The death of a child creates an emptiness in a family that's nearly impossible to erase.
Kelly Farley of Aurora has known such a void. Twice. And now he's working to fill another hole he discovered: a gap in the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, which does not allow unpaid time away from work after the death of a child.
"It seems like a no-brainer, right? It's a huge gap," said Farley, 42. "You get time off for the birth of a child, why not for the death of a child?"
Farley is building support for an amendment to the federal law that would add the death of a child to a shortlist of medical events that make workers eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off. Through an online petition and a blog he writes, Farley is linking grieving parents -- especially fathers -- across the nation to help him lobby for a change in the law to allow time off to begin the mourning and healing processes.
Farley acknowledges there are concerns about the hardship this might place on employers, plus a fear of too much government involvement.
But the amendment is a nonpartisan proposal, says Barry Kluger, an Arizona man who's working with Farley and co-sponsoring the amendment.
"Losing your child really knows no party lines, no demographics, no income," he said. "It's about people and coping with life; it's not about politics at all."
When a child dies, some workers are given three days off for bereavement leave, then it's back to the grind. Others might get longer, and a few lucky ones find their employers offer some paid time off to cope with their grief.
But three days isn't nearly long enough to come to terms with a child's death and prepare to re-enter the workforce, said Angelo Tomasello, a Naperville father whose daughter, Celeste, died in a 1999 car crash. Tomasello said he went back to his job as an information technology consultant in Oak Brook about a week after Celeste's death.
"In reality, I was useless, even though I needed to get my mind preoccupied," said Tomasello, 57. "It was pretty obvious to those around me I wasn't present; I wasn't in the moment at all."
A shocking event such as the death of a child triggers physiological, emotional and mental responses, and the body needs time to adjust to those responses, said Dr. Tahseen Mohammed, head of the department of psychiatry at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
While everyone deals with grief differently, Mohammed said a healthy reaction -- usually marked by new ambitions and an ability to see things in a positive light -- takes time to come about. And 12 weeks is a reasonable amount of time, he added.
The availability of unpaid time off would ease the "rush to get back to life" many workers feel, said Lynn Davies, a labor and delivery nurse at Edward Hospital in Naperville who coordinates support groups for grieving parents.
"The hardest part, I think overall, is for guys," Davies said. "They kind of get thrown back in the workforce almost immediately."
And if they can't keep up, some employees get let go, adding the pain of joblessness to the pain of a child's death, said Wayne Loder, public awareness coordinator for The Compassionate Friends, a national nonprofit based in Oak Brook that assists families with grief after a child's death.
"We've heard of bereaved employees who lost their child and then a few weeks later, they lost their job because they were not able to return to work in that short a period of time," Loder said. "This should never happen."
Still, a mandate to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave could be a hardship to employers, said Todd Maisch, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
"We believe the vast majority of employers do have a policy that allows for time off to take care of the funeral and directly related events," Maisch said. "But 12 weeks would be a whole other ballgame. These issues are very difficult, but the bottom line is an additional 12 weeks ... would be very problematic for employers to give."
Because Farley and his supporters are not asking for paid leave, he said the burden on companies should be minimal.
As it stands, the Family Medical Leave Act applies only to companies with 50 or more employees; Farley and Kluger aren't looking to change that. Most employees never will experience a child's death, and not all of those who do will stop working for the entire three months, Farley said.
"Most employers who would be forced to give this time off would have a large enough workforce that they could make up for having an employee off that length of time," said Loder of The Compassionate Friends.
Yet Farley said he's been saddened by stories of inflexible employers from men he's connected with via The Grieving Dads Project, accessible at grievingdads.com or grievingdads.wordpress.com.
He started the blog in late 2009 as a way to help fathers share their stories instead of keeping the pain inside, as he did after genetic abnormalities killed his daughter, Katie, in 2004, during his wife's second trimester of pregnancy. When his son, Noah, died 18 months later, also from genetic abnormalities, Farley said he could no longer bury his grief.
"The Grieving Dads (Project) has been a mission for me to provide others hope," Farley said. "To me, that's extremely intrinsically rewarding."
Looking for legislator support for his idea, called the Farley-Kluger Amendment to the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, Farley met last week with U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican.
Biggert said her office will research the feasibility of amending the act. But prior efforts, she said, created discussion of too many other ideas, such as allowing time off to domestic violence victims of domestic violence or parents who need to attend parent-teacher conferences. As a result, nothing was done.
Biggert said she encouraged Farley to continue connecting with bereaved fathers through his blog and serving almost as a grief counselor to them.
"I think he's probably changing more lives by the work he's doing than by changing the law," Biggert said.
While Farley and Kluger won't benefit themselves from the possible addition of grieving time -- Farley has no other children and Kluger is self-employed -- they say their efforts are in honor of their late children. Anyone who wants to support the amendment can visit grievingdads.com and click the "sign petition" link.
"This is more of an act of compassion," Farley said. "Three days' bereavement leave many companies offer is just not enough after the death of a child."