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Honoring Those We’ve Lost

June 27, 2023
Let us be brave enough to share our emotions so they can propel us to better tomorrows.

This isn’t the column I intended to write. Such is life. And, unfortunately such is the grieving process. Let me back up a minute.

In high school, I participated in many extracurriculars, through which I was fortunate to make friends with many upperclassmen. Both my parents worked, so I often had to hitch rides with my more senior friends. Nikki was one of those friends. She was always more than willing to give me a lift, even though we lived in opposite directions.

Eventually, Nikki graduated and went off to college. A year later, I followed her to the same area, albeit to a different university. We both stayed in the same town after college. Even though we didn’t talk as often as I would’ve liked, we frequently ran into each other. Most of the time, those meetings weren’t planned, just a happy coincidence.

Nikki was someone I deeply admired and greatly respected. She was killed by gun violence over four years ago, but I still have moments that feel like a punch to the gut.

Today was one of them. Facebook sent me a memory notification from nine years ago, about a post Nikki tagged me in—one of those serendipitous run ins. I’m mad at myself that I can’t recall more details of that day so I could have one more fond memory of my friend. I’m mad that I didn’t make plans to see her more often. I’m mad that she’s gone. Most of all, I’m mad that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent her murder.

Then I thought about something Greg Pass, director of safety at YKK Corporation of America, recently told me while finalizing details for his presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference this fall.

Greg said that for the past 30 years, not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about the young man who was killed in a workplace accident. He recounted knocking on the door to that young man’s parents to deliver the news, going to that young man’s funeral and the questioning during the deposition for the lawsuit that followed. He made a promise to himself to never do that again, a promise he has kept.

I thought about my conversations while editing with Patrick J. Karol, who wrote about "The Art of Selling Safety." He said something that many others have echoed: He didn’t choose safety; rather, it chose him after a tragic workplace accident.

Despite all these shared experiences with loss, I let myself wallow in my grief for a little while. I firmly believe in feeling your feelings. I think it’s a healthy way of dealing with your emotions in the moment rather than sweeping them under the surface, where they continue to fester and stew.

In my humble opinion, acknowledging your emotions is a powerful part of the healing process. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they will guide our future decisions. They will help us to act so we can prevent another tragedy. They will help us to endure the difficult days. They will help us connect with one another. They will help us to move forward while honoring those who are no longer with us.

Our emotions are powerful because they are something we can control.

Today, I decided to reshare that Facebook memory to let others know that while Nikki may be gone, she is not forgotten. Another friend, Michelle, reached out to express her condolences. I told Michelle that Nikki had such joie de vivre and wouldn’t want me to mourn her. No, Nikki would want me to do some good for the world.

By chance (or perhaps by Nikki’s doing), I met a stranger who shared that he was grieving his own loss. It was such a privilege that he chose to confide in me. I told him that a burden shared is a burden halved. I hope he felt a little lighter after our conversation. I know I did. It is my steadfast conviction that when we are vulnerable with each other, we can be stronger together.

I hope that you haven’t experienced a serious injury or fatality at your workplace. If you have, I hope that you can find a way to honor that person’s memory and recommit your efforts to creating a safer workplace. Let’s all try to channel today’s grief into doing good for tomorrow.

Safety professionals have the power to transform lives. I am rooting for you to keep persevering and making a difference, even though it might not always feel like it. Drop me a line and let me know how I can help.

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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