A Grieving Parent Turns Pain into a Purpose
Following the death of his teenaged son, Blake, Tom Barklage fought to secure bereavement leave for Johnson & Johnson employees around the world
By Maddie Cohen
After his son Blake died, Tom Barklage took time off to make space for his grief. Little did he know the loss would result in a push to expand his employer’s bereavement care. Today, the high-level manager has made it his mission to change lives for the better.
Grief alters the course of a parent’s life
The death of a child changes a person—and Tom remembers October 30, 2021, like it was yesterday. His son, then 17, was attending an evening gathering with friends when he lost consciousness. A short time later, he died in the hospital of an unknown heart issue: lymphocytic myocarditis.
Tom, his wife Alison, and their daughter Alexis were devastated. Yet Johnson & Johnson (J&J), where Tom has worked for almost 20 years, stepped up to the plate. The company president held a moment of silence in Blake’s honor at an immunology town hall, and Tom’s boss was gracious about his leave. Months later, J&J gave Tom an additional day off on April 7—Blake’s birthday and the day they buried his ashes—and catered a meal for the Barklages and their guests.
Yet Tom struggled. His employer’s official bereavement policy was just five days. And while the pharmaceutical expert could leverage flex days or “take a knee,” those moments his grief became too much, there was little time to process the complexity of his loss.
Not only that, but Tom realized others might not have the same accommodations. Not everyone at J&J had 18 years’ tenure or the flexibility of working in the field.
A push for flexible bereavement care
Tom set out to change J&J’s bereavement policy. He was determined to honor Blake’s legacy and respectfully challenge the status quo.
The process was far from simple—but Tom had to start somewhere. He began by sharing his thoughts with his boss, and then reaching out to J&J’s Vice President of Human Resources. The goal was to bring awareness to the cause. And while Tom’s advocacy sparked discussion, it wasn’t so straightforward. J&J was in the midst of global change, and some stakeholders thought it best to wait a year.
Plus, Tom was still grieving.
Company leaders were skeptical, but the key account manager reassured them. He explained that he was absolutely in his right mind, and that his advocacy was a matter of great importance.
“It helps to have something to fight for,” he explained.
Now, Tom isn’t advocating for a specific number of days off. He is simply promoting a more flexible bereavement policy—for everyone.
Because parents deserve it. And because, in Tom’s words, Blake had a remarkable ability to use the past to make an even brighter tomorrow.
“That’s why it’s so important for me to give back,” Tom says. “I know that if this bereavement policy goes through, the day that I retire from J&J, I can sit there and say, ‘Blake, we did it.’”
On August 1st, Johnson & Johnson released this statement: We all need to step away from work sometimes, and taking time to heal from the loss of a loved one shouldn’t be an additional worry. As part of our newly-expanded global paid leave offerings, every employee around the globe has access to up to 30 days of dedicated paid leave time for bereavement. Learn about all the ways we offer flexibility to enable everyone on our team to succeed at work while also balancing personal and family needs.
Honoring Blake Barklage’s legacy
In 2022, the Barklage family started the Blake Barklage Foundation, also known as Blake Gives Back. The nonprofit supports charitable initiatives focused on intellectual disabilities, education, organ donation, and the prevention of cardiac arrest in children and young adults.
Readers can learn more about Blake’s life and legacy by visiting the links below:
- EXCLUSIVE: Blake Barklage’s Family, Friends Speak After La Salle College High School Senior’s Tragic Death
Read the heartfelt letter Tom Barklage sent to Johnson & Johnson.
My name is Tom Barklage and I am a J&J employee of 17 years. I’ve valued the culture at J&J as an employee given the priorities its maintained in support of families and patients worldwide for decades. This email is not easy one to write. Last month, on October 30th, my 17-year-old son Blake suddenly passed away from an undetected heart issue. As a parent, this is the hardest thing my wife and I have ever dealt with. I lost my father a year ago and one of my brothers passed away 10 years ago. Losing my dad and brother was tough, but losing my son is gut wrenching. As I write this, I am struggling to see the keyboard through my tears, but I will get through this.
The company policy of 5 condolence days is a policy I am having a difficult time understanding. As you can imagine, when an employee has the unfortunate experience of losing a child, spouse, partner, etc. the ability to
return to work and be productive is almost if not entirely impossible with only 5 days to recover. Grieving the loss of a child is crushing and deeply personal.
I received the recent J&J employee announcement about the new parental leave providing employees paid leave from 8 weeks to 12 weeks. That is great news!! Wonderful policies like this are one of the reasons I love working at J&J! In the Communication it stated that “J&J has a long history of supporting family health because we believe that advancing health for humanity starts at home.” I agree with that 100%!!
The reason paternity leaves are expanding is because someone raised this as an issue to be re-evaluated. Someone had an experience that wasn’t equitable. It started with a conversation and gained momentum from there. That is what I am trying to do. The loss of a child or close loved one is a monumental event that meets or exceeds the emotional/physical needs of a parent/spouse at the time of a birth. I was blessed to be at the birth of my son Blake and daughter Alexis. Losing Blake is so much harder and difficult to deal with. Please do not take this the wrong way. I am not trying to make it about me. My management team whom I work for have been very accommodating!! The support I received from my Janssen family has been phenomenal.
I went back and forth debating if I should send this note to you. I don’t want to come across as being disrespectful or ungrateful towards J&J. J&J has provided my family and I with opportunities that we are blessed to have. I am so happy to be part of the J&J family. But I know my son Blake, he would want me to raise this concern and ask to consider changing the policy to allow for more time for employees to work through their grief process. As I said earlier, it is not just about me. It’s about the other J&J employees too who have suffered loss and are still committed to their jobs and the purpose they find in their work. Our credo states, “We must support the health and well-being of our employees and help them fulfill their family and other personal responsibilities.” I understand that a change like this can’t happen without gaining as much information as possible and ensuring a diverse set of opinions are gained. I would like to be the catalyst for this change and happy to speak to you. Will you and your leadership team consider re-evaluating our company policy on condolence leave? If you would like to meet in person or connect via Zoom, please know that I would welcome that opportunity.
Senior Key Account Manager