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Workplace Grief

"Work As a Refuge"

A Study from 1988.




A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children will not be comforted, for her children are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)

The sudden death of a child is not only excruciatingly painful for the parent but also potentially disruptive for the corporation employing the parent. The parent must find a way to cope with life's most painful loss. The corporation faces the dilemma of responding compassionately to its employee while at the same time maintaining departmental morale and productivity. That dilemma is explored in this study from the perspective of the bereaved parent and the institution.

This study is of particular interest to the author, whose seven year old daughter drowned when pulled out to sea by a wave in 1976. Since that time she has worked extensively with bereaved parents in self-support groups and in her clinical practice. Of concern is the amount of understanding and support provided by organizations to working parents as they struggle with the loss of their child.

In the time of our great grandparents, the death of children was common. It was not unusual to bury one or more children and rare to bury none. The Johnsons comment in Children Die, Too (1978), that this attitude is different in today's society. They point out that now our society readily accepts the death of the aged or may even tolerate the death of adults but finds it extremely hard to admit that children die too (p. 4).

In his book, Loss: Sadness and Depression (1980), Dr. John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist who has studied attachment and separation, regards the loss of a loved person as one of the most intensely painful experiences any human can suffer. He believes that another's death is not only painful to experience but also to witness because we often feel impotent to help. "To the bereaved nothing but the return of the lost person can bring true comfort; should what we provide fall short of that it is felt almost as an insult" (pp. 7-8).

Bowlby feels that whether one is discussing the effects of loss on an adult or a child, society's tendency is to underestimate how intensely distressing and disabling the loss is and how long it will persist. Conversely, the tendency is to assume that a normal healthy person can and should get over a bereavement rapidly and completely. He believes that healthy grieving has a number of features which were once considered to be pathological, such as a person's disbelief that the loss has really occurred (termed denial). Also, he believes healthy grieving may be absent of other features once thought to be typical such as guilt. Bowlby defined pathological grief on the basis of the adjustment of the survivor. Of all the courses a mourning process can take, those that ultimately end in the person being able to relate to new love objects and find pleasure in them were judged to be healthy, while those that fail to move to that stage were deemed pathological.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer in the field of death and dying, believes that a greater degree of emotional disturbance results with sudden death than with an anticipated death, often causing anxiety, self- reproach and depression. She believes that these symptoms may persist throughout the first and into future years, perhaps in some ways causing permanent debilitating effects.

The most painful of all sudden death situations, according to Kübler-Ross, is the unanticipated death of a child. In her book, Questions and Answers on Death and Dying (1974), she states that when the death of the child is sudden and the family has had no preparation, the family sometimes needs years to work through the grief. She also believes that the family needs considerable support during this time and should not be isolated or deserted (p. 61).

From an organizational standpoint, Smelser (1980) examined Freud's views on the importance of work for individuals, concluding that Freud believed work to be important to man not only because it attaches him to reality but also because work "gives him a secure place in the human community." Freud contends that work and love are both governed by the search for the same goal: social pleasure that is responsible, lasting and realistic (p. 30).

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