Come, and take choice of all my library,
And so beguile thy sorrow.
Titus Andronicus, Act 4, Scene 1, William Shakespeare
Last Friday morning, I had a spat with my husband. It was about nothing. And yet it wasn’t. When I stopped to think about what was bugging me, I realized that I was feeling tired and unsettled by the recent and sudden death of a departmental colleague. The good news is that my husband gave me a hug and, when I went to work, I got support as well. This experience has reminded me that acknowledging grief in the workplace is critical to building trust and to ensuring that staff members can respond to the loss of a colleague in a healthy and a productive way.
Workplace loss: Often invisible or hidden
The last time I lost work colleagues was in the summer of 1988. My husband and I were employed at an Arctic mining camp, and in the space of a month, two men passed away. The first was an older fellow, who had a heart attack during an evening off, and the second was a young man, who was fatally injured underground. Both losses had a significant impact on the workplace community. The camp employed only about 250 people in total, and at any one time, there might be 160 on site—about the size of a largish library staff. We all knew each other, so the loss of a colleague could be felt by everyone. In the case of the young man, his death had a particular impact on my husband, who was one of the two people who flew out with him to the hospital in Yellowknife. My husband witnessed the death and felt a sense of connection to the young man that I could not.
Given where we worked, and the times, it’s perhaps not surprising that there wasn’t much grief support on offer in the workplace. We had an excellent staff nurse, who was healer–counsellor–social worker–psychologist all rolled into one, but we didn’t have access to other services or to events in which to participate. No funeral to attend collectively, no emails reminding us to access available mental health services, no support for self-care. And I don’t remember talking very much at all with co-workers about the deaths or about how I felt. The grief we were experiencing was hidden.
And on-the-job loss often goes into hiding. As bereavement expert Kenneth Doka wrote a year later, workplace grief is frequently disenfranchised. We are expected to “suck it up,” compartmentalize and carry on regardless of how we are thinking and feeling. And so our mourning becomes invisible.
This time, the response in the workplace is very different. From the beginning, senior staff members in our department have made every effort to acknowledge the loss and to support the grief that their colleagues might be experiencing. I think this reflects some significant social changes, and many of our workplaces have come a long way in terms of making bereavement visible and of ensuring that employees get the support they need—even if Canadian labour legislation stills sends the message that grief is something to get over quickly; i.e., in less than a week.
Responding compassionately to workplace loss
So, what happened for me this time? I have received both formal and informal support that is very helpful.
- Timely, clear and compassionate communication about the death. Our senior staff communicated with all library staff as quickly as possible. An all-staff meeting was called so that colleagues could be informed as a group. For those of us who could not attend that meeting, senior staff members either located us in person or called to give us the news.
- Access to an on-site grief counsellor was made available almost immediately, and two different dates and times were arranged to accommodate employee schedules.
- As soon as information was available about a visitation, we received another all-staff email from within the library, in addition to the notification that the university communications department sent to the broader campus community. This all-staff library email included information about travelling together, if colleagues wanted to attend as a group. We have also been given the opportunity to see an on-site grief counsellor since the visitation.
- We have already been notified that we can contribute to a memorial fund set up to honour our colleague.
- Storytelling is such an important part of grieving a loss. Remembering the person who has died by sharing stories of how we met, what we did together, how much the person contributed to the workplace—these memories are such powerful tools for helping us accept the reality of the loss and celebrate the person who is gone. And lots of stories have been shared over the past week. Our university librarian has done much to validate this process by sending an email in which he shared his memories including part of an email conversation with our colleague.
One of the richest benefits of this process for me is that I learn even more about the person who has died and about the colleagues I still have. I have gotten to know some folks a bit better.
- Permission to practise self-care; i.e., no rush “to get back to work.” Grief can be exhausting and painful, so it helps to notice how we are thinking and feeling and to take time out for self-care when we think we need it.
That same Friday that I had a spat with my husband, I was pooped by the early afternoon and knew I needed to go home. I checked in with my department head, went home and had a hot bath before sitting down to do my late-afternoon chat shift in my pyjamas. Approval for “chat in pyjamas” is not written in any policy manual I suspect, but “on the fly” support for my decision felt comforting and respectful to me.
The quotation from Titus Andronicus is used on a library services poster that hangs in one of our stairwells. I just happened to be coming down those stairs this afternoon and thought, “How appropriate.” At this moment, I am finding solace in my library, my workplace, with my co-workers because I can grieve here in a way that is healthy and helps me to accept the loss of my colleague.
Before I started working at Carleton University, I did a lot of work with Bereaved Families of Ontario–Ottawa Region (BFO). BFO is a non-profit organization that provides peer support for people who are grieving, and for five years, I co-facilitated survivor-of-suicide groups before going on to do fundraising and volunteer training. On my reading list I still have some books that helped with my BFO work, including:
- Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow (Kenneth J. Doka, editor)
- Healing after loss: Daily meditations for working through grief (Martha Hickman)
- Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (J. William Worden)
- When good things happen to bad people (Harold S. Kushner)
These are definitely “old chestnuts” but still relevant and helpful.
It’s been just two weeks since we learned of our colleague’s death. Not much time at all to adjust to this big change in our workplace. However, while my sorrow is not done, it is definitely beguiled by working in an environment that respects the grieving process and makes space for people to adjust to the loss of a colleague.
Martha Attridge Bufton (MA, MLIS, Graduate Certificate in TBDL) is the Open Shelf editor-in-chief and a member of Editors Canada. Martha is the interdisciplinary studies librarian in Research Support Services at the Carleton University Library, and her research interests include game-based learning, writing communities and culturally responsive pedagogy. She can be reached at martha.attridgebufton [at] carleton.ca.