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Spurred by painful loss, this startup wants to make bereavement mainstream

Most companies have no formal bereavement leave policy, and for some that do, it’s as short as two to three days off. This startup is working to change how companies help employees after loss.

Spurred by painful loss, this startup wants to make bereavement mainstream

May 20, 2018 started off as a normal day for Sallomé Hralima. “As I drove home, a FaceTime came in from my mom but dropped before I could answer it,” she recalls. She wasn’t  concerned because the two spoke daily. However, in the wee hours of the very next morning, she got another call. “I heard my cousin, through tears, tell me ‘Sol, your mom and dad were in a car accident. And sweetie, they didn’t make it.'”

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At the time Hralima was on maternity leave from her job as executive dream director at the Future Project, a nonprofit working with marginalized high school students. Because she happened to already be on leave, she didn’t have to worry about whether or not she’d be able to take time off with pay, much less how she would manage the emotional and mental stress of a loss. Luckily, or coincidentally, she was set to go on sabbatical immediately after maternity leave. “I had six months to handle and process before I had to think about my nine-to-five,” Hralima says.

Bereavement leave had a moment in the spotlight in 2015 when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posted a moving requiem for her husband that was quickly followed by a mandate that extended Facebook employees 20 days to grieve the loss of an immediate family member. This, however, is highly unusual. Only 60% of workers in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, have access to paid bereavement leave through their employers. And that is usually only about two to three days off—not always with pay, and only New York, Oregon, and Illinois have mandated workplace bereavement policies.

Getting through the loss of a loved one isn’t like getting over the flu. Psychologists agree that there is no “typical” amount of time to grieve as every individual processes death differently. Some may need ongoing help. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 78% of companies offer employee assistance programs to give workers going through a variety of personal or work-related problems (not just mourning) confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services.

Although she had the time and space to grieve not afforded to many workers, Hralima says she experienced two major emotional responses to work once she returned. “I felt that how I spent each moment and each day was extremely precious,” she says. “I started to question whether the day-to-day work of my job—the meetings, the emails, the Slack messages—was worth what felt like borrowed time,” says Hralima. “Something that had once fulfilled me now felt like busy work, void any gravitas.” And she’d always caution people who’d put things off by repeating the story of her parents untimely deaths. Then, Hralima says, “I imbued meaning in every interaction and loved up on my colleagues more. I found projects to work on that would have tickled my dad or would have generated lots of conversation with my mom.”

Hralima had another revelation, “Not only had I not considered the realities of managing what is left behind when someone dies but that I live in a society where we don’t talk about what happens when you do.”

But she did have someone to talk to. Divine Bradley, a colleague at the Future Project, was also beginning to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to think about bereavement.

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“After the birth of my third child, Optimus, I was not the most optimistic,” Bradley, vice president of social imagineering at the Future Project, confesses. He says that being married with children boxed him into a framework he was not spiritually in line with. “For the first time in my life, I had suicidal thoughts,” admits Bradley. “Never before had I seen my life so up close and framed in impermanence,” he explains, “It was in that moment when I laid my gun down and picked up some Post-its to brainstorm all of my ideas on what death and dying will look like in the future.”

The options he came up with were so traditional, he felt no connection to any of them. “That was when I started to think about the future of end-of-life services and what a human-centered company could look and feel like,” he says.

For his part, Joseph Weissgold, who was head of R & D at the Future Project, notes that the nonprofit’s coaching practice was designed to ensure the young people they served were setting goals and always living with purpose. “But when I tried to apply the methods on myself, I found myself in tension with it,” says Weissgold.

That’s when Bradley and Weissgold began rethinking an approach to death that could have a positive impact, and Hralima immediately joined their small team to help shape the direction. The result is After, which will officially launch on April 20 after conducting a series of pilot programs.

Death Planning

One part platform, one part community, After aims to be a companion to individuals and organizations who’d like to better understand how they can plan for death. “After Parties” are intimate, informal gatherings (capped at 25 attendees) that bring people together to share and reflect how they think about death. Anyone can sign up for the two-hour gatherings. Currently, they are being held in New York City and San Francisco but After Parties have happened in LA, Las Vegas, and Sydney, and more are planned in Vancouver and Toronto.

On the organizational side, After is offering “After School,” which is what most, if not all, companies don’t formally give their employees.

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“With After School events, we not only help participants get comfortable discussing their mortality and end-of-life plans, we guide them through all the decisions they need to make to settle their affairs,” says Bradley. At the end of the event, participants leave with notarized wills, healthcare proxy documentation, or at the very least, will have made all the decisions they need to make.

A caring.com survey from 2017 found that just 42% of U.S. adults currently have a will or living trust. Among those with children under the age of 18, only 36% have an end-of-life plan in place. Nearly half (47%) say they don’t have one because they’ve just not gotten around to it.

Bradley says the After team are currently in talks with several large organizations in the tech and healthcare space about bringing After School to their workers. They’re also looking to work with a few startup and nonprofit partners. “Our plan is to start holding After Schools for organizations in the next four to six weeks,” he says.

It’s not an easy sell, he admits. “The conversation is right at the fringe of what’s socially acceptable.” Bradley says that for some organizations, it complicates things, but others trying to distinguish themselves through their culture—”fearlessness to engage with real complex human issues” is seen as a plus.

Even then, what After is proposing is something really new. “Other than attending an After Party, it’s not something you can really try before you buy,” Bradley points out, “So no matter how descriptive our pitch is or compelling our videos are, getting an organization to put money down for this service requires a leap.” This makes for a fairly nontraditional sales process, he says.

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However, employee engagement and loyalty could spring from making it available, especially as these challenging conversations can be had in a safe space. Daniel Frett, a veteran ironworker in NYC, went to an After School event on his own—not because his employer offered it. He was prompted by the loss of his mother, not only to process his grief but to rethink his own risky job (walking on steel beams 50 feet above the ground) and the legacy he’ll leave for his children.

“Of course death is inevitable,” Frett tells Fast Company, “but I feel better knowing now that my children and family will never have to be in a state of confusion along with grief now that I have a proxy and notarized testament completed at the After School to ensure the necessary conversations with my family, as well as logistical support for them when the event occurs.”

As Bradley sees it, one day it will be the norm for organizations to provide this benefit to their employees. In the meantime, he says, “we’ll continue working with the organizations brave enough to put themselves on the cutting edge and trust us to provide their teams with an experience they will always remember.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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