Access Services · Leadership · Library Philosophy · Lifeskills · Professionalism · Reflection

Things They Don’t Teach in Library School: Part 1, Collective Grieving

It is a dark time for the library. A few months ago, one of my employees –a woman in her early forties — was diagnosed with colon cancer. This week we learned that she has passed away. I only knew the woman for a short time, but she was a quiet and kind person whom I could approach for an informed opinion both about library issues and management questions. While she technically worked for me, she had a lot of retail management experience that I was beginning to consult and utilize. I had looked forward to her being a vital part of my team for some time. Her loss is profoundly felt both personally and professionally.

After some confusion when the news first broke, the library administration was able to inform all of the staff members, and we are working to inform all of our student assistants. When the news finally did break we were told that at her request there would be no arrangements. This causes a bit of a practical problem, however. While the decent thing to do is to respect the family’s wishes, we are grieving as well as they are. Perhaps, not as deeply, but grieving just the same. We are in need of achieving closure with her loss no less than her family is. What do we do? How do we cope?

Administration is reminding us what campus facilities are available to us — for both employees and students — and we are already discussing what can be organized within the library that will give people the opportunity to pay their respects to our lost coworker and give everyone an outlet for their grief. The idea at this time is to have an in-house memorial event in which individuals can talk about their memories of her, sign cards, and provide gifts for the family.

This is one of those things they don’t teach in library school. How could they? Why would they? No one plans for the death of an employee or coworker. Even though we knew she was sick, and knew it was serious, we never imagined that it would have happened as quickly as it did.

As an undergrad I took a Death and Dying class that, while I had great difficulty with the instructor, has ended up being one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken in my life. While in that class we learned about the grief spectrum and how people manage that differently. Once I found out that the news about my employee was real I began looking for resources on how to deal with this situation as a manager. Most of the resources I found were about loosing a coworker and the grief process generally. However, Stanford University’s Faculty/Staff Help Center has a much needed resource available to us. It describes effects on individuals, coping strategies, and tips for supervisors, as well as other outside resources.

Just a few days into our own grieving process I feel that we are handling it well. Due to the fact that our lost colleague was a very reserved person, and the fact that we’re a better working group than a social one we are operating as best as can be expected. Her work had already been delegated to others as she dealt with her illness, and the sadness we feel has thus far been manageable. I, as a manager, must keep aware of changes in my employees and colleagues as they deal with the loss. Individuals may be emotional or short tempered, and there is no time limit on grief. Weeks may go by without outward signs of trouble, and then a seemingly innocuous event may trigger an emotional outburst. The most important thing I can do is give people the room they need to process their grief as they require.

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