It’s a dreaded notification for any EMS leader: “One of your staff has died.” I have received that unpleasant news several times over the course of my career, and it’s never easy.
Four former employees of mine have lost their lives in the last 90 days—three under the age of 40—from cancer, a pulmonary embolism and a line-of-duty death.
Whether it’s on duty or off, current or former employees, the impact on your organization is substantial. These are challenging times that require your leadership to carry the company through the healing process and restore a sense of normalcy without impacting service to the community.
As EMS professionals, we are familiar with the grieving process as it relates to our patients and their families. Yet somehow, when it happens to one of our own, we often don’t realize we must also go through the same anguished progression.
Recognizing the five stages of grief and how they relate to us personally and affect our employees will help your agency move through the process.
1. Denial and Isolation. When we first hear the news, there’s typically a sense of disbelief. This is a time where any details that can be shared should be.
Coworkers who are particularly close to the deceased may find the shock too great to allow them to continue to work. The last thing anyone in your agency needs is to be faced with a critical call when their head isn’t in the game. This can lead to greater stress for the employee and more liability for the company.
2. Anger. Anger can be directed at many different sources, including the deceased, those close to the deceased (family members or partners for not knowing what was going on), or the company, especially if the death was in the line of duty.
3. Bargaining. While this is often considered bartering for additional years from an individual facing a life-threatening situation, bargaining can occur with survivors. “If only” scenarios are common. “If only he would have called for help.” “If only she would have had a physical.” “Why did it have to be him, he was so young?”
4. Depression. Realizing that we as survivors will continue to experience life without the physical presence of the deceased often leads to depression. In an organization, this can manifest in lowered morale and behavior issues, like apathy, tardiness or absenteeism.
5. Acceptance. In time, your agency will return to a sense of normalcy, when affected individuals have accepted the fact the deceased is gone and recognize that life must and can go on.
How to help
An effective leader helps employees transition smoothly through the grieving process. There are many things a leader can do to help.
First, recognize both the personal and professional impact the loss of a brother or sister has on the organization.
Regardless how much time the person was associated with the company or how long ago they left, employees have a personal connection with the deceased and an impact will be felt. Watch for signs and symptoms of distress while proactively helping affected employees.
Be patient and allow the grieving process to occur, helping where you can to lead your organization through the crisis.
One way of helping your employees deal with this grief is by recognizing the contributions of the deceased and honoring their memory. Holding a memorial or permitting on- and off-duty employees to attend ceremonies gives employees the opportunity to celebrate life and honor the individual, and allows survivors to bond.
Many EMS organizations have formed honor guards to show respect for their lost brothers and sisters.
Even if your organization doesn’t have a formal honor guard, dress uniforms and an organized ceremony held in the deceased’s honor can offer some peace and provide closure for your team.
Just as grieving family members need help for the long term, coworkers may need assistance long after the ceremonies have concluded. An organized critical incident stress management debriefing or session may be warranted. If that isn’t indicated, a solid employee assistance program may also offer grief counseling for individuals who need extra support.
Most importantly, the compassion for others that makes your organization great for your community is also needed the most in this time of internal crisis.
Your agency needs your empathy and your compassion to drive your decisions, appreciate the grieving process, and understand the individual and collective needs of your employees. As a leader of caregivers, your staff will need your care to continue to move your organization forward.