Day of Mourning Interview with Donna Van Bruggen

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CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Ashley: Hello and welcome to Health and Safety to Go a podcast broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario. Every April, in preparation for the Day of Mourning, we invite a guest from Threads of Life to come on the podcast and share their story of how a workplace tragedy has impacted their life.

The national Day of Mourning, marked in Canada each April 28, is dedicated to remembering those who've lost their lives, suffered injury or illness on the job, or experienced a work-related tragedy. Threads of Life is a Canadian charity dedicated to supporting families after workplace fatalities, life-altering injuries, or occupational disease.

We're joined today by volunteer Donna Van Bruggen to learn about her son, David, and how Threads of Life was able to support her family after David's life was taken in a workplace accident.

Donna, welcome, and thank you so much for being with us today.

Donna Van Bruggen: Thank you, Ashley. It truly is an honor and a privilege to be able to speak with you today about something that's so close to my heart.

Ashley: Tell us about your son David. What were some of the things that David loved and what kind of work did he do?

Donna: When I was in my mid-teens, I knew I just knew that one day I was going to have a son and his name would be David. Now, of course I had to wait a few years for that to happen. There was school, marriage, and two beautiful daughters to come first. But finally, on a particular April 20th, David arrived. And I was able to hold him in my arms for the very first time.

Now, one of the first things I noticed about David was how big his hands were. But the second thing I noticed was how big his feet were. Now I don't know if you're a dog person and you've ever had a puppy with big paws, and you know that puppy’s going to grow up to be a big dog. When I saw the David, the size of David's hands, I knew he was going to grow up to be a big man. And when they saw the size of David's feet, I knew I was going to have a hard time finding shoes that fit him, when he started walking. That was my David, big hands, big feet.

And oh, yeah, he had a big heart.

From an early age David had so much love that he wanted to share with others. He just loved helping people. Like the time when he was four and his older sister got stuck in some mud and he valiantly decided to traipse out there and rescue her. Well, he ended up getting stuck too, so I had to rescue both of them. And then there was the time when he took a lonely little boy who had moved into our neighborhood under his wing and became his friend or the time that he bought a rose for me. At that point in time, I was a single-parent mom, and I didn't get things like that. So, he saved up money from his allowance and bought me a rose. You see, even when he was young. I knew that David was destined to make a positive difference in the lives of many people. Because he had a heart full of love that he so willingly shared. And as he got into young adulthood, he dedicated two years of his life to go to another country and serve the people there. And when he returned his heart's desire, was that he would find a soulmate get married and start a family of his own and he met and married, a wonderful young lady. And within a few years, they did want a big family, so they had four beautiful children. And in adulthood David also help people move, he helped them re-shingle, the roofs, fix their vehicles, he looked after their pets, and he visited them when they were ill. And he completed some repairs to my home and even installed a new furnace for me. Because that was the trade he went into, heating and cooling.

He was totally devoted to his wife and his four young children, and he absolutely loved him with all [his] heart.

That was my, David.

Ashley: Sounds like an amazing guy.

Donna: He was.

Ashely: Please tell us about the day that David didn't come home from work.

Donna: One day, everything changed.

On October 17th. 2012, David went to work, and he did not come home.

My daughter-in-law phoned and let me know that he'd been struck by a forklift at work and killed instantly.

When I first heard the words “David” and “dead” used in the same sentence, my world just came crashing down around me. I felt my heart break, my brain turned into some kind of a fog, everything was dark, and I felt such an agony of grief that I cannot even begin to describe it. That was the day that a mighty heart, full of love, was forever stilled. And a few hours later I left on the most grueling journey of my life. The journey to bury my beloved son, David.

That Journey was marked by frequent intervals of my checking the clock in my vehicle because I drove down and I was acutely aware of the time. My self talk went like this:

It's 9 a.m. 24 hours ago at this time, David was still alive.

