McGill pilots new resources to help academic departments deal with grief

The goal is better support for those with teaching, research, and collaboration roles

Stephanie Posthumus and Tamara Sussman have both lost people close to them. Though their experiences were different, each professor came to recognize that understanding grief in academic settings can vary widely and that more resources are needed to support faculty.

“When I was looking for information about bereavement leave, I couldn’t find much on McGill webpages. I felt really lost,” said Posthumus, an associate professor in the Department of Languages, Literature, and Cultures. “Thankfully, I had participated in a workshop led by Tynan Jarrett, from the Equity team, around diversity and inclusivity. He’d made me feel safe enough that I decided to reach out to him for help.”

Jarrett brought in Angela Campbell Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policy) and, together, they helped Posthumus navigate through University procedures after her loss. Then came the realization that there might be a larger community need. That’s when Jarrett thought of connecting Posthumus with Tamara Sussman, an associate professor in the School of Social work with expertise with health systems and the impacts of illness on family members.

“When we first met, I had no idea what Stephanie was hoping to accomplish. I went in knowing about grief, but it was from that first conversation that the theoretical became personal,” said Sussman.

“I had been doing what universities tend to do: focus on data. It was Stephanie’s vision that got me to link the professional to the personal,” said Sussman.

The department dynamic

With the continued support from the Equity team, Posthumus and Sussman expanded their discussions to include more McGill members. They heard about differing levels of support and the limitations of employee resources.

“When you are teaching, supervising, and researching, you can feel responsible for ensuring work continues and doesn’t fall on others. You’re thinking of your students, your peers, your deadlines, all while under the weight of your grief,” said Sussman.

They also observed that understanding grief can differ greatly among departments and colleagues.

“Many people have no idea how to react. Do they stay quiet or send condolences? Do they know what kind of help is available from Human Resources and what falls on the department? Not necessarily. It can end up on the person who’s just lost someone to deal with the redistribution of their workload, adding guilt to pain,” said Posthumus.

Lack of support can have a larger impact in a university setting: it can complicate collaboration, tarnish departmental relationships, and cause those suffering to prolong their leave because of professional stress.

“Our Chairs and Directors care deeply about their faculty members but most of us academics are not trained in how to best to support people living through grief or a crisis,” said Associate Provost Campbell.

“This initiative aims not only to support colleagues but also to provide academic leaders with some tools to assist colleagues who have experienced a life-changing personal loss.”

Resource document and liaison team

To support grieving academics and provide direction to colleagues, chairs and deans, the University is piloting two new resources: an online guide for the larger academic community, and a new academic liaison team.

The guide provides general information about grief and resources to help navigate through it. Some information applies to all employees, including bereavement leave and access to the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), while other information is tailored to the needs of academic staff. There is also emphasis on the different ways people may experience grief, including where they are in their career. For example, professors who aren’t tenured may face greater pressures than those with a secure position.

As for the liaison team, Sussman and Posthumus will be the first academic members, based out of the Office of the Provost. Supporting and coordinating is Anne-Marie Durocher, Director Planning and Operations in the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). The Equity team will also maintain a role, notably during the pilot phase.

“One of our first tasks will be helping the community become grief-literate – something that includes raising awareness that people handle loss differently and that flexibility is essential,” said Durocher.

“Our three-pronged approach involves providing resources, education opportunities, and peer support. As we go forward, we hope to develop a larger network, offer workshops, and continue to consult on and improve our resources.”

As the pilot projects advances, team members hope to collaborate with peers at other universities to improve support and bring grief out of the shadows.

Consult McGill’s online guide for bereavement and grief.

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