In Gina Rubel’s latest article for ALM’s Mid-Market Report, she highlights the need for bereavement policies, estate planning, and behavioral health resources in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Death and Dying in the Age of Coronavirus
“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
This is the prayer my parents taught me as a child, said nightly before bed.
When my husband and I had children, we changed the second stanza to, “Angels watch me through the night, until I wake to morning light.”
As I reflect on the change of words, I recognize how uncomfortable the subject of death and dying can be.
I have often asked attorneys if they have properly executed a will, in addition to trusts, advanced healthcare directives (living will), updated beneficiary designations or powers of attorney. Can you guess the most frequent answer? It’s “no.”
We are in the age of coronavirus. The global death toll has exceeded 600,000 people (as of July 20, 2020). Law firms have closed offices, communicated exposures and COVID-19 diagnoses of attorneys and staff, furloughed and laid off employees, and reopened offices in the next normal of physical distancing.
Most law firms also have provided education to their clients, colleagues, and prospects about the legal matters relating to the pandemic and how it has affected every practice area and industry.
What about bereavement policies, estate planning and behavioral health resources? After reaching out to in-house legal marketers in mid-size, Am Law 100 and Am Law 200 firms, I found that few firms have updated their bereavement policies or offered paid estate planning services (or stipends) to their employees.
Bereavement Policies During Coronavirus
Dealing with death and dying is difficult enough during normal times; add to that physical distancing, gathering restrictions, and health risks to the caregivers and survivors, and it has gotten exponentially harder. Emery Richards of Blank Rome said, “How employers support employees through the loss of a loved one has an indelible impact on the lives of employees, the work environment, and the organization’s integrity. Bereavement leave policies address the unprecedented circumstances created by the mounting, tragic toll of COVID-19, providing support to employees at the time when they need it most. Although bereavement leave policies are not legally required in most jurisdictions in the United States, most U.S. employers offer some amount of paid bereavement leave.”
A fellow legal marketing professional, Cortney Nathanson, recently lost her mother to COVID-19. Nathanson said, “It is quite different losing a loved one during a pandemic than it is in ‘ordinary’ times. On top of not being able to be there with your loved one at the end, the separation/isolation from friends and extended family afterwards is beyond heartbreaking.”
I know too many who have lost a parent or loved one during the pandemic and have had conversations like the one with Nathanson weekly. Like everything we are experiencing in 2020, death and bereavement must be addressed by companies and individuals alike. One step is to evaluate law firm bereavement policies above and beyond the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requirements. It’s imperative for law firm management to evaluate bereavement leave laws and address them internally.
Estate Planning and Coronavirus
If we have learned anything in 2020, it’s that COVID-19 affects us all. The American Bar Association reported that online estate planning has surged during coronavirus and NPR addressed the topic of How to Make Your Estate Plan Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic.
While I may be preaching to the choir, it is my experience that getting attorneys to execute life-planning documents is a challenge. I should not need to say more; it’s not about you, it’s about your loved ones. Just do it.
Behavioral Health Resources for Death and Dying
If your law firm has not done so, it is time to provide employees with behavioral health and bereavement resources. Gererocity.com offers one such resource compiled by Sabrina Vouvoullas: Grieving in the time of COVID-19: Resources and guidance.
We also should foster corporate cultures that support employees during difficult times.
During a Legal Marketing Association Northeast Region virtual roundtable for service providers, Samantha McKenna, founder of #samsales consulting, noted that we should not say, “I hope this finds you and your family well,” when you send an email or correspondence. She said, “Perhaps they don’t have family or lost someone to COVID-19.” As a result, what was intended as a kind statement can be received and perceived as a negative one. I, for one, am guilty of using this phraseology and now think twice.
Memorializing a Loved One During Covid-19
The National Funeral Directors Association notes that restrictions vary widely across the U.S. regarding the accepted size of funeral and memorial in-person gatherings. Some states include clergy and funeral-home operators in the maximum number of attendees while others do not. The NFDA has compiled resources at https://www.nfda.org/covid-19.
Traditions surrounding death have changed during the coronavirus, as people look for other ways to grieve. It feels unnatural not to hug people we love when attending a funeral service – which is exactly how I felt last week when 22 of us gathered to pay our respects to a friend.
“Memorializing a loved one during COVID-19 has reinforced how much technology can connect and comfort us,” said Deirdre Breakenridge, CEO of Pure Performance Communications.
When her father-in-law passed away, technology helped her family celebrate his life and to share memories about him in real-time. “Even when you can’t be together physically, there’s still love and compassion online with so many public and private messages, touching stories and memories that flowed through our social media feeds,” she said.
Barbara Kemmis, Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America told a Lehigh Valley Business reporter that she is seeing a rapid increase in cremations. Some industry experts believe this is due only to the increase in coronavirus cases while others believe it was a growing trend even before the pandemic.
Time will tell.
Reprinted with permission from the July 24, 2020 issue of Mid-Market Report. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.