It's 10:30 a.m. 24 hours ago at this time, David was still alive.

And this went on until it was 12:45 p.m. Then this thought came into my mind; 24 hours ago, at this time, David was in the last 15 minutes of his life. And he didn't even know it. And those words triggered such an intense panic attack in me that I had to pull the car over. My heart was beating so hard, it felt like it was going to come right out of my chest. And my breathing was gasps, I could barely get any air into my lungs. And I had an almost overwhelming urge to get out of the car and run screaming in terror down the highway.

You see, David was killed at approximately 1:00 p.m. the day before, but due to some unusual circumstances, he wasn't found until around 1:30 p.m. So, until that dreaded time period passed on the clock, I had that panic attack. And it wasn't until after 1:30 that finally the panic started to leave me, and I could continue driving.
Your brain in your body, do peculiar things when you're under intense emotional distress. Burying my son. Seeing his body for the first time was an intense and emotional experience. Parents shouldn't have to bury their children.

Ashley: I'm so sorry for your loss, Donna. It's really heartbreaking. In the wake of David's passing, how did you come to be involved with Threads of Life and then how did you come to be a volunteer for the organization?

Donna: After David's funeral I drove the long and lonely road home back to the center of the province where I live. And before my home, it felt so full of life and now, it was too quiet and too empty. Even though I lived alone, David didn't live with me with his family, they came to visit me. That was too quiet and to empty. And I remember getting back after the funeral and standing alone in my living room and I felt so isolated and so terrified of an uncertain future. Shock and grief threatened to overwhelm me. My entire life had changed, and I wondered how I would ever emerge from such emotional darkness.

Not long after that. And quite by accident. I wasn't one of the lucky ones that was told by, you know, either an employer or occupational health and safety, about Threads of Life. I came across some quite by accident. Although, in hindsight, I don't think it was an accident. I think I was meant to find them. You see, during the days before, David's funeral, and for the months afterwards, my role had been to be the strong one to support my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren as they struggled to cope with the death of their husband and father.
And I gladly took that role on. Nobody made me because I am strong. And I knew that I could be someone, they could lean on. But it meant that my own grief had to be set aside for a little while. And even once I got back to central Alberta, people that I knew, and my friends hardly ever asked me how I was doing. Their questions were always, how is your daughter-in-law? how are your kids doing? And so, I never had a chance to talk about my grief. So, it wasn't until I attended my first Threads of Life Family Forum, the western Canada Family Forum and that was almost a year after David had been killed. That was the first time I could freely. Talk about how David's death affected me as his mother. And I found I was in a group of very welcoming, very caring people. I can't even begin to describe the intensity of emotion I had though, being in a room where everyone knew what I was going through because they were going through something similar. It was either a fatality that had happened at work, a life-altering injury or an occupationally acquired disease. However, knowing that I was no longer alone gave me strength of my own to continue on my journey of healing.

I have walked the long dark path of agonizing grief. On my own healing journey. I know that path well. If I can pause to help and lift another as they begin their own journey, or if they should stumble along the way, then I will do so because I personally know the steep price families pay when they journey on the path of grief towards healing. And if my words and actions can spare another family from the anguish of a workplace fatality or injury by preventing it, then how great will be my joy. And that's why I volunteer as a speaker and a volunteer family guide, as well as whatever else is necessary with Threads of Life.

It brings me healing and I can have a positive influence and help others.

Ashley: That's beautiful Donna. If you could give one piece of advice to people about workplace safety, what would that be?

Donna: So, I do have two perspectives the first being that David's death was no gentle passing after a long and fulfilled life. His life was brutally and violently stolen from him just because he went to work. And that's the legacy of workplace tragedies. Not only our families left to mourn, the premature death of their loved one. They must also face the anguish of the senseless violence and brutality that tore their loved one away from them. All the while knowing it could have been prevented. I suppose it's human nature to think We're invincible and nothing will ever happen to us or that. If we do find ourselves in danger, we'll have lots of time to move to safety. But workplace tragedies, don't happen that way. It only takes a second to trigger a workplace event that leads to a serious injury or even death. And once conditions that will end in tragedy or triggered, we no longer have any control. All we have left is to face the consequences and those consequences are severe because you can never undo a life-altering injury and you definitely can't undo a death at work.

