Workplace Grief and Loss: Coping with the Death of a Coworker

Two adults sitting at table with laptop looking sadly down togetherMost of us work for most of our lives. The relationships we develop through our work take up a lot of our time and emotional resources. Even though these are almost universal truths, we rarely consider the impact of grief and loss in the workplace.

There are many types of grief and loss that can occur in one’s work environment. For the purposes of this article, I will offer tips on how to deal with the death of a coworker.

Anytime a person dies, other people’s lives are impacted. Most of the time, there is a direct impact on the people with whom they worked. Whether the deceased person worked at the local grocery store or was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, someone they knew will struggle with the news.

Three tips for coping with grief and loss in the workplace:

1. Be Conscious and Clear

When a colleague dies, it can rock the very foundation upon which the daily tasks of the workplace are built. Showing up to the office and having the person there one day and gone the next can be devastating.

As a society, we are taught to rationalize, avoid, or push pain away. We are taught that death is something we shouldn’t talk about. These learned behaviors, while temporarily “useful” in avoiding pain, actually create shame, fear, and isolation around the loss.

Being conscious and clear about the death of your coworker includes acknowledging the truth to yourself and others. It includes being a safe person with whom others can open up about their feelings and fears related to the loss. It involves consciously allowing yourself to personally grieve.

If you are a supervisor or manager, being conscious and clear means having an open-door policy in the days and weeks after the loss. It means being candid about the circumstances, as long as the desires of the person’s family are respected. But it goes beyond that.

While the work must go on, honoring the emptiness is important. Pushing people right back into productivity mode without properly processing the loss as a unit may not only be detrimental to workplace culture, it may ultimately decrease productivity. Taking the time to work through it together is likely to build more trust and community.

2. Encourage Focused Feelings

If you’re a boss in an environment where someone has passed, it is your responsibility to facilitate support for employees. If the death was sudden and tragic (such as an accident or suicide), it is crucial that you hire a mental health professional to come in and be available. If the work environment is too small to have an employee assistance program (EAP) with grief support, there are professionals who offer private sessions and/or group counseling after a workplace loss.

If the loss wasn’t unexpected (such as a long-term battle with cancer), your approach might be different. It might include an opportunity for your team to meet (either in or out of the office) to share stories about the colleague, or even a personalized office memorial.

While the work must go on, honoring the emptiness is important. Pushing people right back into productivity mode without properly processing the loss as a unit may not only be detrimental to workplace culture, it may ultimately decrease productivity.

Even though, for some of us, our coworkers can be our best friends, that doesn’t mean there is crossover between office friendships and family connections. For this reason, I recommend office-focused memorialization. While attending a family-led memorial service might be healing, it may not be enough.

If an office-focused memorial isn’t an option, other ideas for group processing include getting together at a local restaurant and sharing favorite memories; convening at a colleague’s house and sharing a meal in the deceased person’s honor; having a day where you all wear the person’s favorite color; or purchasing new office plants as a symbolic reminder that growth, despite the current pain, will eventually come.

These are just a few ideas to start with. You worked with the person. You knew them. Perhaps try a variation on any of these ideas that suits the spirit of your departed coworker.

3. Get Help

The most obvious thing many people think of when it comes to getting outside help is to hire an in-office therapist. Hiring an in-office therapist, especially for serious reactions and trauma related to grief and loss, is a great option, but it isn’t the only one.

Perhaps you work in a place that doesn’t allow for emotional processing. Maybe you work in a small operation where it’s only you and the person who passed away. If your work environment doesn’t offer support or isn’t conducive to processing grief, consider finding your own therapist so you can safely work through your emotions.

Depending on where you live, there might be local support groups. Some of these groups are led by professionals, others by community members who experienced similar losses. Many of these groups are inexpensive; some are free.

If you don’t have access to local therapists or support groups, there are virtual therapists and groups. The important thing to remember is you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) go through this alone.

Losing a colleague can be extremely painful. It is normal to be sad, confused, and even devastated over the death of someone you spent so much time around. Your experience, your feelings, and your grief matter.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Blythe C. Landry, MEd, LCSW, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Rayna B.

    May 3rd, 2018 at 12:41 PM

    And then there is the grief that happens when you work with someone for a long time and they either leave or get laid off or fired. I have seen it happen too many times over the years, and then the friendships you formed with those people fizzle out and it’s basically like you lost someone. I doubt it’s something a lot of people seek therapy for, but it’s still a gut punch and a loss!!

  • Blythe Landry

    May 4th, 2018 at 11:01 AM

    You are absolutely right, Rayna. You bring a very crucial and painful issue to light. I want to offer my condolences for any losses of that nature you have experienced personally. And I will definitely keep this important topic in mind for future blog posts.

  • eric666

    May 4th, 2018 at 3:55 PM

    An extremely pertinent article in this recent age of desk jobs and the pressure with which it stifles an individual. Along with his own natural life, though scanty, but the balance between them is absolutely essential. I believe this article should be read by all who are presently in or planning to be in a workplace of an IT or any of the sedentary jobs. Liked the article immmensely!!!

  • Blythe Landry

    May 5th, 2018 at 1:47 PM

    I’m so glad this was helpful to you. It really is hard to process the death of anyone, let alone those we see daily and connect to daily. I wrote this article, because I felt that this topic was lacking in the conversation about work and the things we deal with related to grief in the workplace. If there are any other topics you would like to read about, don’t hesitate to comment and let me know. I always like to hear what other people are wanting to discuss and reflect upon when I do my blogs.

  • Rhianna H.

    October 30th, 2018 at 9:06 AM

    One of my coworkers committed suicide last week, and we were pretty close, so I was able to attend her funeral. I’ve had a really hard time with her passing, though, and I think you’re right that pushing myself right back into the workflow without taking time to grieve will only make things harder. My other friend and I are considering looking for grief counseling together, and you’re right that dealing with these sort of things with others is definitely easier than going it alone.

  • Sue

    April 6th, 2020 at 4:28 AM

    Do you have any materials for helping health professionals process bereavement and grief in the current COVID 19 scenario where they cannot attend deaths or funerals and most gatherings to aid debrief or memorial meals etc are also not available to them. Thanks

  • Corey

    May 4th, 2022 at 10:36 AM

    great article,

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