Parents need time off to grieve

USA Today

by Barry Kluger

I was golfing on the morning of April 6, 2001, when I got a message from Scottsdale Healthcare, telling me that my 18-year-old daughter, Erica, had been in a car accident. I called the hospital and was told “it’s pretty bad.” What they didn’t tell me was that Erica had been dead an hour — but you don’t tell that to a father, getting in a car, about to drive 20 miles, and already struggling with a storm of emotions, including panic and unfathomable sadness.

I arrived at the emergency room and was ushered into a waiting room, followed by a doctor and a priest who gave me the news. Within 24 hours, I was sitting with a grief specialist, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. But I barely heard what he was saying. I had a funeral to plan.

When grief did come, however — and it came hard and fast — I was swallowed up in it. At the time I was running my own company, a public relations firm, and I would drift in and out of the office on random days, almost as if I was in a trance.

Although the workplace provided me the distraction I needed, a foundation, I would sink into the blackest of depressions in a matter of seconds, without warning. It was then that I’d head for the door and go home. That’s the luxury of being the boss.

Not everyone is so lucky. According to our nation’s Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Clinton, American workers are granted up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a sick family member or their own illness, or for the care of an injured servicemember. If you lose a child, however, you’re pretty much on your own. Most companies grant only a few days for bereavement — and, in some cases, these days are charged against the employee’s accrued or mandated vacation and sick leave.

Grief in workplace

Such a rushed return to the “normalcy” of the workplace has its dire casualties: Grieving employees are often listless when they return to their jobs — or, in the worst cases, fired, because they cannot focus on their lives, let alone on the task at hand. Imagine, 12 weeks if you have a child, but just two to three days to bury that child. That’s the law.

It would take me nearly a decade to begin to recover from the staggering blow of my daughter’s death, but I’ve never forgotten the injustice of a system that excludes from consideration that most debilitating of life passages: bereavement for the death of a child. So I decided to fight back. In January 2011, I joined with Kelly Farley — a grieving dad from Aurora, Ill., who had lost a son and daughter, 18 months apart, due to prenatal complications — and together we drafted the Farley-Kluger Initiative, a proposed amendment to the Leave Act that would add child loss as a covered cause.

A wave of support

No sooner had we begun distributing our amendment via the Internet and e-mail than we realized that we were not alone. Within 17 months, thousands of grieving, formerly grieving, or sympathetic Americans had signed our petition and sent 37,000 letters and e-mails to their congressional representatives, demanding change. Finally, last summer Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — guided by common sense and inspired by Montanans who had signed our initiative —introduced the Parental Bereavement Act of 2011. We had made it to the United States Congress— which is where the matter still sits today.

In an election year, most politicians are fighting for their jobs and don’t want to risk their standing by endorsing legislation from a rival party. This is the reason our initiative has stalled. Granted, the past few years have demonstrated to our nation that compromise is a thing of the past. But we are not talking about tax credits here, or oil reserves or marriage laws or highway construction. We are talking about the greatest fear of every parent on earth: that their child will die before them. It is outside of the normal life cycle.

This shouldn’t be. One of the great blessings of our governmental system is that our legislative body is emblematic of all its citizens. Congress is populated by every conceivable kind of family member — parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. And I can’t imagine that one of these fellow Americans has not at some point in their lives been touched by loss, whether it’s watching a child die of an illness, or getting that dreaded call in the middle of the night.

This kind of loss knows no political affiliation, culture, faith, income or race. When you lose a child, you join an exclusive club. It has no secret handshake or monthly dues — but the cost of membership is painfully high.

People argue that Washington is broken. I submit, instead, that Washington has lost its way. Benevolence has given way to bickering. Compassion has yielded the floor to conflict. And love has surrendered to lobbying. Americans have heart — and for those who have lost children, it is a broken heart.

Although my life changed forever on that warm morning in 2001, I continue to hope that parents everywhere are spared such a life-altering tragedy. But if they aren’t, it is my deep wish that our elected officials reach into their hearts and allow the healing process to begin, unencumbered, for all of them — all of the parents who were left behind.

Barry Kluger is a former executive for MTV Networks and the author ofA Life Undone: A Father’s Journey Through Loss. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.