Why bereavement should be seen as a type of caregiving

4 min read

When someone steps into the role of caregiver for their parent, spouse, or other family member, it is more than an expression of love or a fulfillment of duty. It’s a major life change. 

The time-consuming, unpaid, and often undervalued work doesn’t just add hours of labor each day. It shifts priorities, profoundly affecting everything from daily life to work performance. 

Experiencing the passing of a loved one is a similar experience. Grieving a loved one and managing the staggering responsibilities of settling their affairs can turn a person’s routines, sense of identity, and even their whole world upside down.

In effect, bereavement is a type of caregiving—and a major life change as well. 

In either case, having systems of support is the key to helping people meet their responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed by stress. 

Comparing bereavement and caregiving

In both cases, the demands are high, as are the stakes. For this reason, people grieving a loss as well as people caring for a family member may push themselves to their breaking point to be there for their family. 

Caregivers tending to family members in hospice or at home may put in hours long beyond their normal capacity, out of love for the person who is in crisis.

And a recently bereaved family may want to honor their loved one so much that they strain their budgets for funeral or memorial services—easy to do when families pay more than $7,000 in funeral and burial costs, on average. 

One difference between the two experiences is that working as a caregiver for a family member who is ill is recognized as a major life event in a way that bereavement is not at this time. 

For instance, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers federally mandated time off for caregivers to attend to ill family members. But it does not guarantee bereavement leave for the family to recover after a loved one passes. 

Since most U.S. companies provide one to five days of bereavement leave, families grappling with loss are largely on their own. 

Underestimating the needs of bereaved people can lead to absenteeism, lower productivity, and ultimately burnout and turnover.

Empathy’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report shows the result of this neglect: Many recently bereaved employees are stretched to their limit mentally, physically, and financially. And, of course, their work suffers, with 76% of bereaved employees saying their performance or status at work was harmed. 

In workplaces, underestimating the needs of bereaved people can lead to absenteeism, lower productivity, and ultimately burnout and turnover. Something has to give—and often it’s work performance.

How to avoid burnout

In adjusting to a caregiving role, whether someone is grieving the loss of a loved one or nursing a family members through illness, systems of support make all the difference to avoid additional suffering. 

These situations are hard enough. With key support, caregivers can focus on the task at hand knowing their needs are met—whether that’s through workplace benefits, close friends and colleagues, or the extended family. 

In addition, having professional help or a dedicated support group can be the key to getting through a difficult time. Simply being listened to without judgment is a powerful experience; no one should have to go it alone through such a wrenching experience. 

Bereavement, as a type of caregiving, demands that you give of yourself in ways you couldn’t have imagined. It is more than sadness; it is a profound learning process that you go through with everyone your loved one touched. 

Without proper support, bereaved people may see their work performance suffer for a long-term period after they return to the office, and may feel they need to change jobs to get a fresh start. 

With proper support, however, bereaved caregivers come out the other side as more inspiring leaders with wisdom to share.