A son finds out his father has suffered a heart attack. Frantically, he rushes to the hospital. On the way, he gets in a car accident. The father survives. The son does not. We've all heard sad but true stories like this one.Emergency room.  Zimmerman photo

On June 8, I got a call that my husband Doug was in the Emergency Room. They would not tell me over the phone what had happened. However, I realized he was not conscious because they asked for help confirming his identity. The social worker told me to come to the hospital right away. She asked if I had someone who could drive me there. She could hear from my voice how upset I was.

As I flew out of the house, I did try to contact a couple of friends. It didn't work out. I was not willing to wait. I knew the situation was bad.

I leapt in the car and drove the 45 minutes to the hospital. I was crying hysterically the entire way. At times I was driving at speeds in excess of 95 miles an hour. I knew this was not safe. I didn't care. I thought every minute counted. I wanted to be by his side as soon as possible.

After learning that Doug did not survive, I drove home slowly. There was no reason to rush any more. But I got lost, even though I had made that trip hundreds of times. I was so disoriented that several times I stopped right in the middle of traffic on a busy highway.

Fortunately I didn't harm anyone that day. In the days and weeks that followed, I hardly cared whether I lived or died. I was careless and distracted. Forgetting to eat. Forgetting to feed our pets. Dropping and breaking expensive things. Leaving wet laundry in the washing machine for days. Losing my car in parking lots. Putting my clothes on backwards. Unable to recall what I'd been told. Unable to concentrate. I found it hard to care about things that used to matter to me.

In the first week, I probably slept a total of 7 hours. Of course, sleepless or restless nights can affect mental acuity. For probably the first month, I was operating at about 25% capacity.

Paradoxically, there have been many disruptions to my normal routine and additional demands on my time - from planning the funeral to probate court to phone calls to having to deal with all the chores Doug used to do. For example, I know how to properly lift heavy objects, but hurt my back picking up unwieldy things that Doug used to man-handle. I am also damaging property.

I work in the Environment, Safety & Health field. One would expect that I would be more sensitive than most to safety issues. (I could always do better.) I am aware that sleep deprivation and distractions make humans more prone to error. And yet I made mistakes every day that could jeopardize not only my own safety, but the safety of others around me.

It is hard enough to pay enough attention to safety under normal circumstances. These are anything but.

If we live long enough, we WILL all lose someone we love. For a major loss (death or divorce), the grieving process can last months at a minimum, depending on the circumstances. For loss of a spouse, that time frame is more likely extended to 1.5 to 2 years. In reality, no one can predict how long it will last for a particular individual. Or how they will deal with their loss.

I got to thinking about how some grief stricken people go back to work after just a few days. Some need to do so to avoid losing their jobs. Others need the money. Some may want to stay busy to avoid thinking about or dealing with their loss.

Their normal responsibilities at work may range from mundane to complex. On the lower impact side of the scale, they may make a lot of clerical type errors. (My blog is filled with typos. A kind friend helps me by editing.) I would be pretty concerned about a nuclear power plant or wastewater treatment system operator who had recently endured the death of someone very close to them. How careful will they be when dealing with safety systems? Power tools?

Some people - particularly men - bury their grief. They may do this because they do not not know how to deal with it, they want to appear strong or capable, or they do not want to make others uncomfortable. They may claim or outwardly act as if everything is okay. It probably is not.

If they are a private person, or the relationship was not public, you may not even be aware that they recently suffered a loss.

Lessons Learned

There are some lessons learned here.

  • Recognize the limitations associated with the grieving process.
  • For those who are grieving, try to simplify your life. Lighten your schedule. Allow yourself more time for tasks. Team with others you can count on to pick up the slack while you are operating at reduced capacity. Take time off if it helps. Consciously try to pay more attention to safety consequences.
  • Co-workers and supervisors should be aware of the potential impact of a major loss.
  • Provide additional support or oversight.
    • Insist on special care mreasures after a traumatic event (e.g., provide a ride home and accompaniment during the immediate aftermath of the event. Offer formal post-traumatic stress counseling, although "tough guys" may refuse to participate.
    • Consider simplifying or limiting responsibilities for the time being.
    • Temporary re-assignment or use a buddy system is probably called for in situations where the risk is high.
    • It is also probably a good idea to provide explicit reassurance that this does not mean they are no longer considered a valued employee.




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