It was a normal Monday morning at the nursery.

Staff members came in to do the early morning shift; they prepared breakfast, opened the windows to let the autumn breeze refresh the rooms, set up tables that would capture the children’s interest on arrival and shared weekend stories as they busied themselves.

A short while later, the rest of the staff arrived, sorted their personal belongings in the staff room and began work. The doorbell rang and the children burst through the doors, chattering excitedly and rushing to see what fun was on offer. It was a normal Monday morning.

The manager greeted some parents then moved to the office to start her daily tasks. All was as expected, except for the fact that one staff member, Mandy, was late.

A text message was sent, assuring the manager that she was coming in, albeit a bit late. She did not show up. The manager knew this was very unlike her so she started to worry. Worry turned to anxious fretting when Mandy did not turn up.

A phone call came.

A world shattered.

Mandy had been brutally killed.

It was a normal Monday morning when hearts were splintered, and a staff team was torn apart.

What happens when a nursery team loses a colleague? What does grief look like in a setting? How do we navigate such horror?

These are questions that sadly, need answering.

The above story is not an isolated case. This same nursery had a manager pass away completely unexpectedly at the age of 38 about ten years earlier. Another nursery in a nearby county had a teacher who became ill and died six weeks after diagnosis. Yet another setting endured heartache when a beloved fellow teacher was involved in a fatal, freak car crash in a local shopping centre.

Sadly, there are many stories of deaths of colleagues in our early years world.
So, how then do we cope? There is no simple answer. All kinds of relationships are reflected within a staff team and individual grief will be experienced in all kinds of ways.

A colleague can be a close friend, or simply a co-worker. He or she could just be the one who shares the staff room with you at lunch time. It could be someone with whom you have worked for a few years. Maybe your colleague had just started work at the nursery and you were only just getting to know them.

How then does grief impact the team? This is a complex question that leads directly onto others:

  • How does the manager hold the team together when death has torn it apart?
  • How does this affect working relationships?
  • What does this do to staff morale?
  • How can we best support staff?
  • What can we do to honour the memory of our colleague?

Let’s look at a couple of these questions in more depth.

How does the manager hold the team together when death has torn it apart?

Even though the manager has to lead with regards to looking after the team, he or she too, is feeling grief, shock and horror. It is important that managers have someone to talk to, to cry with and to process the events. In tandem with this, sharing their own grief and allowing staff to see it is okay to weep, is a crucial part of managing a team during this time.

Mandy’s manager showed great vulnerability and shed tears alongside her team, which comforted them and simultaneously gave them strength. She then called a memorial meeting two days after the news. She set up stations around the setting where staff could go to express their loss and their love. Taking into account the different faith beliefs and cultures of staff members, the stations varied. Someone could go to a candle display, kneel on a soft cushion and light a candle. Others went to a table of flowers and coloured notes, where they could write a note reflecting their thoughts and saying their goodbyes. Another station comprised memorabilia from her favourite football team and staff could sit amongst these artefacts and think about fun footie conversations they’d had with Mandy. Some staff chose to just sit, head in arms, praying for Mandy and for the family.

Once the initial shock has passed, staff members start to look to the manager for guidance and a way through the days ahead. Of course, the nursery may close for a day but business resumes as usual and children need to be cared for, educated and encouraged every moment of the day. Offering grief counselling or coaching to staff members is a positive, practical way to show support. Signposting help is a vital tool as well.

Following routine is another coping technique. Tasks need to be done. Encouraging staff to focus on routines and to fulfil their roles as usual, gives stability and consistency.

At times, as staff work through their emotions, laughter will bubble out – after all, we work with others (all of whom have their own peculiarities) and we work with children! Laughing together, sharing simple joys as we work, helps heal hearts and enables a team to look up...there is hope, there is a future and there is purpose.

What can we do to honour the memory of our colleague?

Marking the passing of a colleague is a significant part of the grieving process. All cultures honour loved ones who pass on in their own unique way. Some burn incense, others throw a wake, a few scatter ashes in woodland or at sea. Others place a plaque in a beautiful spot.

Each early years setting has its own culture. Thinking about how we operate, our values and our ethos, informs us as to how we will honour our colleagues. In the case of Mandy, one of the setting’s values is respect, whilst another is celebrating personal uniqueness.

Mandy was a footie lover. She was a super-fan of a top football team and an ardent supporter of the local football team. So one of her colleagues wrote to the top national team and told them of her passing. They wrote back immediately saying they had passed this onto the team chaplain, who would be getting in touch with the family. They also passed on their condolences from the team players to the family directly. What a way to honour Mandy! This would have thrilled her and reflected her personality beautifully.

To add to this, the staff team decided to plant an apple tree in the nursery garden along with their notes and letters to Mandy written on the evening of remembrance - a mark of respect that will bring beauty, scent, fruit and shade to staff and children for many years ahead.

The next article will focus on how we work with parents and children in the event of the death of a colleague. In the meantime, here are two links that may be of help to some.

Links to help

Understanding grief - Cruse Bereavement Support

Support with grief | Macmillan Cancer Support

I am no stranger to grief. Over the last 10 years I have lost my ex-husband, with whom I was still very close, my mother, my father, my partner, my friend and my 29-year-old son. Navigating grief is part of my life. Living with loss is a journey no person wants to make, but it is a road we will all travel. This unites us, as people and as childcare workers. Grief, both in and out of the workplace, touches us. Let’s talk about it.

EnRich offers coaching for settings who are experiencing the loss of a colleague. We work closely with staff members as they deal with grief in the workplace. We also have a parent coach who specialises in coaching parents (and staff) who are dealing with the loss of a child. If you would like to get in touch, please see www.enrich4educators.com or email us on info@enrich4educators.com 

About the author:

Born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, Pam settled in England in 2002.
As an educator of 40 years’ experience, she has the privilege of teaching children from 2-18 years old. For the past 14 years, she has successfully managed early years settings within Brighton & Hove. Noting and understanding the unmet well-being needs of educators within the context of enormous challenges, she founded her EnRich Coaching for Educators business to offer a solution to the industry.

Her passion is coaching, and training early years educators wherever needed in the world, from The Philippines to Ethiopia.

She is a lover of beauty. Exploring new places thrills her soul, from strolling through quintessential British meadows to walking on the Great Wall of China – she sees splendour and intrigue around every corner.

Although she is not inclined to enormous outbursts of energy, she has nonetheless climbed Mt Snowdon and completed a very challenging hiking marathon on the South Downs. She has also indulged in Mongolian wrestling in Ulan Bator but that is another story entirely! Her memoirs have been published and available on Amazon here.


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