Going Back To Work After A Death

Experiencing a death in the family is a tragedy that can turn your entire life upside down in the blink of an eye. Sometimes we can anticipate these losses. Other times they strike at the most unexpected moments. In truth, nothing can prepare us for the loss of someone we love. Grief is a powerful, debilitating emotion that easily encompasses the simple process of day-to-day living. 

Despite our best wishes, time does not stop to allow us enough space and distance from death to deal with this loss or grieve uninterrupted. Life, unfortunately, does not always give us the luxury of taking the time we need for that crucial process. Right after someone close to us dies, it can be hard to do the most basic things.

Getting out of bed is a herculean task. Meals no longer seem important. And work? That’s just impossible. How can you concentrate on anything when the world around you is crashing down?

Eventually, we must face the inevitability of returning to the world. With that, we are often thrust back into our everyday responsibilities before we’re ready to handle them at our best, including returning to work after a loss.

Navigating grief in a professional setting can be complicated at best and may seem impossible when things feel the most overwhelming. However, it’s important to understand your employer's expectations after experiencing a death in the family. In this guide, we want to explore the expectations and realities of managing your grief while you maintain your employment.

How Long Should You Take Off After A Death?

Like most things when it comes to grief, there is no right answer to this question. Grief affects each of us differently, especially as we move through the various stages of it at our own pace. It isn’t something that should be rushed, though that may not translate to our work schedule, especially after the first few days.

When the funeral is over and your distant relatives have all gone home, it may be time to consider how long you can feasibly be absent from work without causing issues (or potentially losing your job).

Ultimately, the amount of time you can take off after the death of a loved one depends on your employer. It’s important to know your employer’s policy when it comes to all types of time off, including bereavement. Each company is different and subject to different laws depending on country and state.

This should all be available to you in your employee handbook. Make sure you have thoroughly looked through that for details. Hopefully, your employer offers some type of bereavement leave that can make this process easier for everyone involved.

Most employers understand that taking time off after death is not only good for your mental health but also good for your job. You need time to adjust to what is the “new normal” without your loved one in your life. More than that, you need time to take care of any arrangements, tackle financial issues, or any of the other small tasks no one warns you about after a death. Undoubtedly, you won’t be at your best during this emotionally exhausting time. 

Most people take between three to five days off after a death, though that can depend on the relationship between you and the person who died. It may be necessary to take a few extra days if it was a close relation (such as a spouse or child).

What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is paid leave available to an employee at the time of death – or funeral – of a member of the employee’s family. It can be extended to include the death of another person or persons close to the employee as well. Usually, a company’s policy will include parents, grandparents, spouse, sibling, or a child as acceptable reasons for bereavement leave. However, some policies may include extended family or friends. 

Unfortunately, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require employers to offer bereavement leave to any employees. There is no national law currently in place mandating it. However, some states or companies may have laws or policies that cover bereavement. If employers do allow for it, they are also not required to pay them for the time off. 

How Do I Ask For Bereavement Leave?

Knowing how to ask for bereavement leave is just as important as knowing whether or not you have it. Most of the time, your employer will require you to apply for bereavement as soon as possible after your loved one has passed.

Some organizations will require you to write a physical letter, typically for HR’s use. Others may allow you to send your request via email. Either way, you will most likely need to provide written documentation of the request. 

In most cases, asking for bereavement leave is not all that different than asking for vacation or sick leave, though we understand the emotional weight of one is far more than the others. When writing your draft, be sure to keep it simple and stick to the necessary information.

You don’t owe anyone, even your employer, too many personal details about the situation unless you feel comfortable sharing them.

Even then, you should be aware that your timetable for the time requested off may change, so be specific about what you may need in terms of a realistic, feasible timeline for your leave. 

What Are My Other Leave Options?

If your employer does not offer a specific type of bereavement leave, you may still have options available to you!

  • Vacation time: While it’s not an ideal solution, you should be able to request vacation time instead of bereavement leave. Obviously this will impact you down the road if you had previously scheduled vacation time for a planned vacation.
  • Sick time:  You may even be able to take any sick leave you have accumulated over your tenure at your position. In most situations, you can use sick leave for mental health purposes as well. Bereavement should easily qualify for this use given the emotional and mental toll death takes upon a person.
  • Unpaid time:  In other cases, you may be eligible to take unpaid time off, though that is the worst-case scenario. This may fall under standard unpaid leave or you may qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

What is the Family Medical Leave Act?

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) “provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during the leave.   FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.” 

