This week my mother-in-law died unexpectedly. We'd already rushed into town to see her after hearing she'd been hospitalized, so we're staying for the funeral this weekend. During this difficult time many people have reached out to me and other family members to offer their support and condolences. I also noticed everyone in the family making an extra effort to be kind and understanding with each other. In stark contrast to this have been a couple instances where people were much less supportive and understanding, both of which have their roots in policies.
The first instance was with my niece, who's currently in college out of state. She too flew back immediately and was planning to stay for the funeral. She had some tests coming up, but most of her teachers said she could make them up. Unfortunately, one teacher said they only excuse absences for school functions, which is required by school policy. The morning after being at her grandmother's side as she passed she was on the phone with various student organizations trying to sort everything out, each of which said it's up to the teacher's discretion and that this isn't uncommon. Her mother also tried calling all the way up to the dean of the school, being very upset by the lack of flexibility, especially given their hefty tuition bill, but she got the same response about the school policy; even being told that another student is currently in a similar situation after having her own mother die.
Ultimately my niece decided that her grandmother wouldn't have wanted her grades to suffer, so she was forced to fly back and do her best to take the test after limited studying. What was especially frustrating was that re-taking the test is possible for school functions, as the teacher stated, but that the teacher chose not to be understanding. The teacher is technically completely within his rights to deny a make-up test, but that doesn't make it the right thing to do. If he's concerned about students abusing such excuses to get more study time he could ask for a note from the funeral home, like she's providing to other teachers. If it's fairness to other students he's concerned about he must be living in a bubble, as each student has different ability to study due to different schedules, and it's not like my niece would have been cramming at the funeral anyway.
The next instance was with my work. I knew we got bereavement time, which was nice to be able to take without needing to worry about how much time off I had left, even though I still ended up taking 2 more days to get the full week (they only cover 3 days). When I read the policy online it said it covered immediate family, and even gave the examples of parents, spouse, and siblings. I had assumed that being married meant that my wife's family was included in that, but it turns out I was wrong and will probably be forced to use time off to cover the whole week. I know some people don't get along with their in-laws, but that's not the case with me, and even if it was I'd want to be there for my wife.
This realization about my time off actually got me thinking more about how adequate the policy is in general. At first 3 days sounded reasonable, but it's really just enough time to fly in, attend the funeral and grieve with family, then fly out. That's actually the sort of thing I'd do for a friend or distant relative, but I can't imagine going back to work the same week that anyone in my immediate family died, maybe not even the following week. In such an emotionally charged time, an inadequate policy like this can actually be more of a frustration than a comfort, possibly even irreparably souring an employee or spouse on a company. I understand that companies need to limit the possibility of employees taking advantage of such policies, but limiting bereavement time to a minimum and arbitrarily drawing a line in the sand of who they're allowed time to grieve for if they don't have time off is unreasonable.
For me the takeaway is that while policies can be good to clarify what's acceptable, they can sometimes be used as an excuse to suppress the otherwise naturally compassionate response. I'm sure if my company's policy was to leave bereavement time up to the discretion of my boss he'd tell me to take the time I need with my family; he's already said he'll work with me and HR about this. For my niece, perhaps a school bereavement policy is needed, although I still think explicitly setting date and relationship limits will discourage compassion in favor of a one-size-fits-all standard. In addition to hurting those involved, favoring standardized policies over individualized compassion hurts trust and motivation with the organization enforcing the policies. This reminds me of a TED talk I watched recently about "Why good leaders make you feel safe" (http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe), largely because they foster trust and mutual respect.
While I mostly wrote this to get it off my chest, I'm also hoping to shed light on a potential problem most people aren't aware of until they need to deal with it. I encourage everyone to reach out to their work, schools, or any other organizations they participate in on a regular basis to find out their policy on bereavement. If it's inadequate, I encourage you to speak up and try to improve it, if not for you than for your fellow coworkers, students, and friends. You may want to share this with them to help them understand how important this issue is. For organizations there's a minimal cost, but it can have a huge impact when someone is grieving. Thanks.