I read your "Death in the Workplace" column and found it to be helpful. But the person who was sick/dying wasn't in the workplace. It was a spouse of a co-worker. Right? How do you deal with a death IN the workplace?
While job promotions, moves, and career changes can shift the balance of personalities and politics in an office place, death leaves a sudden and often unexpected vacuum. With a co-worker's ascent up the career ladder, there is at least the promise of "lunch" and a continued connection on LinkedIn. Death completely severs what may have been a lengthy almost daily contact. You're supposed to be "professional," right? And yet a door has been opened to very personal feelings of shock, loss and possibly fear or confusion.
There is no one right answer for this situation, Rachel. Death and grief are uniquely personal experiences even when focused toward a singular loss. Some will mortar a wall right over the space; others may have difficulty holding back tears. But with a death at work, we're human beings first and employees second.
Whether a close relationship or simply a familiar face, this loss is shared by others in the company or business. Healing, also, can be shared and shouldered together. Here are a few things to remember in coping with the death of a co-worker.
Acknowledge the loss. There is no "business as usual" after a death. It will spotlight our humanity and stir up feelings that have little to do with our jobs. If at all possible, close the office for a period of time to mark the loss. Some businesses close for a time immediately following the death and then again a few days later to allow employees to attend a memorial service. Obviously in work environments that impact public safety, processes and functions must continue, but affected employees will need time to mourn and to process the death. If possible, designate conference or break room space as a gathering area for workplace mourners. Management should offer whatever information is available in the obituary or that the family is willing to share.
Do not ignore the death. Everyone knows it happened.
Allow grief to happen. Some will cry; others may begin to reminisce and even laugh at memories. Still others may withdraw as they reflect upon their own mortality. Give one another the freedom to grieve without judging the manner in which it is done. Respect also the sensitivities of those who seem to be more personally impacted, realizing that the depth of reaction may include responses to deaths previously experienced and unresolved. Be kind and compassionate of one another —act as a supportive team. If an individual's grief becomes disruptive to the healing of others or is ongoing, management should encourage grief counseling and, potentially, some additional time off from work.
Do not trivialize the death.
Avoid comforting with cliches and polarizing spiritual phrases. "He lived a full life." "At least she's in a better place now." But also, refrain from judging those who do.
Reach out to the family. Your office may be the "other family." The spouse, children and relatives of the deceased co-worker may not know you well, but they've probably heard about you often. You may have spent more waking hours with the husband/wife, father/mother than they did. You saw the employee in situations they weren't a part of. Consequently, your words may be very important to them. Make every effort to attend viewing hours and memorial services. This sign of respect is both an essential kindness and a step toward your own healing. But don't stop there. Write specific positive memories about the co-worker to be shared with the family. Let them know that the employee made a personal impact on your life and will be missed. Send flowers or make a group donation, but also think about sending gift cards for food or house cleaning. In this way you honor the deceased by aiding the living.
Do not force contact. While you may miss the employee, it's not about you. Help the family if they are open to your assistance. Do not allow your grief to hinder theirs.
Reach out to one another. Grief doesn't end with a burial or memorial service. There will be a transition as you each adjust to the space left behind. There may be a difficult time of change as a new or current employee fills the deceased co-worker's former position. Expect that adjustment may take time and that awkward, sad and uncomfortable moments may be part of the process. But also, honor the absent employee by the manner in which you move forward. Don't lean on the loss but be motivated by whatever you may have learned through the relationship. Speak his or her name. Share memories. By acknowledging his life, you affirm a shared value of the good things built together in your workplace.
Do not expect a co-worker to provide "therapy." Unless licensed as a professional counselor in your state, it's not his job or her area of expertise. In worst cases, informal "counseling" can lead to inappropriate office relationships.
Establish meaning. Consider creating a memorial by planting a tree, establishing a scholarship fund or producing an annual event in memory of the employee. Identifying the significance of a life and a relationship provides an essential positive perspective. Life will go on. It always does. The hope is that it will go on —measurably enriched by the time spent with the one now gone.
If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!