To date, the FMLA does not include bereavement leave so any leave taken because of this may not qualify as protected under the act. However, grief can have a physical effect on an individual so profound that it can cause conditions that would allow the employee to qualify for FMLA. Most employers would rightly hesitate to terminate an employee seeking to take unpaid leave with FMLA under these conditions. 

How Do You Know You're Ready To Come Back To Work?

Putting it bluntly, taking three to five days off work after death isn’t enough time to fully process your grief. We know this. You know this. It’s most likely that your employer will also know this. Depending on your relationship with the deceased, it’s likely that you aren’t going to feel prepared to go to work no matter how long you take off.

Forcing yourself to come back too early will affect your mood, your performance, and your relationship with your coworkers and employer. If you don’t think you’re ready to return immediately, talk to your employer to see if you can request an extension of your leave.

They may be able to accommodate you in some way, even if it doesn’t immediately seem obvious. Additionally, make sure you ask that they can guarantee your job while you’re done. It never hurts to ask.

Here are some signs you’re not ready to return to work just yet and should consider delaying your return if it’s at all possible: 


Depression is common in the grief process. It can settle in at any stage, likely when we least expect it. Sometimes, it even happens before we’re quite aware it’s happening at all. It can be difficult to know whether you’re experiencing sadness or depression.

If you experience chronic sadness that comes with feelings of discouragement, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in the world around you, you may be experiencing situational depression after a loss. 


This goes beyond normal forgetfulness, which everyone experiences. However, forgetfulness can become a detriment to your daily living if it becomes an ongoing issue.

Are you experiencing frequent memory lapses? Are your memory issues disrupting your daily routine? Do you find yourself repeating yourself or asking the same questions in the same conversations?

This is a sign you may not be ready to come back to work just yet, especially when it can affect your day-to-day responsibilities on the job. 


Another completely understandable scenario under the circumstances as you may have difficulty controlling your stronger emotions even in the most benign situations. Grief and sadness are expected, of course, but so are anger or frustration!

But when you cannot keep these feelings in check when dealing with coworkers, clients, or the general public, then it’s time to re-evaluate where you are in the grief process.

When there is no guarantee you will be able to take an extended leave, we encourage you to reach out to your employer if you find yourself experiencing any of these lingering effects of grief. Grief is a normal process and not one to be ashamed of, especially if you need additional help through this tough period. 

Transitioning Back To Work More Easily

When it is time to return to work, your grief won’t have completely disappeared and that also is natural. Most likely, you won’t be ready to re-integrate back into everything without a period of adjustment and some trial and error. However, there are many ways – with the help of your employer and potential resources – you may be able to transition back into work more easily. Let’s go over a few that may help. 


You won’t be back to 100% on your first day back in the workplace. No one expects that of you, so don’t expect that of yourself. Don’t be ashamed of your feelings or feel as if you have to hide your loss. If you allow yourself to acknowledge your grief and come to terms with it, you’ll put yourself in a better headspace to tackle the hurdles your workday may present.


Not looking forward to the immediate barrage of “I’m Sorry” that are inevitable? You might want to arrange to go into the office early or meet your co-workers for lunch before you come back to work.

This way you can get past those first immediate reactions and the well-wishing you’d rather not hear. That can make it easier to go back to work knowing you’ve gotten through those stressful first encounters. 


Your office should know what happened. You don’t need to give them an excess of information, but they will need details to help you plan for your leave and also your return to work. More than that, they should know what is happening with you if anything changes or if new developments arise. 

One thing that can help on your return is to ask that your office continue regular communications through email or, depending on your field, text messages that keep you in the loop about any projects at work. You shouldn’t be expected to reply to them but it may be nice to have regular updates so that you are better prepared when you do come back. 


If you have limited bereavement leave to take full-time, you may be able to schedule some additional time off and make your first few days back half-days for a week or so. This is a good way to ease yourself back into your normal routine while giving yourself a little breathing room. 


If you work in an office or have the means to, you may be able to work from home for a few days or even weeks before you must return to a physical location. These days, most companies have a means for their employees to work remotely work. Speak with your supervisor or management to see if you are eligible to do so, preferably at the beginning of your leave. 


If you want to avoid the need to repeat your story or want to set expectations for your return, reach out to a coworker you are close to. You can talk to them about what you may need or want from others in the office. They can relay that – as well as any details you want to share but don’t want to repeat – to others in the preparation of your return to the office. 

What To Expect When You Return To The Office

It can be difficult to know what to expect when you return to work, especially after taking some time after someone you love has died. More often than not, you will be returning before you feel like you are physically or emotionally ready to face other people and your professional responsibilities.

With that knowledge, we want to offer you some advice to help prepare you for the difficulties you may face when you do. Although not a perfect process, hopefully with time and patience work life will return to some semblance of normalcy. 


