How to Deal with Death in the Workplace

by Staff - Original publish date: June 25, 2012

"What Can We Do to Help?"

Q: "Hi Heather,

My co-worker "Brenda" has a husband who was diagnosed with lung cancer a few months ago. It seemed like he was doing better for a while, but over this past month, Brenda has missed a lot of work and it sounds like her husband isn't doing very well (He had to quit working himself, and Brenda called his condition "incurable").

Most of the office made donations in his honor to a cancer fund last Christmas, but I feel like we should be doing more now. I'm not exactly sure what's appropriate however. I don't want to make Brenda sad or make her think about her husband's situation if she's having an OK day. I think she could use some help, but when I asked what she needed, she said she didn't know. Most of us have worked in this same department for over five years. What can/should we do?"

Reach Out, Don't Disappear

A: Without knowing the medical facts of your co-worker's situation, I can tell you this: knowing that people are aware and that they care always beats feeling unnoticed and possibly ignored. Brenda doesn’t "forget" her husband's health battle during the workday, and when illness or death touches an office environment, compassion is always appropriate.

We work at our careers to enable a good and fulfilling life for ourselves and for our loved ones. That includes meaningful engagement with those in our circles. As a co-worker, Brenda inhabits one of your circles. There are many ways to be supportive of her situation without smearing professional boundaries.

Almost anything is better than nothing at all. When situated in a front row seat to another's tragedy, the instinct is often to avert one's eyes. The desire to avoid saying the wrong thing, while laudable, often renders would-be supporters speechless at a time when simple syllables of encouragement might be spirit sustaining. Don't be silent.

Keep It Simple

Don't say you understand what Brenda is going through either. You know that it's difficult. You may even have been through a similar hardship yourself, but Brenda's experience is her own. Serious illness can be isolating -- as foreign an event as space travel might be to most of us. Hearing "I know" from someone who can't "know," can intensify the feeling of segregation. Instead, aim to acknowledge: a heartfelt "I'm sorry" communicates compassion.

Lend a Helping Hand

Be willing to listen to Brenda during a lunch hour and on your own time. If you listen well, you may hear more clearly what she needs even when she is unable to articulate it. Understand that Brenda truly may not know what would be helpful. Those in the midst of great stress are often unable to look beyond the next hour, and she's holding down what may be the equivalent of two full-time jobs right now. Simply completing immediate tasks may require an inordinate amount of her energy. Planning ahead into an uncertain future may appear fruitless or impossible. So be specific in your offers, such as "Brenda, it must be difficult to take care of some of your basic errands right now, and I'd really like to help you with that. Can I save you a trip to the grocery this week?" Or, "are you going to have time to drop off that report? I'd be happy to take care of that for you."

If you're able to enlist volunteer workers, realize also that, to Brenda, help will be most helpful if it doesn’t intrude inside the home. Offer to organize help for outdoor yard tasks such as raking, mulching, lawn care or gutter cleaning. If you get a "no thank you," offer again in a couple of weeks as Brenda's needs and willingness to accept help may change with time.

Donate if Possible

Medical expenses can be financially crippling. Your staff's generous Christmas donations are a wonderful gesture of support. Now, ask Brenda if there is a medical expense fund to which co-workers might contribute. If there is no fund, ask if you could help set one up for her family.

If there are children, contributions to a college fund might be welcomed when family resources are necessarily directed elsewhere.

Get Corporate Involved

Finally, check with your HR department to see if any programs are already in place that might be helpful to Brenda's family. If there are none, Brenda's situation might be a good starting point from which to craft compassion into corporate policies.

If you have a question for Heather, email her at and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!