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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life

 

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CHAPTER ONE: DEAR DOCTOR EXPERT

Grief in the Workplace

Initially after a death there is a flood of support. As time passes, lives go on and the support dwindles. Without continued help from those close to the bereaved, as my client mentioned, the isolation magnifies the pain.

Often people do not know what to say, so they simply say nothing. I frequently did interventions for Bay Area companies after the death of an employee or an employee's loved one and know there can be awkwardness in a work setting. Employees may not know how to interact with the bereaved. Once an employee shared that he had heard about the death of a colleague's daughter from a co-worker, who said casually, as if talking about the weather, "Well, I guess John's daughter was killed last night."

A mother whose only son was killed at age 17 in a car accident feared returning to work because she felt there would be a lack of support.

I find it difficult to go back to the workplace because my co-workers don't really know, as so many don't know, how to express their grief and their concern other than saying, "I'm glad you're back," and "Hi." I feel sorry for them because they can't just say, "Well, we'll get through this together," and "I know what you're feeling and don't worry if you break into tears." So there's a bit of a silence going on and I put on a happy face so they won't be uncomfortable. But it is too hard. One person said, "You are so strong." I wanted to say, "You don't see my pain because I can't show it to you. You don't see me when I'm home alone banging my head against the wall."

Others may not want to reference the deceased child for fear they will make the parents sad by reminding them of their loss. How important for them to understand that the grief is always there — at times it just finds a quiet resting spot. The child is never forgotten. A few words of support go a long way. Comments can be as simple as, "I'm thinking about you and Karen today." This can be written in a note if a face-to-face encounter would be uncomfortable for either person.

It's almost always true that people are reluctant to broach the subject of a child's death because they worry they'll cause their friend or co-worker more pain. A 44-year-old man whom I counseled reflected this concern when he talked about the death of his co-worker's daughter from cancer. "I haven't brought it up myself — the subject of what happened to her daughter and how she is. If she volunteers, then I'll certainly listen, but I don't want to do anything to remind her and make her sad."

This is the kind of misguided thinking you are perpetuating, Dr. Expert: By waiting to "listen," this man is putting the burden on his co-worker, who may also hesitate to broach the subject for fear of making him sad.

A father whose three-year-old died in a car accident would have loved to be reminded.

I'm not that close to the people I work with, but I sometimes wish they could mention my daughter's death — my loss. When no one says anything, I just get quiet and more withdrawn and they approach me less. Maybe it's my fault — the way I am. I just feel so alone.

I believe people try to protect themselves from another's grief. A bereaved parent is a reminder that no parent is exempt from the death of his child. A parent can feel threatened by the realization that this could happen at any time to his children.

One man expressed this idea when his co-worker's 16-year-old daughter died in a car accident.

I felt so sorry for Hal, especially because we have a son and he's a few months older than his daughter. I didn't know what to do. Do I go to him and say, "I'm sorry, don't worry about it"? It's tough to say, "Don't worry about it," you know. I didn't know what to do. But when he came back, it was hard for me. It was very hard for me to even show myself to him. And besides, I think if something like that happened to my son, I would die. I would commit suicide.

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