There’s no way around this. Upon your return to work, you will face many of them for the first time since the death. They will likely wish to express their condolences and offer sympathy which may only remind you of the loss.

In some cases, they may even ask for more information about the circumstances or situation. A simple “thank you” is likely all you need to respond. You don’t owe anyone any further information than what you feel comfortable sharing.


Coming back to work is going to be difficult no matter what job you have. You’ll find yourself more distracted than usual and prone to errors. You may have trouble concentrating on tasks that typically come easy for you.

You may even find it hard to concentrate and retain new information. While it can be frustrating, this is a normal symptom of grief. You haven’t suddenly become bad at your job; you are grieving. Don’t beat yourself up over it! 

Forgive yourself when this happens. If you need to, reach out to your manager or coworker and let them know that this is a possibility. 


Grief hits us at the most unexpected moments. Whether it’s responding to an email, the smell of someone’s cologne or perfume, or even the mention of a beloved song, we just cannot know what will set off our strongest emotions. They are likely to strike at the least likely moment and there’s no way to fully anticipate what might trigger them.

When that happens, already have an “escape route” of sorts. Where is the nearest private spot? You can retreat to a bathroom, office, building exit, or even storage room long enough to compose yourself and work through the emotions. 


This isn’t going to get easier overnight. Grief takes time, as does settling back into your routine. You will cry. You will feel overwhelmed. And you will get through it.

Preparing for that instead of ignoring the possibility will allow you to process it much faster and be able to cope better with the emotions that come with it. Don’t rush yourself back to your previous standard of productivity the moment you get back to work.


Don’t close yourself off to others. While it’s true that you don’t owe anyone further explanation or discussion of your loss, there’s no shame in asking for help when it comes to daily or weekly tasks at work.

You know that you aren’t at your best right now. Having another set of eyes on that crucial document or checking an email before you send it may keep you from making errors in important tasks. 

Keep in contact with both your boss and HR, especially if you are struggling. They may also be able to offer assistance with tasks or help you make (or extend) deadlines if necessary.


While it can be easy to throw ourselves into work to take our minds off our loss, it isn’t always the best solution. Being too busy to think about our grief doesn’t mean that it will disappear. Jumping back into your routine full-time may not be the best for you long-term, either. Keeping busy doesn’t always mean 

that you are healthily coping with grief. Make sure you are giving yourself time to process your loss and feel your grief. Doing otherwise may do greater damage to your emotional health in the long run.

When To Ask An Employee To Return To Work

Asking an employee about their return to work after the death of a loved one can be a tricky situation. If your organization already has a well-established bereavement policy, you may be able to look at those guidelines before the employee takes the leave.

With that policy, the framework and expectations are set at the beginning and there is no confusion over the process. You will also need to make sure this policy is included in your employee handbook so that everyone has access to it.

Still, flexibility in this bereavement period is important. The grieving employee may need more time than initially considered and they may not be able to communicate as well as you have come to expect from them.

During the bereavement leave, keep communication brief. Make initial contact after the death, offer condolences, and set into motion any planning for bereavement leave. During this contact, plan a second date and time for contact around the employee’s schedule but do not push for too many details or plans.

During this second planned contact time, you can begin to ask about their anticipated return to work. Granted, you should use your best judgment on when and how to begin this conversation, as you will want to treat the subject with care. Don’t rush them into giving you a date if they do not offer one. Instead, let them lead the conversation initially and see if they have a plan for their return.

If they don’t seem to have a set date or time for their return, you may want to ask some gentle questions to nudge the conversation in that direction.

Questions like “Do you need to have someone cover your next shift?” or “Should we contact [another employee] and give them notes for next week’s project?” may steer the conversation in that direction.

If that doesn’t work, it may be time to ask the question directly. Make sure you do so in a gentle manner and give them some time to reply. You might have to discuss the limits of the bereavement policy, though be prepared for them to ask for additional time off if it seems they are still struggling with grief. 

How To Support Employees Through Grief & Loss

When someone dies, that death sends ripples outward among everyone and everything in their lives. It’s no surprise this affects their professional lives as well. If you have an employee suffering from such a loss, it can create an often sudden and complicated situation for your organization.

With that in mind, we’ve created a guide for employers who may be seeking assistance in managing and supporting their employees when the worst happens and offers ideas for when an employee needs time off and how to assist when your employee returns to work. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 


When tragedy strikes and loss occurs, the impact it has on a person can be tremendous. Employers can assist their employees in the immediate aftermath of loss by giving them the time that they need with their families and to grieve their loss without the added pressure of work responsibilities.

