• Advice

What to expect after unexpected tragedy

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Death is an uncomfortable subject and most of us are unprepared to discuss it. Indeed, death is a subject most people barely speak about even in our personal lives. We prefer to keep it the domain of life insurance salespeople and H.R. departments.

But what if you're not one of those people? 

When I learned that my son had died a few months ago, I didn't know what to do or say to my client. The timing couldn't be worse, as we were preparing a website preview for a presentation by our marketing director. Talk about inconvenient deadlines. 

I had to leave the next morning for Asheville. What should I tell my client about my son's death?

On the one hand, I couldn’t leave my client in the lurch with an impending deadline for no good reason. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to reveal too many personal details and make them feel uncomfortable.

So, I went to the Internet and Googled “how to discuss death with business associates."

Express condolences

The first hits were about expressing condolences. Not relevant to me at that point, but expressing condolences is something every company policy should address. Condolences mean a lot to the bereaved. When my mom died, the ad agency I was employed at sent me flowers and a personal note from the president. I received nothing as a consultant, including no reply from the recruiter when I asked about bereavement leave from the employment agency.

Who gets paid bereavement leave?

Under the Family Leave and Medical Act (FLMA), companies must grant leave to an employee to care for a newborn, handle an adoption, or care for yourself or immediate family member during extended illness IF the employee:

• Works at a worksite within 75 miles of which that employer employs at least 50 people
• Has worked at least 12 months (which do not have to be consecutive) for the employer
• Has worked at least 1,250 hours (31.25 40-hour weeks) during the 12 months immediately before the date FMLA leave is to begin

However, the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) does not require the private sector to provide either paid or unpaid bereavement leave. Eleven states have their own version of this law, but only Oregon specifically provides for bereavement leave.

Private sector leave

If you work for the private sector, check your company’s policy or ask human resources. Most companies should provide at least three days leave for the loss of a child or spouse. However, don’t be surprised if when you return from the funeral, your boss or H.R. asks for proof of death: Either a death certificate or obituary or both.

A 2016 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management reports that over 80 percent of companies have bereavement policies, with an average of four days off for the death of a spouse or a child. An average of three days' leave is given for partners, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, foster children, and siblings. Two days' paid leave is typical for a miscarriage and the death of a partner's relative.

Bereavement for a temporary employee, a contractor, or a freelancer

If you work through a temp agency, you may want to check if they have paid time off benefits and how many hours you need to work to accrue them. If you’re an independent contractor or 1099 freelancer, it’s best to build bereavement pay into the rates you charge, and budget for time off–including time for grieving. Personally, I was able to jump into meeting three days after the funeral and focus on the actual work about a week after that. However, I was working from home most of the time. Getting back to work soon is emotionally and financially necessary.

As far as what a freelancer/contractor should tell a client about a funeral and death in the family: My executive friend advised me to tell the client my son had died. I opted to be vague. The email said I had a personal tragedy and would have to take three days off to attend my son's funeral. No one said anything except for other oblique mentions from other freelancers on my team. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I received no condolences.

Susan Carroll is a very senior copywriter, not yet ready for retirement. She consults on marketing communications and content, primarily in health, tech, and professional services. Join in her musings at her blog,