of loss without significant impacts from absenteeism, distraction, unmanageable stress, and so on. On the other hand, real bereavement care that is attentive to the needs of the grieving demonstrates to your employees that you have their backs during one of the most challenging times in their lives.
Loss is a part of life, and one all of us will experience sooner or later. It is all of our responsibility to face the true costs of death head on—the toll it takes in money, in time, in stress, in harmed productivity and strained relationship bonds. Only once we do so can we begin to find the solutions that work for families, workforces, and our culture as a whole, in order to lessen the burden of loss on all of us.