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Finding your way: How we can help you through losing a loved one at work

Finding your way: How we can help you through losing a loved one at work

A woman in her thirties with dark curly hair look to a man in the foreground. He's wearing a Victim Support jacket, and they sit outside on a park bench.

Life can change in a heartbeat, and the workplace is no exception. What do you do when faced with sudden tragedy?

Ben* had just started a brand-new job as a builder. He wanted to learn something new and had heard that building could be a lucrative career. He had worked hard to find the job, scouring social media and job sites until he secured his new role.

Two days into his new job, Ben was killed on the building site. He was 20 years old.

The sudden loss left Ben’s family, whānau, and new work colleagues reeling. Workplace incidents that result in significant injury or fatality can leave dozens of victims - families, whānau, friends, witnesses, and colleagues - grappling with profound shock and grief. The suddenness of such events can make coping feel insurmountable, leaving people with countless questions and emotions.

The path for victims through the aftermath of a workplace fatality is arduous. It begins with that initial jolt of shock, often exacerbated by sudden financial burdens and the lengthy investigative process. It's a journey that can feel impossible to navigate.

Anyone affected by such tragedy doesn’t have to go through it alone. Manaaki Tāngata | Victim Support provides 24/7 free, confidential emotional and practical support for anyone affected by crime, suicide, and traumatic events, including those impacted by workplace tragedies.

Emotional Impact

Immediately after a sudden death, the emotional impact can be overwhelming. Both grief and trauma are natural reactions to the aftermath of a workplace tragedy.

Grief is a normal response to loss, characterised by a range of emotions rooted in sadness. Trauma, on the other hand, is a reaction to an abnormal event, marked by feelings of fear and anxiety.

This is where Victim Support steps in, providing guidance and support as they deal with the aftermath.

Manaaki Tāngata | Victim Support is here 24/7 for people affected by workplace fatalities - including whānau, colleagues and witnesses.

Immediately after Ben’s sudden death, Vicki, a volunteer with Victim Support, accompanied police to notify his grandparents, mother, father and three siblings.

“The complete and utter disbelief followed by the outpouring of grief and anger, never lessens in its impact,” says Vicki. “To be present at a time of such devastation is a privilege and responsibility we don’t take lightly.”

Our Support Workers are here to walk beside victims and guide them through the next steps, whether it's planning the funeral, seeking financial support, or understanding the various processes that lie ahead. The financial impact on a family after such an event can be daunting, especially as it comes without warning.

Victims may be eligible for discretionary payments, counselling and support, travel assistance, and attendance at court proceedings. Knowing that you have this support can provide comfort during a challenging period.

Facing the media

An unexpected challenge for victims can be facing the media. Journalists may seek victims out for interview, usually very soon after the incident.

“I always warn family that the media may be in touch, especially if the death has been reported on social media.” Says Vicki. “If there is someone who is going to act a family spokesperson, I will support them and talk about how the media interest might unfold.”

Media attention can sometimes feel demanding and intrusive during times of stress. However, the decision to engage with the media, and what information a victim may feel comfortable sharing, remains entirely their own.

Journalists can be persistent, and their quest for information can lead to creative methods, such as staking out homes, hospitals, and workplaces or using social media accounts without permission. It is always paramount to prioritise personal wellbeing over engaging with the media.

“It’s the timing here that is difficult.” Says Vicki. “As we know, the wheels of the legal system grind slowly, and victims often express feeling sidelined by a system that can feel offender-centric to them.”

Navigating the processes

Undeniably, one of the biggest challenges a victim faces is the investigation and court processes. Following every work-related fatality or serious accident, official investigations commence as swiftly as possible.

WorkSafe Inspectors and the New Zealand Police may both be involved in the early stages of the investigation. The Police investigate whether an offence has been committed under the laws the Police are responsible for, while WorkSafe investigates whether any health and safety laws have been broken.

We're here to help you navigate the different processes and systems after a workplace tragedy.

“It’s the timing here that is difficult.” Says Vicki. “As we know, the wheels of the legal system grind slowly, and victims often express feeling sidelined by a system that can feel offender-centric to them.”

The investigation can take a long time, especially after a fatality. WorkSafe has 12 months to complete an investigation and file charges. This period can be traumatic for victims, especially if the outcome of the investigation coincides with the anniversary of the tragedy.

Our Support Workers are a consistent, present face while the victim navigates ongoing processes and multiple agencies.

We know court cases can be lengthy and unfamiliar, but we’re here to help. Our Support Workers can assist throughout the process, providing guidance on navigating the complexities of the justice system.

Vicki shares one final piece of advice for dealing with the aftermath of a workplace tragedy: “Please don’t think that the length of time taken doesn’t mean the death of your loved is not being treated with due attention and diligence.

“Be kind to yourself, and practice self-care. Seek - and be open to - help if you need it.”

In the midst of tragedy, when the world seems to crumble, know there that there is support for victims to find their way in their time of crisis. Victim Support stands with victims 24/7 to offer free, confidential emotional and practical support and information.

If you or someone you know needs support, call: 0800 842 846

*Name has been changed to protect victim’s identity.

This story was originally written for and published in Safeguard Magazine.

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