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How long is a reasonable time off for bereavement?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: What is the correct etiquette when it comes to bereavement? I run a small business and one of my two senior managers recently lost her husband. My sympathy for her is enormous (she is also a good friend), but I also need to run my business, and because we're such a small team, we're beginning to strain under the extra load. How long is a reasonable amount of time off and how should I raise this with her?

A: I'm not sure it's helpful to think about etiquette. I very much doubt if there's any all-purpose protocol that can safely guide you through this most delicate of predicaments. People respond very differently to bereavement, and grief makes itself felt for unpredictable periods of time. It's just as possible to be over-solicitous as it is to be unfeeling. Your advantage here is that your colleague is also your good friend - so you should be able try out tentative alternative approaches without serious risk of getting it wrong.

I'd start by giving her You'll Get Over it: The rage of bereavement (Penguin) by Virginia Ironside, a book that has helped a great many people. You should also print off a copy of Katharine Whitehorn's wonderfully honest article 'You have to learn in another country, where you're an unwilling refugee', first published in the Guardian in 2005 and easily accessible online.

Then you should try to see your colleague regularly - either at home or for a coffee somewhere, but obviously not in the office - and try to determine her state of mind. She may well be suffering from that sort of helplessness that can all too easily become self-perpetuating.

When you raise the subject of her return to work, choose your approach carefully. Don't for one moment imply that you and the team think she's letting the side down - but, equally, don't be afraid to say that you're missing her badly. That slight difference of emphasis could make a big difference to the effect. To be reminded that she has a valued role could be motivating in a way that an appeal to her sense of responsibility would not.

Recognise that the very act of re-entry is itself going to be a daunting prospect for her - so examine the possibility of a trial couple of days, just to see how it goes. And if she starts to accuse you of being unsympathetic, don't back away too readily; a little considerate external pressure could be exactly what she's beginning to need.

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