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When a Coworker Dies, How Do We Grieve?

Memorial serviceIn today’s work environment, it’s not unusual for people to spend more time with coworkers than at home with families. Our colleagues become our “work family” – we share stories, we joke around, we look to them for understanding. But when a coworker dies – especially unexpectedly - we feel a grief that may have no outlet. “You’re not a family member or probably even a close childhood friend,” said Denise Statham, administrative chaplain in Pastoral Care at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a disenfranchised grief.”

The impact goes beyond just hearing the news and mourning. “When you walk into the office, the person’s personal belongings are still there, as if nothing has happened,” Statham said. “And depending how the person died, people go into ‘should have, could haves.’ How could I have changed what happened? What part did I play?”

Often, funeral services are held at times and locations that prevent employees from attending so HUP chaplains – who are onsite around the clock – will often be called to the unit or department that has suffered the loss, to facilitate discussions and closure.  But frequently, “the tentacles of grief reach far beyond a unit. We’re interconnected in so many ways,” Statham said, recalling a memorial service held two years ago for a young woman who had died unexpectedly. Although the greatest impact was on those who worked with her directly, people from around the hospital showed up at the service. “The auditorium was standing room only,” she said. “We work in community and we need to share memories in community.”

 HUP’s Annual Service of Remembrance does just that by providing closure for employees who have lost coworkers over the course of the year, offering an opportunity to remember those who passed away and to share memories. At this year's service, a harpist played softly in the background as coworkers got up to pay tribute to their colleagues who had died. “It shows others that this person made a difference,” Statham said. “You get a glimpse into the people you work with that you might not have otherwise known.”

The employee memorial service is just one way HUP's chaplains help support those who are suffering. They also hold a special service each year in the hospital chapel for families who suffered the loss of a newborn. Frequently, staff from the patient’s unit attend these memorials to ease their own grief. And then there are the chaplains’ day-to-day visits - more than 31,000 a year - reaching out to anyone at HUP who needs emotional or spiritual help.  

At the Remembrance service, 19 vases – one for each of the employees being remembered – sat on a table. All held a single rose and the name of the person written on a small card. This simple remembrance would find a home in the department or unit where the person had worked.

Another vase – separate from the others – was placed on the lectern, with a single rose but no name, "for the times staff were with patients who were dying or for tragedies that might be happening in their own lives. The candle stands for remembrance for all those who are now gone but not forgotten,” Statham said. "We help keep the memories alive.”

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