Depending on their individual policies and procedures, employers have a couple of different options. These are the two most common types of leave offered to employees after suffering the loss of an immediate family member.

Company Bereavement Policy

Bereavement leave is time off an employee can take after the death of a close family member or loved one. From an HR perspective, it is designed to give an employee some time off work to focus on their physical and mental wellbeing in the aftermath of a loss. In most cases, this includes a set amount of paid time following a death in an employee's family.

Bereavement policies are not required by law (except in the state of Oregon), but some states and cities have begun creating legislation that may eventually enact them. However, most companies offer some form of bereavement policy as part of their employee benefits. 

If your company does not offer an official bereavement policy, you should consider one. Having a structured policy that addresses an employee’s needs offers stability, certainty, and guarantees equity to those who require time off during a difficult time.

It also benefits the company as it grants an employee time to mourn without the pressures of their job and allows them to return to work with better clarity and productivity. 

Employee Leave Donation

Some companies create Leave Donation or Leave Sharing programs. These programs allow employees to donate their accrued paid time off (PTO), vacation, or sick leave to other employees who may need emergency time off in the form of medical or family emergencies. Typically, this donated leave time goes into a pool to be used as needed. 

Programs like this have been shown to increase employee morale, productivity, and even improve employee retention! If you do not have such a program but are curious about how they work and how to implement them, there are many online guides that provide more details on the topic.


When your employee does return to work after the death of a loved one, you may struggle with knowing how to support them while still maintaining a productive work environment for the entire company. Here are some tips on how to make this transition as painless as possible for everyone.

Be Patient And Give Them Space

The best way you can show that the employee that you care is to be patient and allow them the time to make any arrangements related to their loved ones passing. This can also include understanding their need for additional assistance (such as a grief counselor or outside help).

Show your concern at the outset but do not overwhelm them with work concerns or even your own condolences. When it comes to their work productivity, you especially need to be patient with any bumps or difficulties along the way. They may need a little longer to get back into their routine.

Offer Resources

One of the best things you can do is to make sure your employee knows what resources are available to them. Can you offer flexible scheduling for a few weeks? Perhaps there are options to work from home until they are able to come back into the office regularly.

You can encourage them to speak to HR or to any counselors your company has on retainer for just such times. Make sure they know what benefits they are entitled to and how to access them.

Delegate Responsibilities

Anyone coming back to work after an extended period of time off is likely going to need a little time to adjust. For someone coming back after bereavement leave, it can be even more difficult to catch up on everything they missed. They’re also likely not at their most productive. This may be a good time to delegate some responsibilities to other coworkers until they feel confident enough to handle their previous workload. 

Choose A Gift To Express Sympathy & Care

As coworkers, we often want to show that we support and care but aren't really sure what to do. Group or individual grieving gifts such as flowers and a card are wonderful ways to show a coworker that you are sorry for their loss.

And depending on the nature of your relationship, don't be afraid to think outside the box. Personalized memorial gifts such as photo engraved jewelry, memorial bookmarks and memorial coins can be personalized with a memory of their loved one.

Not only are these gifts highly personal but they also provide family, friends and even coworkers with a unique opportunity to show them how much they are cared for and supported during this time of grief.

Respect Their Privacy

Your employee doesn’t owe you the intimate details of their situation. Nor should you pressure them into giving more information that is strictly necessary to make arrangements for their leave. This extends to sharing any details you do know with their coworkers or other people in the company. Your employee has a right to privacy and, as their boss, you owe them that level of respect. 

Returning To Work After Loss FAQ's

Still feeling overwhelmed? That’s to be expected. For anyone experiencing a recent loss, returning to work is difficult. There are no quick solutions to your feelings of grief or those of uncertainty getting back to your daily routine after such an upheaval. 

You may not find all the answers you need immediately, but we hope this can give you a place to start. Here is a list of frequently asked questions and some basic answers that might help further help you navigate this difficult time.

Do I have to let my coworkers know what happened?

While you do need to inform your immediate boss and likely your company’s HR of what has happened, you are not obligated to tell anyone else about your loss. Your office will need to know what happened so they can plan for your absence in the following days and to make arrangements to cover any work you will miss. 

It is very likely that your coworkers may find out what has happened if you are absent from work, especially if they work closely with you or if your absence will affect their day-to-day responsibilities. Still, you do not owe anyone an explanation or details, especially if the circumstances around the death were personal or you simply do not want to talk about it. 

