Complex Grief - What's the Point of Taking Compassionate Leave...

Not everyone has a positive relationship with their parents, so their death can bring on a complex range of emotions. Eldercare coach Lesley Trenner talks through a recent case

Not everyone has a positive relationship with their parents, so when they die it can bring on a complex range of feelings. A client's father died a month ago - I'll call him Tom (not his real name). They weren't close, especially after the parents divorced, and Tom initially felt the death came as a bit of a relief.

Because he didn't feel 'sad', Tom didn't see the point of taking compassionate leave, so went straight back to work and tried to move on. But a few weeks later he was finding it hard to perform well, was moody and kept getting headaches and backache.

Even though Tom wasn't very close to his father, it's clear the death had given rise to some difficult feelings and had begun affecting life both at home and at work.

Different Types of Grief

It's important to recognise that there are different types of grief.

People sometimes think that when a relative dies they will cry and feel sad for a defined period of time and then get on with their life. But grief is not really like that. Following a bereavement, everyone has their own unique experience. If the relationship was a difficult one, grieving can come out in unexpected ways such as numbness, a general feeling of dissatisfaction with life, or being tired and irritable.

Father-Son Relationships can be Complex

A son's relationship with his father is significant and often complex. Although at first Tom felt some relief about his Dad's death, other feelings had then surfaced which he wasn't sure how to handle.

It could be that these emotions were deep-rooted and stemmed from the divorce or how his Dad was (or wasn't) a role model, stirring feelings of rejection, loss, or anger about his death. It can also be natural to have thoughts about how things could have been different, about what was said or left un-said.

The Death of a Parent

The death of a parent is also a big landmark in anyone's life. It's often a wake-up call that things change, that time is passing. When our parents die, we realise that we could be next in line for the grim reaper!

Suppressing Feelings

Some people can see it as a sign of weakness to express their emotions, especially the sad and more complicated ones, but squashing your feelings inside and not acknowledging them doesn't help and, in Tom's case, were perhaps causing the pains in his body.

What Compassionate Leave Are You Entitled To?

  • Companies in the UK are legally obliged to offer unpaid leave where the person who died was a dependent - this includes elderly parents if the employee was their carer
  • Some employers also offer paid or unpaid compassionate leave to employees in other situations. This is done on a discretionary basis
  • As a first step, it's always a good idea to check with HR what your company's policies are

Compassionate Leave - Pros & Cons

When deciding whether to ask for compassionate leave, here are some pros and cons to consider:


  • It'll give you time to think about the relationship and how you really feel about the death
  • Space to grieve in your own way, regain some peace of mind
  • An opportunity to talk about your feelings, without the pressures of work
  • Time to visit the GP about health issues and focus on feeling better physically


  • Possible loss of earnings
  • Getting behind if there is no one to pick up your work
  • Having to ask for help and explain why you are taking time off
  • Not having the routine and distraction of work and the support of colleagues

And Finally...

It may also help to discuss things with other relatives, partners or siblings as well as work colleagues or managers if they are approachable and supportive. Remember there is no timetable for getting over a death, but hopefully as time goes on, it'll be possible to come to terms with it and focus on the gains as well as the losses.

Dr Lesley Trenner, Eldercare coach and My Family Care Speak to an Expert consultant