Working Knowledge

A Monthly Column about Life on the Job


By Mary Pergander
American Libraries Columnist

Mary Pergander is director of the Deerfield (Ill.) Public Library. Send comments or questions to

Column for August 2008

Working through Grief

How to deal with a coworker’s loss

While returning from a recent professional conference, I met another librarian in the airport. She was distraught because her coworker’s loved one had recently died, and the funeral was so far away that no one else from the library could attend. She felt sad that they could not do more for their grieving friend.
    Working in our libraries, many of us spend more time with coworkers than with some members of our families. Yet when a library employee faces a difficult loss, we often feel awkward and alienated from the very person we want to support.
    Significant losses can be of many types: death of a loved one (including a cherished pet), termination of employment, or the discovery of a life-changing illness.
    Sometimes an event can affect an entire department or library, such as the death of a fellow employee. At these times, it is wise to bring in someone to help the group cope. In larger organizations, the employee assistance program can fulfill this need. Smaller libraries may request help from the local police department or school social worker, psychologist, or chaplain.

Patience is key
Although we recognize it takes time to work though personal losses, it can be difficult for the employee and coworkers to be patient. No one can predict how long the grieving will last. It is not a simple linear process, and may take a year or more. Even many months after the loss initially occurs, there can be triggers that bring back intense emotions. The full range includes anger, irritability, weariness, sadness, guilt, and many others.
    Some grieving employees may throw themselves into their job tasks; others may need months of assistance until they are more emotionally able to deal with the workload and stress. This may cause a secondary reaction, too, if library coworkers become resentful or impatient toward the employee whose actions affect their work.

Overcome discomfort
Being an effective support for a grieving coworker requires skills that seem to contradict one another. Do not avoid the person, yet remain sensitive to his or her need for privacy. Be open and ready to listen, but do not force the conversation. You may feel a little uncomfortable raising the subject. Sometimes the person may want to talk, other times not. Allow silence—your presence alone may be enough. Just listen sympathetically. You do not need to try to comfort or reassure. If you are at a loss for words, a sincerely stated “I am so sorry” is often enough.
    There are many print and online resources explaining the grieving process, and some describe in more detail how to help coworkers. Readers are encouraged to review them. Chaplain George Franke (retired) of Waukegan, Illinois; The Compassionate Friends in Oakbrook, Illinois; and the University of Houston–Downtown website provided many of the ideas presented in this month’s column.


What can you do to help? Here are the ABCs: Accept feelings or tears. A person who seems fine one day may be weepy or withdrawn the next. Be patient—you may hear the same stories or statements repeatedly. Continue to support, letting the person grieve in his or her own way. Remember it can take many months. It is all part of the process.

    (c) Copyright 2008 American Library Association