So, that's the key. These workplace tragedies are preventable, and we all have the responsibility to prevent them. Every job has risks. They're not just limited to certain categories of jobs where people may work with heavy equipment, or in certain industries. Every job has risks. They'll just be different than what you may face in another job or in another, with another employer. But they're all there.

So, it's learning to identify the risks, and then putting controls in place to either mitigate or eliminate them. Worker safety legislation and company policies and procedures are vital. But each of us is workers, have a responsibility to work safe[l]y at all times. And not only to make sure we're working safely, but to look out for each other, we don't have 360-degree vision, unfortunately. We can't always see what, there might be something dangerous above us, behind us, to the side of us. We need people to look out for us as well. To ensure that everyone works safely and that we can all go home to our loved ones at the end of the day.

And the second comment is about the devastating ripple effects of workplace tragedies. They seem endless. And they affect so many people. It's not just old affected that family, it’s been a year now, everybody's over it, they all live happily ever after. That does not happen when there's workplace deaths and injuries. I lost my only son. My youngest child. My baby. It didn't matter that he was all grown up and over 6 feet tall. I still told him that as my youngest child, he was always going to be my baby and David would just smile, whenever I'd say that.

And David had told me many times, that as I got older or if my health should deteriorate not to worry, he would be there to help me. I no longer have that safety net. And some days that frightens me. David's, wife lost the love of her life, and she became a widow, and a single parent at a very young age. David's four children, no longer have their father with them to celebrate birthdays and Christmases, graduations, and weddings. David will not be there to help them with schoolwork, to hold them when they cry, or to share in a laugh during all the joyful times. David will never be able to hold his grandchildren and shower them with love.

David's co-workers were crushed by the grief and guilt that they felt, they wouldn't even look at me during David's funeral. David's friends felt the shock of his violent death at such a young age. And that's just some of the people were involved. I haven't talked about the First Responders, like the police, the paramedics, the medical team that tried to resuscitate him, those were all affected, and the occupational health and safety investigators.

They're all affected.

So, all of us will feel this ongoing emotional and mental devastation for the rest of our lives. And I will never get over David's death, but I have learned to cope with it. And I’ve emerged from that path of agonizing grief and I'm unbroken, but I definitely have changed. I'm not the person I was when I started that journey. Instead, I've chosen to become a better person. Someone who is wiser, stronger, kinder. More compassionate and caring. I'm still a work in progress, but I like the direction I'm headed. It's one way to honor David and his heart full of love.

Ashley: Before we wrap up Donna, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners about your experience?

Donna: I do. Words have power and so do actions. Workplace health and safety is achievable and it's imperative. So, with our efforts focused, firmly on that goal, each action we take in solidarity as individuals and families, as employers and workers, as municipalities and legislators, brings us closer to the day when no other family will receive that phone call or that knock on the door and be informed that their loved one will not be coming home from work. Because each time a workplace tragedy occurs, hell Begins for another family. So, everyone go ahead and be the safety heroes I know you are. Each of you possesses one of the most potent superpowers in the universe, it's called “prevention”.

We all of us have the power to prevent workplace tragedies and to save lives. What could be greater than that?

Ashley: Donna, thank you. Thank you for sharing your story with us today.
Hearing from families who've been impacted by workplace incidents always drives home the importance of the work that we do at the Centre, and it really reminds us why we exist.

Every year, thousands of people across Canada support Threads of Life by walking in the Steps for Life fundraising event that follows Day of Mourning. More information about this event can be found at and

Thanks for Listening everybody.