However, it may help you to tell them what has happened, even if it is only the bare basics. We recommend sharing whatever information with at least one coworker that you are comfortable with, as that will keep speculation down to a minimum and help you navigate any uncomfortable well- wishes once you return to work. If they ask questions or wish to talk about your loss, you are well within your rights to tell them that you are not comfortable speaking about it at this time (or ever, if that’s what you want). 

What do I do if I need more time off?

The best thing you can do is to ask for it. Most likely, your employer will understand your need and help accommodate a longer leave period. It’s likely you will need to use your vacation or sick time once the bereavement leave (if you are eligible for that) runs out. However, this is at your company’s discretion and they may deny your request.

The best thing you can do is to ask for it. Most likely, your employer will understand your need and help accommodate a longer leave period.

It’s likely you will need to use your vacation or sick time once the bereavement leave (if you are eligible for that) runs out. However, this is at your company’s discretion and they may deny your request.

Do request additional time off as soon as possible so that your employer has time to make arrangements for your extended absence.

Depending on your profession and position, it is possible that you will have more difficulty getting time off if you wait until the last moment. The sooner you ask, the better chance you have of having this request fulfilled.

What type of paperwork do I need to ask for an extension of time off?

This also depends on your company and your location. However, there are certain steps you should take as soon as you know you will need some time off. 

  • Notify your employer as soon as possible. You should discuss your need for an absence with your boss and HR immediately. Do not delay in this, as it could affect the amount of leave you can take.
  • Review the bereavement leave policy. Understand what is permitted and what you can request
  • Estimate how much time off you need. Making a timeline should help you with this.
  • Make a written request. It’s important to make sure your request is in writing, as most company policy requires this to approve your leave. Whether this is in the form of a physical letter or an email will depend on your company.
  • Sign Any Relevant Forms. Some companies require you to fill out official forms before you can be paid for your bereavement leave (or any form of leave). Make sure you have those signed as soon as possible so there won’t be any issues receiving compensation later.
  • Prepare Documentation. You may need additional documentation to make your request. These can be copies of obituaries or even travel documents (like plane tickets or hotel stays if you are going out of town). 

Where would I find resources for grief counseling if I am having a hard time with being back to work?

There are many resources available to you for this! Here are just some of the options out there: 

What do I do if I have a breakdown at work?

Recognize that this is completely normal. Remember those grief triggers we mentioned earlier in this article? They may happen during work. The best thing you can do is be prepared for it – or when – it happens. Excuse yourself, have that escape route planned, and spend some time in a private, safe place until you are able to regain control of your emotions. 

If you need to discuss the issue with your boss or HR afterward, you should do so. They may also have other solutions to offer. Perhaps you can arrange for a time to sit in your vehicle, an empty break room, or even make plans to leave for home without disciplinary action. 

How do I go about asking for help if I need it?

One of the best sources available to you at this time is your company’s HR, or Human Resources, department. HR representatives function specifically to help their employees with personal issues at work. They can put you help you understand what other options are available to you during this time, put you in touch with outside assistance, and even act as a liaison between you and other coworkers if the need arises. 

Additionally, you can speak to your supervisor/boss to request assistance as well. It never hurts to let your employer know what is happening so they can better support you in your time of need. 

How long does it take to recover from a death in the family?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question because grief has no timetable. Everyone grieves differently and does so at their own pace. You cannot rush the process, as there is no clear beginning- middle-end that can help you determine how far along you are.

With time, the edges of our grief begin to soften, and we begin to feel like the weight of it lessens. But that does not mean you are suddenly “cured” of it.

According to health care professionals, you should begin to feel better in 6 to 8 weeks. But that isn’t a guarantee. Sometimes it can take months or even years to feel fully recovered from a loved one’s passing. Even then, you may always feel a little bit sad thinking about them. 

The best thing you can do is let yourself feel these emotions and acknowledge your grief for what it is – the feeling of loss after someone you love is gone.

Going Back To Work After Loss Takes Time & Patience

Grief is an important part of the healing process after a loved one dies. Knowing when to let yourself grieve is equally valuable. Often, that means taking time away from work – whether through bereavement leave or other means – you need to make the best choices for yourself and your family.

Reach out to your employer, your HR department, and your fellow coworkers when the unthinkable occurs. They can help you through the process and should decrease your stress and anxiety about your career when you should focus on your family and yourself.

When it is time to go back to work, be honest with yourself about what you need and what you can handle. It’s not a sign of weakness to need bereavement leave. It’s the best thing you can do to take care of yourself.

Helpful reading:

Grief and Grieving: Healing After Loss Through the Grieving Process
How Writing Letters To A Deceased Loved One Helps Deal With Grief
Loss Amidst A Pandemic: Grief When Nothing Is Normal

December 30, 2020 by Frances Kay