Leah Marie had only been manager of Beautique Salon for two years when tragedy struck. Her co-worker Darlene, who had previously been diagnosed with – and overcame – breast cancer, suffered a relapse when a brain tumor was discovered in January of 2018. She succumbed to the disease in April. “It was a very short fight,” remembers Leah Marie. “She pushed hard, and worked right up until the last three or four weeks.”
Darlene’s passing rocked the Newburyport, Massachusetts salon and its employees. For them, like for so many of us in this industry, co-workers are like family, and intentionally so. We create cultures to bring us closer, but that closeness can feel like a double-edged sword when we suffer a loss, which in this life is almost an inevitability. Those losses can hurt – badly – and the rollercoaster of emotions can make returning to work a challenge.
Leah Marie and the rest of the crew at Beautique rose to those challenges and faced the loss head-on. We wanted to highlight this dark chapter in their salon’s story because their response has been – and continues to be – inspirational.
Tough days ahead
“We are so close in our salon,” says Leah Marie. “We always attend group events and everyone is a team player.” Although that closeness may have made the loss sting that much more, it also served Leah and her co-workers to help process the loss. “It was important that we stuck together, that we were there for each other” she adds.
How a salon reacts in the days and weeks immediately following a co-worker’s passing says a lot about its culture. In the case of Beautique, there were many phone calls and text messages. The leadership also made it very clear that if you needed to take time off, you could – no questions asked. The reality is, a culture of closeness and family becomes a strong support network for grieving. At Beautique many found it preferable to be in the salon together, working, surrounded by loving co-workers who were processing the same emotions.
There was another very important truth Leah Marie offered that we would all do well to keep in mind. “Everyone copes in their own way,” she says. Everyone grieves differently. This cannot be overstressed. Some cry, some keep their tears inside. Some need to be alone, others seek out company. A few may appear to “move on” quickly, while others take time processing. There are many ways to grieve, and it is so important to respect those differences.
On the logistics side, the salon made sure to notify Darlene’s clients of her passing, although most if not all knew of her relapse and battle. The news was not unexpected. “She was very open with her clients,” says Leah Marie. There were “a lot of hugs,” she recalls.
Funerals provide an important opportunity for those who were close to the deceased to pay their respects and say their goodbyes. I won’t say “closure,” because that’s a loaded word, but these ceremonies play an important role in the grieving process.
For the crew at Beautique, it became the source of a very unexpected challenge, one that owner Leah Lynch remembers well. “The family took over planning for Darlene’s service, and it seemed to drag on and on,” Lynch recalls. “When it was finally set, only two of our staff were invited. I thought, ‘No wait, that’s not how this works!'” Determined to find their own way to pay tribute to their fallen colleague, Lynch arranged a Chinese lantern ceremony. Words of remembrance written on the side of each lantern lent a solemn and respectful feel to the event.
The ordeal over the funeral sticks with Lynch to this day, but she uses it as a source of advice for others who may face similar loss in their life. “It’s not always going to happen the way you wanted it to happen for that person,” she says about Darlene’s funeral. “But you pay your respects in anyway you can. It doesn’t have to be something so formal, or an organized event. A funeral is not the only chance you have to do this.”
Life goes on
Those three words can come off as insensitive, but it doesn’t change that they are reality. The sun rises, and a new day must faced. So it is for the salon or spa that must carry on, even when the empty chair next to you is a daily reminder of what’s been taken from us.
For Beautique, “moving on” meant finding ways to keep Darlene’s memory alive, whether through telling stories or servicing her mother, who is still a client. “We’re always keeping her in our hearts,” says Leah Marie.
The salon has also found another way to honor their friend’s loss and rally against the disease that took her. When Leah Marie’s boyfriend wanted to throw a benefit this past May in memory of his deceased wife – who also lost her life to cancer – she broached the subject with her co-workers and the salon owner. Their response was unequivocal – they would all attend and the salon would shut down early so they could do so.
The event, recalls Leah Marie, “was a huge success.” They were able to raise $4500 from 200 tickets sold, which would be donated to a local cancer patient to help with the financial costs. The LoV Foundation, as it’s now called, plans to make it a yearly event, with a new patient selected each year to receive the donation. “Cancer can be a huge financial burden,” says Leah Marie, “and my boyfriend sees this as a way to give back and help someone out.”
For the co-workers at Beautique, the benefit for cancer patients was a great opportunity to show solidarity against a disease that took one of their own. It also served as yet one more way to keep Darlene close to their hearts.
The salon has found other ways of giving back and raising awareness around cancer. Leah Marie recalls a client going through cancer treatment who came in for lash extensions. “She told me that they made her feel beautiful.” The salon’s hairdressers will also give free haircuts to anyone donating their hair to Locks of Love, a public non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children suffering from long-term medical hair loss.
Last words of advice
As the owner, Lynch faced her own particular set of challenges in the passing of an employee. She knows the harsh lessons she learned could be valuable advice to others in that situation. “One of the hardest things as a business owner in that situation is that you have to also be able to think about the best interest of the business while also being sensitive to what’s happening,” she says. It’s an important truth: employees and clients depend on the business to keep running. As the owner this is a responsibility that doesn’t just go away when an employee passes.
The other piece of advice speaks to regrets, particularly to words left unsaid. During Darlene’s final days, Lynch recalls “the girls sometimes feeling so bad and not knowing what to say, so they didn’t say anything, and now they feel so bad about it.” Surely anyone who has been in their shoes can empathize. What to say to a co-worker who may not be here tomorrow? “Just to say ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m thinking of you’ can be enough,” offers Lynch. “That’s always going to be taken well.”
Those are words worth taking to heart.
If you are someone in your life needs help coping with the loss of a loved one to cancer, please pass on the American Cancer Society’s grief and loss page.
Beautique Vital Stats
Location: 26 Parker Street Newburyport, Ma 01950
Year opened: 2012
Core Services: Hair, Skincare, Lash Ext., Waxing, Bo-tox & Fillers, Spray Tan, Microblading, Make Up, Bridal Services, Lash Lift & Tint