Take a Break for Grief
By Martha Clark Scala
I have always been a good soldier. A good soldier is stoic. A good soldier continues to march along in the face of adversity. The good soldier doesn’t get to say, “Time out.”
On a Monday morning five and a half years ago, I got the news that my brother Nick had died. As a psychotherapist in private practice, I was relieved I had no client sessions that day. However, my second job, as a bookkeeper, had deadlines and Monday was my day to meet them. For the remainder of that week, I had appointments with clients as well as other bookkeeping duties. There was no substitute waiting to step in for me. If I call in sick, I don’t get paid and the work doesn’t get done. No one in my family of like-minded stoics questioned my sanity when I explained it would be a week before I could fly back East to attend Nick’s memorial service and help with cleaning out his house.
I took a walk later that Monday evening, and turned my ankle. My body was protesting, but, always the good soldier, I kept on marching.
I knew my brother was going to die. For eleven years, through the episodes of good and bad news regarding Nick’s health, I anticipated his death. I expected this to happen … but it was still a tremendous shock. Five and a half years later, I marvel at my inability to “call in the troops” and ask for help. I saw the financial consequences of not carrying on as daunting. How curious that I was taught to “save for a rainy day.” True to my particular flavor of stoicism, it didn’t occur to me that my brother’s death was a rainy day.
No matter what the circumstances of a sibling’s death, the ensuing grief for those of us still living can be disabling. The “rainy days” can turn into months and years. And yet most companies allow 3 days for bereavement leave. Three days. Others companies bundle all of the days off they provide to employees into a catch-all category of “personal leave,” so that a week away preparing for a funeral means one less week of vacation for that year.
Our society has progressed to the point where giving birth is seen as the profound experience it has always been with short-term disability coverage available to most mothers, and even some fathers. Further progress is needed to define grief and loss as just as profound an experience. Three days bereavement leave is simply not enough for most mourners. It’s a joke.
My own unpaid week away was spent hurriedly cleaning out Nick’s house, making decisions with family members, and preparing a eulogy. I still needed a vacation, some restful time to reflect, to remember my brother.
Within months of Nick’s death, I found myself harboring a fantasy that persists to this day. As I thought back to those first weeks of grief, I imagined a philanthropic foundation, the Time Out Fund. Its sole purpose would be to provide instant grants to disabled mourners needing to take a time out from their soldierly duties. There would be an 800 number to call with a real person on the other end any time of day or night. No explanations would be necessary; no guilt allowed.
I would have called that number so fast the Monday morning that Nick died. I would have asked for the funds to support a minimum of a one-month leave of absence from my responsibilities. I would have made arrangements for my clients and done what I could to get bookkeeping duties reassigned. Deadlines be damned.
Instead, on Tuesday, I marched into my office and kept my commitments. Nick’s death was foremost on my mind. One of the perils of the helping professions is that the therapist is expected to leave their personal troubles outside the sacred office space. The magnitude of that challenge rises exponentially when acute grief is present. Clients, whether they had been informed of my loss or not, were still relying on me to show up, and be there for them. I was trying to provide for others that which I needed for myself: support, care, pampering, a sympathetic ear, and stability. The challenge to leave my troubles outside the door felt gargantuan. It took tremendous energy to suppress my emotions — energy that was in short supply.
Years prior to Nick’s death, I had learned about the concept of “grief work,” in a “Life, Death and Transition” workshop offered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s staff. In this model, grievers are urged to do tasks that will help them reach a sense of peace and completion about the loss. This seemed a catch-all term that accentuated the word “work.” As I grieved for Nick, I realized that work was the right word, but the process was far more complex than I had assumed.
Asked for a professional opinion now, I always advocate for a “time out” from full-time employment or other demanding life duties when one is grieving. After all, we don’t earn gold stars when we keep on marching. Faced with grief again, this good soldier will take off her uniform and go AWOL for awhile. I will take a time out, and I will ask for help. There will be other battles to fight when I return. Meanwhile, my own Time Out Fund is accumulating.
Martha Clark Scala is a retired psychotherapist who for twenty-five years devoted her practice to helping people alleviate grief and celebrate their creativity. Her brother, Nicholas, died in 1996 at age 45, following an illness that required a heart transplant in 1985 and a kidney transplant from another sibling, Margo, in 1995. Martha edits an e-newsletter, Out on a Limb, which encourages readers to maximize the joy in their lives.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of We Need Not Walk Alone, published by The Compassionate Friends.