Kluger: Give devastated parents the time they need to grieve
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Among other provisions, this landmark legislation ensured that parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off after the birth or adoption of a child.
But for parents who face the devastating burden of burying a child, many employers' policies customarily allow only two to three days' leave. It's time to amend the Family and Medical Leave Act to include more time for parental bereavement.
Most of us know what to do when we lose a job. We know what to do when we have a flat tire. And we know what to do when we see someone in trouble. These coping skills are common sense. But what do we do when we must cope with emotions we're not prepared for? We don't know what to do when we lose a child. Nothing, not even our faith, prepares us for what we have to do or feel. Sometimes, we don't feel at all and feel bad when we don't cry. When we do cry, we feel it's not enough.
I know the pain of losing a child. And even though my loss was several years ago and in circumstances far different from those suffered by the parents of the 20 first-graders killed in Newtown, Conn., the dynamics of the pain are all too familiar.
While this pain is not always visible, it needs to be dealt with like any other wound to the body. The grief that comes from the death of a child is not the kind that goes away in time. It does lessen in magnitude over months and years, but it does not leave; we parents just learn to deal and survive in spite of it.
Kelly Farley and I are both bereaved fathers who lost our children -- Erica Kluger in 2001, Katie and Noah Farley in 2004 and 2006. We are trying to do something to give other bereaved parents the time to start the grieving process.
In 2011, we began the Farley-Kluger Initiative to amend the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to include bereavement leave for the death of a child. No doubt, most managers and the companies they work for are compassionate and provide parents in tragic circumstances much more than the customary two or three days of leave. But, sadly, we have learned in the course of our work that many parents feel pressure to get back to work immediately, for fear that doing otherwise might cost them their job.
That's why we want to change the law. We have surpassed 53,000 letters and emails sent to members of Congress and the White House. New York State ranks in the top five of states logging petitions, with hundreds sent from Long Island.
In the past 24 months, we have met with more than 45 legislators. In the closing days of 2012, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) -- inspired by the Farley-Kluger Initiative; the tragedy that visited Marissa and Matt Weippert, the Long Island parents of childhood cancer victim Sarah Grace; and the many letters and petitions from his constituents -- proposed the Parental Bereavement Act. He reintroduced it again yesterday. This week, Farley and I are back in Washington to support this legislation, which would allow parents grieving from the death of their child to receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off.
This time, we have the newly grieving parents of Newtown to represent in our journey of remembrance and action.
I grew up in Plainview in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. It was Camelot. We played outside till the streetlights came on, families stayed together and children certainly didn't die. Or so it seemed.
Now I know that hundreds of thousands of parents have lost a child to illness, accidents, wars, murder and suicide. Each story is heartbreaking. We who have lost children became members of a club that none of us ever wanted to join. Only those who have walked in our shoes understand the indelible sadness. But those who are touched by our pain can support our efforts.
Barry Kluger is chief executive of The MISS Foundation, a global bereavement organization. For more information about the Farley-Kluger initiative, go to www.FarleyKluger.com.