Writing therapy – Part I

You should see an empty page for the first hour when words failed me on the things I wanted to describe.

Purely factually speaking, my employee #1, lab manager and friend suddenly died this week.

I’m experiencing this situation in many different ways. Me and another friend were the first ones to find out when we went to visit for what we thought might just be a day off to recover from a cold. I’m hurting from the loss of a good friend with whom I had spent many happy and not so happy hours over the past few years, somebody I had shared many personal thoughts with.

But I’m also going through this situation as somebody who is running a research group. A research group that essentially has suffered a decapitation strike and that lost the go-to-guy for whatever problems they had. His death has huge implications on our ability to do our work and deliver scientific results, but also on the well-being of those who’ve worked closely with him over the past few years. Maybe my notes will be useful for somebody in a similar situation at some point. I feel I need to do this right now, it’s my way of clearing my mind.

Communicating bad news: The number one responsibility of a lab head is the well-being of the group members. And everyone is different. No matter how you might think they will take the message, don’t make assumptions. There’s no shame in whatever response people show, and with a large group I’ve seen the whole range from simple acknowledgement to angry disbelief to a surge of different emotions – just make sure that nobody feels alone with their thoughts. In fact, I was relieved to see that my group immediately separated into smaller groups that retreated to discuss their thoughts. Although it’s never been a problem in our group, I also encouraged people not to be all macho about it and man-hugging is currently part of our daily routine.

In preparation for breaking the news to my group, I had contacted HR and Counselling; services most academic places have. I’ve also discussed a lot with senior colleagues how they would handle the situation, and although I’m keeping this post as anonymous as possible, wish to thank them for their support. Although they didn’t know, just talking to them gave me some sort of reassurance that I’m not totally off. Here’s a brief summary.

  1. Tell them soon. Nothing is worse than hearing unconfirmed and probably untrue rumours. People can handle established facts much better than uncertainty.
  2. Make sure nobody just disappears after the announcement. After people had gone for a walk, had a coffee, even just visited a seminar in groups of two or three, most people actually gathered in a pub for a few hours to talk about it. I think that was useful in many respects: Nobody could do anything ‘stupid’ after hearing the news, and people are much less likely to suffer from long-term effects when there’s the immediate chance to talk about it (some people seem to have a low threshold for developing PTSD!).
  3. Seek professional assistance. I had been told that it’s not advisable to bring in the counselling team into the room, but I had their number and a dedicated counsellor available who had already been briefed about the case.
  4. Give people time. This week, effectively, is for grieving. And if people need more, that’s fine. I don’t want them to go back to normal, although I’ve already received a revised manuscript this morning as part of somebody’s “self therapy”, but look how I’m spending my time at the moment…
  5. Give people reassurance. I’m going to write about this in a separate post, but our lab manager’s death means a major blow to our work and the way we work. On the time scale of a laboratory’s life time (i.e. my career), it’s probably a hiccup, but students have deadlines to meet and theses to submit. They will need support. They need to know that they’re going to get that support. It’s the job of the PI to make that possible.
  6. Accept that things are going to be different. Social ties, alliances, everything can change in the aftermath of such loss. Expect the unexpected. Play it by ear.
  7. Self-care. A dear friend issued an early burn-out warning. There are so many things that I will need to take care of over the next few months, I simply cannot do them all. Nor should I attempt to do them all. It’s best to know that for myself, but also to communicate that to the people who will be affected by that.

I’m planning to write more about the practicalities of losing your scientific wingman in a future post. I’m exhausted for now. Learn to have patience with me.

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