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Tackling the taboo of death at work: A founders story

Derrick Grant

Derrick Grant

Tackling the taboo of death at work: A founders story
Feb 13, 2024

TLDR: In 2019, I experienced the loss of ten people, relatives, and extended family members during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was not prepared to experience death, but neither was my employer, as lack of clarity on bereavement policies and cultural sensitivities exacerbated my distress.

Today, I’m launching Ownleaf.com to make sure people don't have to experience the stress of bereavement alone. Ownleaf is a bereavement concierge service designed to be a guiding hand throughout the complexities of funeral organisation and grief.

It started with a phone call.

In 2019, at the start of the pandemic, I received a call from my mom letting me know that my aunt had suddenly become ill and had been taken to hospital. There was a lot going on. I had just been told to work from home as my employer had shut down our head office, and I was unsure of when it would reopen.

The following day, my mother called again, this time to tell me that my aunt was in a coma and her best friend (someone very close to my family) had also become ill and had been taken to hospital.

I was distraught.

I felt like numbness had captured a part of my brain, replacing my higher-level functions with a white void. I couldn't think straight. I was concerned for my aunt, worried about the scale of the COVID outbreak, and isolated from my family. Later that week, my aunt and her best friend died on the same day.

I messaged my line manager, asking if we could talk. I had just moved to his department, and we had little time to form a working relationship, so I felt somewhat burdened by needing to ask for time off to grieve. I had never given our workplace bereavement policy a second thought, and rightly or wrongly, I felt that my ability to compassionate leave was solely down to my boss's discretion. I had no idea where I could go to learn about my rights. I couldn't find the bereavement policy or an indication if we even had one.

My manager was understanding. He told me I could take the time I needed.  But I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the interaction was overly clinical, like the deaths I just experienced may be contagious over the phone. It felt like he was keen to get on with his day.

This may not have been the case, in retrospect I’m pretty sure I wanted to talk more about what I was going through, to ask why this was happening and how to cope, but I knew relying on a manager was not appropriate, especially one I barely knew and was keen to impress.

The week after the death of my aunt, my mother called me again, each time letting me know another member of our close-knit community back home had died. I remember ignoring the latter calls as the expectation of more bad news was overwhelming. I spoke to my manager again, this time asking for more time off as I was struggling to understand what was happening and why it only seemed to be overly affecting my community and family.

During my five days of leave, four people who had played a major role in my life passed away. Monday came around quickly, and it was time to go back to work.

I knew I wouldn't be able to perform as normal, and the thought of putting on a brave face weighed heavily as my morale and productivity dropped.

Working from home, I persevered through the challenge the best I could, but I struggled to engage with colleagues on conference calls and began to feel guilty for not being able to perform my best. My mom called again, and six more people died that week.

COVID-19 was a hot topic in every meeting as different theories swirled around conference calls, ranging from potential hoaxes to government sabotage. I remained silent. As the next few days passed, I progressively spent time looking at the COVID data, learning that the black community in the West Midlands was the most impacted community in the most impacted region by COVID-19 in the UK. Looking back, a part of my research was, in fact, to arm myself to counter the conspiracy theories shared by colleagues and give myself the knowledge to explain why my situation was and felt so different to the average Dane.

Less than two weeks after my bereavement leave, I was put on garden leave as the company announced cutbacks due to the Pandemic.

I had some financial cover, but I was mentally exhausted, isolated, and unemployed. I refused to let the story of COVID become the narrative of my unemployment and, in typical fashion, threw myself into freelancing, raising money for my bereaved family, and building open-source projects while hustling to get design work.

During this time, I never got the support I needed to heal, and as I landed interviews at my favourite companies, each process was tainted by grief. I reached the final round of nearly every job I applied for, but something broke down during the final 'face-to-face' stage of the interview.

Was I self-sabotaging because I didn’t want to go back into the work environment? Maybe I just didn’t interview that well, as the wear of the previous month showed on my face and in my voice.  Whatever it was, I knew I was probably better off freelancing even though the market was almost completely shut down.

That COVID experience will never leave me, but I believe that there’s an opportunity for growth in every hardship. While I understand that I was far from the only person who experienced a difficult time experiencing death while at work during the pandemic, I became determined to make sure no one else experienced what I did. I doubled down on a vision to create a platform that allows everyone to manage death more empathetically, compassionately, and practically.

As the workplace increases in complexity with remote and hybrid working environments, as businesses from all industries reduce staff while increasing demands on the remaining workforce,  I want to make sure that wherever you're working from, you will get support, you will have a better understanding of your right to compassionate leave, and your managers and colleagues have been given the tools and training to support you in a way that strengthens work bonds rather than weakening them.

So, I created Ownleaf. ‘Ownleaf‘ is a 'Berveravement Concierge Service, ’ a helping hand for employees to get support when experiencing death. Think of it as the friend who can guide you through the entire bereavement process. Whether you’re in need of greater affordability, need to know your options, or want someone to talk to relieve stress, Ownleaf guides you through funeral organisation and bereavement step-by-step.

Ownleaf is currently in beta. If your company wants to do more to support grieving colleagues, please book a demo or follow our LinkedIn page; we’d love to help.

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Ownleaf, 614 Maurer Court, John Harrison Way, SE10 0SX, London
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