Remembering Dead Colleagues: a short text about the death of co-workers in the field

Working in humanitarian aid is not only stressful. It can also be deadly.

I lost colleagues in the field who were blown up by landmines, whose cars crashed in a sandstorm, who perished in the field because they couldn’t replenish their much-needed insulin on time, who had a heart attack alone in a remote posting, or who were bitten by a deadly spider hiding in their boots. 

Every time such a sad event happened, we, their colleagues on the ground, all paused in shock, just to resume working as if nothing had happened a few days later.

We accepted their senseless deaths as being part of the job, it seems to me.

But is that really so? Are we getting used to death at work in humanitarian aid? It´s not part of our job description, is it?

Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers when it comes to this topic.

When talking about how to react to another colleague´s death with friends and co-workers sometimes the word “culture of silence” came up.

It became clear to us that somehow, we all grieved alone, there was no joint remembrance of the deceased colleague, no rituals we could follow.  

Because of the high staff turnover, new team members didn´t know our lost colleague as well as we did, and didn´t share our memories.

People at HQ had no connection to the lost colleague at all, and sometimes it felt as if the death of an aid worker is seen by organizations as a dirty little secret that can harm the image, therefore it´s better not to acknowledge the colleague and what important work he did on the organization’s website.

In my opinion, an industry that prides itself on its humanitarian values and campaigns should have open and honest conversations about the risks it faces.

We should prepare for these sad incidents or have some code of conduct when it comes to remembering colleagues who lost their lives in the field.

I don´t know how. But I know that whenever I lost a colleague, sometimes a friend, I felt left alone. There was no support from any aid organization I worked for. 

I wasn´t prepared for having to identify a maimed dead body stretched out on a long, white table in a mortuary somewhere in Africa.

I wasn´t prepared for having to witness a heartbroken little child crying out loud “Papa!!!”, raising her little arms and trying to touch her father´s dead body lying out in a wooden shack on a small Indonesian island while asking myself if there was anything we could have done to prevent his death.

I wasn´t prepared for that.

How could I have been?

I haven’t been the first aid worker faced with these realities in the field nor will I be the last, unfortunately. This is part of the reality of working in humanitarian aid. A part that is not talked about much.

There was never any support from the organizations, no team supervision, no counseling, and not even an offer to provide that.

We, the remaining team, had to deal with it alone and continue our work without much interruption.

What helped me in these sad moments is the support from my colleagues in the field. We were all shocked, devastated, and sad, trying to make sense of what happened and what it does to us.

Although we might not have had much in common otherwise, in these sad moments we felt the connection of grief.

But it´s a fleeting moment, that leaves you alone again quicker than you realize.

Life goes on and memories fade away. Or so it seems. 

But they don`t, they just get buried too.

While writing this article, I realize that the pain is still there, much to my surprise. I thought I overcame it. But there are some memories that stay with me, that I cannot forget, and maybe should not forget.

Remembering my dead colleagues and sharing these memories seem to be a good way to come to terms with the loss and to pay tribute to these committed aid workers. And should you have lost colleagues in the field as well, maybe it helps you too.  

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