At the end of last week we received a computer-generated card from Kerstin’s employers HR department. It read: “We would like to take this opportunity to wish you every joy and happiness with the arrival of the newest member of your family”. Well, what shall I say. We were not as upset as you might think we would be. Why not? Because they have done it before. That does not make it any better, it just means we were not as surprised. When our first child died, we received the same card. At that time, we were extremely upset. This time we knew what the card was before we even had to open the envelope. Instead of being angry, I just find it very sad. In particular because this card has been sent by a provincial health organization. They should know that many pregnancies end in tragedies and one would think that they have a simple procedure in place to stop this madness. They cannot claim they don’t know. When your child dies you have to let your employer know. It requires several changes in the HR department and it has to go into your record, e.g. that maternity leave starts at a different time than anticipated. So does this simply show ignorance or bad management? Or am I missing something else here?
I know that this did not happen intentionally and that the basic idea is a positive one, but I would suggest that they streamline their systems quite a bit. Stopping a congratulations letter like this is only one necessary change. This initiative was created to acknowledge an important event in an employees life, but someone clearly did not think about side-effects. In management theory this is called simplistic linear thinking. One does A and the desired result is going to be B. Instead B, C or D might happen which can sometimes be the exact opposite of what the original intention was. Have you even considered these scenarios? What if the child died, what if the child is gravely ill, what if the mother died during delivery? In most of these scenarios I cannot envision a positive reaction to this card.
They also call employees as soon as they are out of office for a certain number of days (apparently higher than average amount of sick time). In our case that happened the week after we lost our son, i.e. 5 days. Hence, you have an agent from the “attendance wellness program” call your home not knowing that you just lost a child. They call under the assumption that you are ill and want to discuss wellness strategies with you. In other words the question is how they can make sure you get back to work as soon as possible. I guess you can imagine how awkward such a call plays out. I am not going to comment on the validity of such calls in the first place, but the same procedure that could stop the card could stop these calls. I will send them a letter and see how they react to my suggestion.
In a related event, one of the nurses in the hospital congratulated us after the birth. She was not a nurse on the same ward, but came to do some bloodwork. Amazingly, that did not cause the same reaction from us and here is why. A stillbirth is still a birth. It marks an important event in a persons life. As an expecting parent you wait for the moment your baby is born for months and it is an exciting time. We were proud of our achievement to have given birth to a beautiful boy (granted, my wife did most of the hard work). Kerstin did it without pain medication and we would describe the whole event as beautiful. The difficulty is that the otherwise amazing event comes hand in hand with the death of your child. Birth and death coincide. Hence the focus is on the loss, not on the birth and hardly anyone would dare to congratulate you on the birth. The nurse didn’t know better and said it. And it felt right to us. If birth and death coincide, why are we not able to express the emotions that come with both at the same time. I am not sure any more why that should not be appropriate. It would be a basic acknowledgement of the child and of the importance of the event to the parents. Instead of telling the nurse that our child had died, we simply said thank you.
Update March 2013: we received a reply from Kerstin’s employer regarding our letter. While I expected a reply, I did not anticipate it reaching the presidential level of the organization. It is good to see that they gave our input some thought at a high level. The Director of Corporate Communications addressed our concerns with a copy to the Vice-President Employee Engagement and Vice-President Communications & Public Affairs. They apologized and have reviewed the situation. The result is that no more cards will be send to any employee centrally, but that this will be left to individual departments and unit managers who better know personal situations of employees. The main reason for this seems to be the challenge to appropriately identify who should otherwise get a card or not. They claim confidentialty of medical information as one reason why the office sending the card is not aware of the employee’s situation. Although I do not completely buy into this argument and suspect it has more to do with costs of technical changes to allow unspecified flags for “no card”, I am glad they took action. Now we only have to hope that none of the parents who are blessed with a healthy child will miss this generic card. Otherwise, from my perspective everyone seems better of: we saved other bereaved parents working for that organization the pain of getting that card as well as some trees and some money for postage for the organization.