What to know before taking bereavement leave

4 min read

How does bereavement leave work?

  • Most companies offer 3 to 10 days off after the death of a spouse or other immediate family member.

  • The amount of bereavement leave, and whether it is paid or unpaid, depends on your employer’s leave policy.

  • Just as there is no one way to grieve, there is no set template for taking bereavement leave.

  • Consider whether your time off is most useful after the funeral, before the funeral, or both.

  • If you need more leave, talk to your supervisor and your HR department about using more paid time off (PTO) days or taking an unpaid leave of absence.

When you started your job, you may have skimmed over the “bereavement leave” section in your employee handbook. After all, when focused on a new role, few people are thinking about the possibility of losing a loved one.

When it does happen, though, it is important to give space and time to your grief. Often that means taking some time off of work. Bereavement leave is how some companies support their workforce through these challenging days, and if your job does offer it, you should strongly consider making use of it.

The specifics generally vary by employer—and some do not offer any leave. (Oregon is the only state that has passed a law requiring employers to provide unpaid leave for bereaved employees.) It is, however, considered best practice for most businesses; 94% of U.S. employers have a bereavement policy as part of their time-off plans.

How much time off do you get when a loved one dies?

Typically, your employer will have a set number of days (usually between 3 and 10) allotted for bereavement leave. This is meant to give you time to grieve your loved one, plan the funeral, and spend time with your family. Whether these days are paid or not is also up to the leave policy your company has in place. 

If you have experienced a loss, it is important to communicate with your manager and discuss taking your leave. Bereavement leave is usually associated with the passing of a spouse or an immediate family member (including a grandparent or grandchild), but it can potentially be applied to any instance of overwhelming grief. Some companies even allow it for the loss of a family pet. You can also discuss whether you need more time because of religious practices or required travel.

When should you take bereavement?

Just as you will grieve in your own way, you will need to structure your time off to suit your individual situation. There is no “right” way to use your bereavement time. For instance, many people want to take time off immediately, but it may be a better decision to wait until the funeral is being planned to give that your full attention.

As soon as you are able, you should discuss your options with your manager or HR department. Once you know your company’s leave policy, you can make a plan that best suits your needs. 

Many people want to take time off immediately, but it may be a better decision to wait until the funeral is being planned to give that your full attention.

Consider such factors as:

  • How involved you need to be in planning the funeral services or settling the estate.

  • If you need to travel, and how long you will need to be out of town.

  • Your emotional wellbeing. (Are you being an effective worker right now?)

  • Whether you need to be a caretaker for any other family members.

Remember, your job might feel like it is your whole world some days. But a death in your close circle can radically reorient your perspective as you deal with arrangements and relationships that have nothing to do with your work. Your work will be there when you are ready to return

Taking more time off

It is possible that you’ll feel the need to take more time off than your company’s leave policy allocates. You may need to use any accrued paid time off (PTO) you have, or see if taking unpaid days off is an option. If you think you might need more than a few extra days, you could explore the idea of a leave of absence with your HR department. 

If you are finding that your grief is so overwhelming that you need more time and are seeking help from a counselor or mental health professional, you might be eligible for unpaid time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Not every company is subject to the FMLA, however, and you may not be able to take this leave for general bereavement issues.

Returning to the job

While it is important to eventually find a way to return to your daily routines, including your career, not everyone copes with this difficult time in a tidy or linear manner. Check in with yourself often—are you overwhelmed? Are you using work to distract from feeling tough emotions? Is there a way to make space for your grief while still being present at your job? 

If you feel like you’re not honoring your needs, do not feel guilty about asking for more time to process. Let those invested in your wellbeing know where you are with your grief, and they can help you figure out a way to work toward returning to your daily tasks. 

Bereavement leave can be tailored to you and your needs. You can choose to take all of it, none of it, just a few days, or even figure out how to take more than was offered. It is up to you and your grief, with some input from your company policies and help from your manager or boss. Take what you need to remember and honor your loved one, and find some comfort with your close friends and family, before you push yourself back into the workforce.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.