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Dealing with the Loss of a Co-Worker

He was one of the friendliest people at my medical school. He dressed in a business suit to “coach” our intramural teams when we played against Law, or Dental, or Pharmacy school. He offered an empathetic ear to classmates who failed Step 1. And he sat with me at the dinner before the night I interviewed for medical school, after I got to the restaurant 30 minutes late. A friend of his joined us at a table off to side of the main group. They talked college football with me for a few hours, and they helped calm my nervous anticipation of the next day. I bumped into him a few times downtown—strangely, always at ice cream shops—and he always met me with a big smile and an enthusiastic “Hey, man! How are you?!” Even through our few interactions, he helped make medical school a friendlier place. He did the same for many others.

He died at the beginning of his second year of residency. His friends made memorial bracelets that many of them still wear years later, and each spring, at a panel discussion held in his honor, a group of graduating medical students share with the rest of the school their personal challenges with mental health or academic difficulties.

Is it rare to find someone so integral to their community? Or to find someone who makes a difference to at least one other person? When our “difference-maker” dies, how do we react?

I want to ask you to consider how much time you spend at work. The classic American full-time job is, say, about 40 hours per week. If this person sleeps for 8 hours per night, that means they spend about 36% of their waking moments at work.

What about those of us in medicine? We usually work (or, in medical school, study) more than 40 hours per week, generally somewhere between 55 and 80 hours per week.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say 65 hours. And in general, we sleep less. Again, for simplicity, let’s assume 6 hours per night (though this might be a restful night for the surgical residents out there). Run these numbers and see that we spend more than 51% of our waking lives at work. With co-workers.

Is it any surprise, then, that we become attached to our classmates, our co-residents, and our co-workers? We spend abundant time together, sometimes more time than we spend with our families, and we support one another through whatever professional—and frequently personal—challenges we face.

Is it any surprise that my classmate meant so much to so many? And yet, we frequently extend popular society’s rejection of all things emotional to justify keeping distance from our coworkers. To keep from talking about how we feel, sometimes at all, sometimes with all but our closest friends.

This denial, in my opinion, is the core of what makes losing co-workers—or anyone for that matter—difficult. We do not allow ourselves the time or space to grieve. We do not acknowledge the loss. We do not integrate the experience into our identities, and we do not deliberately honor the role that person played in our lives. To cope with such a loss, to begin to heal, does not happen right away.

The process starts with time and space. Department leadership can make themselves available for individuals to express themselves, or they can protect time for people to seek counseling from another source. Those with a faith affiliation can lean on their traditions and rituals for support. Depending on the workplace, there may be ways to integrate these practices into the work place directly.

We can talk about the person we miss. Lots of downtime at work is spent telling personal stories between co-workers, and there is no reason why we cannot include stories about the memory of the person. We can share with one another favorite memories and stories. We can acknowledge, even briefly in passing, that “This is something Joe would have loved to work on,” or “I’m missing Susan today. Let’s order lunch from her favorite restaurant today.”

And we can take time to reflect on the importance of the relationships in our lives. Many great thinkers have arrived at the same conclusion: relationships make life worth living. Including relationships born at a workplace. The people we know shape us and change us, make us who we are and inspire us to be better, work harder, love deeper—to make the most of every day we have. Acknowledging this as we remember those we have lost, and staying with this perspective, can help us to cherish those who remain.