The International Day of Mourning was launched on April 28, 1991 by the Canadian Labour Con
gress, after the passage of the Workers Mourning Day Act by Parliament and is observed by more than 100 countries. It is also recognized as (International) Worker’s Memorial Day by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation. World-wide it is a day to honour our co-workers with commemorative events such as moments of silence, lighting candles, laying wreaths at Parliament and perhaps most visibly by flying flags at half-mast.
It is that kind of visibility that worries me, or rather, the lack of visibility for those who are mourning a significant loss. When a loss is minimized or invisible, the griever can feel inhibited about grieving their loss publicly. This means they may avoid talking to someone about this painful loss and experience that loss alone. Called “disenfranchised grief,” this type of grief was defined by author and gerontology professor Dr. Ken Doka. According to Dr. Doka, people dealing with disenfranchised grief are those who have experienced a loss that is not acknowledged by others. Essentially, it’s a type of grief that is not socially recognized, therefore not openly supported and not well understood.
There are different types of disenfranchised grief, such as when a relationship isn’t acknowledged; for example, ex-spouses or those involved in significant unmarried relationships. Disenfranchised grief can have stigma attached to the death, such as with suicide or addiction.
In many cases those who are grieving don’t look for support; they may feel embarrassed and therefore they remain invisible. And finally, there is the type of disenfranchised grief where the mourner’s grief process doesn’t fit with the norms of society. A group of elderly mourners wailing and sobbing at the casket is not something you are likely to see in most Western cultures, however, in many Hispanic and eastern European countries that type of grief is expected. Sometimes I wish we were more accepting of such cultural differences; it certainly couldn’t make the grieving process any more difficult.
Disenfranchised grief isn’t black or white; it is relative and subject to experience. You and I may experience the same loss, and among my friends and community the loss is openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned and publicly mourned, whereas in your social situation, among your friends and community it may not be. Though we have experienced the same loss, for you it will be a disenfranchised experience but for me, it will not.
The International Day of Mourning is dedicated to remembering those who have lost their lives, suffered injury or illness on the job or from a work-related tragedy. Not only is it a day to remember the dead, but it also presents an opportunity to call attention to protecting the living by making the work environment a better and safer place for all. Health and safety regulations are necessary in the workplace to prevent injuries, illness, and tragic death. Frankly, this is the right thing to do for all workers everywhere, under any roof; especially when you consider that in 2019, there were 925 work related fatalities (882 males and 43 females). Tragically 29 of those deaths were those of workers between 15 and 24 years of age.
Devastating as those statistics are, sadly, I’m afraid not a lot has changed. I remember my first job out of high school and just before going off to university - I worked at a women’s fashion store in the mall. Like most of the associates, I was young
and excited to be working in a real job beyond my babysitting gigs. My manager was a tall, confident gal with a good sense of humour who assembled a close-knit team of enthusiastic, friendly and energetic employees. We would encourage each other in sales and loved to sing and dance to the revolving loop of 80’s music when the store was empty of customers. I walked into the store on a Monday morning in August to find such somber faces on my co-workers. I couldn’t imagine what might have happened to this vibrant group and wondered if someone had been fired. Instead, my manager, usually strong and poised, tearfully told me that one of the team had died in a single car accident on Highway 1604, known to those of us living in the city as the “Death Loop”. She was 19 years old with a full life ahead of her.
This hit us very hard and it was difficult in the days and weeks following her untimely passing to put on a happy face on and try to sell dresses to customers. Couldn’t they tell we were in mourning, with our swollen eyes and red faces? Probably not, because while it was hard to be energetic and enthusiastic, we still had to carry on and be professional. In memory of our friend and co-worker we created a tribute board that we put in the stock room, and whenever the pre-recorded tape at work would play the song “Hands to Heaven” by the group Breathe, we would stop to remember how much our colleague loved to sing and dance around the store to this song. Sharing this together helped all of us heal, both on the inside and outside.
HHA gives all of us permission to exchange ideas over difficult questions associated with dying and in a healthy and supportive manner. My challenge to you is similar…ask yourself the following questions and start a conversation at your workplace to facilitate healing and growth.
1. What does the loss or injury of a co-worker mean to you, and how were you affected?
2. How long were you allowed to grieve the loss of a co-worker?
3. Were you offered counselling?
4. Upon the loss of your co-worker, what are the challenges of everyone interacting with each other again?
5. When is it appropriate to allow someone else move into their work space?
6. How do “work spouses” and “work family members” grieve differently than actual spouses and family?
My closing thoughts are these; when we withhold affirmation of someone’s grief, the memory of the relationship, the importance of the loss, or the needs of the griever do not simply go away. Rather, it causes bereaved individuals to cut off sources of support and forces them to suppress their grief causing problems to magnify. People need to accept the fact that others grieve and have intense emotional reactions to things which we may see as unimportant. By accepting the fact that other may have these grief reactions we can better prepare ourselves for the role of supporter.