I’m working through the pandemic provisions my father had stocked up when he died of cancer. But, for now, there’s no rush.
| Opinion columnist
Eight unopened jars of olives sit on my kitchen shelf. They stare at me every morning as I settle in to work at my home office (my kitchen table), reminding me that my father didn’t live to finish his pandemic stockpile. After oatmeal, before work, I make time to cry.
Even with some employers postponing fall office returns over delta variant concerns, perhaps millions of American workers will carry complex grief to their in-person and remote workplaces. My grief has slid from the unfinished business of the pandemic to my father’s recent death from cancer. Like those untouched olives, I’ve barely digested my accumulated losses.
Companies remain woefully unprepared to support workers mourning everything from our pre-pandemic way of life to lost wages, homes, relatives, friends and colleagues. Despite grief’s associated health risks – including disturbed sleep and elevated cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate, weakened immune response and increased mortality, the United States has no mandated employee bereavement leave.
The three days of paid bereavement leave in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda would provide all workers with an overdue minimum standard. But increasing bereavement time closer to Facebook’s 10-20 days of paid leave, far beyond the national average of one to four days (depending on the relation), could make good economic sense, considering that unaddressed grief costs our economy an estimated $75 billion a year.
Creating inclusive workplaces requires addressing the grief of racial and ethnic minority workers mourning the pandemic’s disproportionate impact, systemic racism, police killings and surging violence in communities of color. Research documents how low-wage, essential workers lack paid sick leave and predictable schedules, which could ultimately compromise their health.
Organizations that fail to support grieving workers risk increased health care costs, decreased productivity, absenteeism, burnout and employee turnover when 55% of Americans plan to look for a new job over the next year.
You can’t outrun grief
Despite the difficult timing, my father’s death arrived at a “good time” for me. My entry into midlife coupled with the pandemic had already sparked growing resistance to measuring my self-worth against my productivity. Grief empowered me to slow the work treadmill and forced me to push back against America’s culture of overwork.
Whenever I hesitate over taking extra rest or a break, I recall other traumas my family had no opportunity to process, such as my mother’s death when I was a teenager. We kept our heads down then, trying to keep our family afloat. We didn’t talk about it. I didn’t cry. I thought that by maintaining straight A’s in school and patching the chasm of Mom’s absence with new routines, I’d escaped unscathed. Wrong. I learned you can’t outrun grief, which has shadowed my family for 25 years.
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Despite growing burnout across higher education and academia’s shortfalls in addressing grief, in my position as a professor on a health sciences campus, I enjoy enormous freedom to structure my schedule and the protection of remote work. I have time to grieve now, and I’m using it. I’m more exhausted three months on from Dad’s death than in the days following when I still ran on the adrenaline required to care for a loved one dying at home. Everything takes longer these days.
Sleep, food and times off the clock
I have close-to-home reminders of my uncommon privileges. My sister who helped me care for our dying father lost her job weeks later without warning. Her boss used the soft language of office “restructuring,” helped by a woman whose job is to facilitate Zoom firings. Now unemployed, my sister finally has time to grieve. She booked a trip to Greece, where my father worked on ships before coming to this country. She says she feels close to Dad by the water.
Throughout my summer of mourning, Spanish-speaking men like my father have worked on suspended platforms outside my kitchen window, repairing the building’s facade. Dad held similar jobs when he immigrated to New York from Chile and found himself painting window frames on a high-rise building, with no experience or training but for his boss’ advice: Don’t look down. As we exchange glimpses, I imagine they must wonder what a spoiled life I lead, as a woman who can spend all day in her bathrobe staring at a laptop. When do they have time to grieve their losses when they must summon every ounce of energy to stay aloft?
My father’s working-class wisdom carries me through my lowest days. I hear his voice, as always, urging sleep, food and good times off the clock. I’m catching up on the movies I should’ve watched in lockdown, including my father’s favorites we enjoyed together in his dying days: Cantinflas comedies, “Tommy Boy,” “Scarface.” Time allows me to savor the peculiar sweetness of grief, as I stumble upon memories in every household drawer and around every corner in New York City.
Among my mourning tasks, I’ve finished the raspberry preserves Dad suddenly hated when his taste buds changed. I’ve worked through his pandemic provisions and the bland food of his dying: pudding, yogurt, apple sauce. I’ll tackle Dad’s olives when I feel ready. There’s no rush. For now they sit uneaten, reminders of my longest year.
Stacy Torres, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco.