Most 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.
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