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Working to ease burden of grief

Last year, 51 people went to work in Victoria and didn’t come home. In Tasmania, the number was five and, Australia-wide, the figure was 194.

They are the raw statistics but they don’t detail the pain inflicted upon the grieving families – the husbands, wives, children and parents – left behind to deal with the trauma caused by workplace deaths.

This year, GriefWork, an organisation established to assist bereaved families in Victoria, celebrated its 25th anniversary.

GriefWork, which is part of Uniting Vic.Tas, also supports veterans and their families affected by the trauma of military work.

GriefWork founder Bette Campbell-Phillips knows what it’s like to lose a loved one at work. Her son, Dean, died in a work-related accident in 1991.

“I was a spinal injury educator and counsellor (when Dean died), so when it happened, I thought to myself ‘I’ve got this’,” Bette says.

“He was my only child, but I eventually decided to get help and I told the counsellor ‘I feel like half my life has been ripped away and she said, ‘I don’t know what you mean’.

“Unless you’ve been through it, you don’t know what it’s like to say goodbye to your loved one, send them off to work and for them to never come home.”

Before GriefWork was established, there was little support for those grieving following a workplace death.

“I met a young woman who, after the death of her husband, was told ‘don’t worry, you’ll marry again’,” Bette said.

“Over the past 25 years, we’ve supported more than 500 families across Victoria after work-related deaths, suicides and other traumatic deaths at work.

“We’ve also campaigned for heavy vehicles to be classified as workplaces and included as workplace deaths and on industrial manslaughter laws.

“Every year, we hold a memorial to truck drivers who have lost their lives at Alexandra and a walk in Bendigo commemorating work-related suicides which regularly attracts 500 walkers.

“The journey after a workplace death is typically a long one – it can take years – and involve investigations, inquests and court cases, so our support is open-ended and takes many different forms.

“We supported a family this year with their hobby farm and gathered a 4WD club to do some working bees and repair their fences. After her father’s death, we helped a young girl who was a big Hawthorn fan to present the guernseys to their AFLW players.”

Bette says people experience grief in different ways and sometimes, when inquests and investigations are involved, the trauma is ongoing.

“For some people, the grief can be as raw 20 years on as it is 12 months later,” Bette says.

“Dean was only 20 – we never expected to say goodbye and for him not to come home.

“Many people put their grief into a little box after the death of loved one at work. They put all their focus on the court case or the investigation, and when that all ends, it hits them again.

“That’s why we’re there at every stage to provide them with support.

“The landscape has changed so much in 25 years – there’s more awareness of the importance of workplace safety and supporting families after a death.

“There’s always going to be things that go wrong at work, but it’s about making it as safe as possible.

“GriefWork is something I’ve put my heart and soul into and I feel like it’s my legacy to Dean. To be able to help families at one of the most difficult times in their lives is important.”

For more information about GriefWork, click here

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