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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Here's How to Cope When a Co-worker Dies

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One Saturday I was walking in my front door when my phone buzzed. It was a Facebook messenger notification from my boss. That’s strange, I thought. It wasn’t completely out of the norm to hear from her this way, since I worked remotely, but not on a weekend.

The note said to let her know when I had a few minutes. A sinking feeling. Had I done something wrong? I wrote her back and took a seat. I’m glad I did, since her next message was shocking: My co-worker had passed away in her sleep and was found during a wellness check after no one had heard from her for a few days.

Since we both worked remotely, we’d never met in person. And some of her suggestions in our virtual meetings drove me nuts—switching from Gmail to Outlook? Still, hadn’t we just been talking online the other day?

The news caught me off guard, and in the coming weeks, her absence affected me far more than typical changes in workflow would have. Apparently, this isn’t unusual.

A colleague’s death “can impact you in ways you didn’t expect, even if you weren’t close with this particular co-worker,” says Jen Leong, a psychotherapist based in Long Beach, California.

No matter what your relationship was like, a death will affect you and others in your workplace. Moving forward can be difficult, but there are ways to cope.

Accept Your Reaction

“Grief comes in various stages and shows up in various ways at different times and there is no wrong way,” says Erica Curtis, a marriage and family therapist based in San Juan Capistrano, California.

Sometimes a death will cause a big reaction, even if you weren’t close. “Our brain works off of associations, so when we have a loss, it’s going to automatically trigger the other losses we’ve experienced in our life and bring up those feelings as well,” she explains.

Other times, experiencing others’ large reactions will make you feel like you aren’t upset enough.

Curtis says that instead of comparing, accept that “this is just how I feel right now,” and try not to listen to others who might judge.

Take Initiative

Nikki DeClue was working at an orthopedic office when she got the news that one of her co-workers was killed in a head-on collision. The day before, they’d swapped Secret Santa gifts at the company Christmas party, and they were friends outside of work, too.

“It was really hard to go back to work,”DeClue said. “I was used to seeing my friend every single day, but all I saw was the jacket she wore on the back of her chair.”

While the office didn’t organize any memorial events or activities, DeClue and a couple of her other colleagues went to the hospital to check on their late co-worker’s husband and son, who had injuries from the crash. They later attended the funeral together.

Following the death of a co-worker, a workplace might not take immediate steps to acknowledge it. If you feel compelled to do something or think it’d be helpful for your colleagues, Curtis recommends approaching your direct supervisor and asking if it’d be OK for you to organize something. Bring an idea that’s not too disruptive to the workday, but gives staff the opportunity to get involved.

“An empty desk can feel heavy,” Curtis says. But doing something as simple as leaving a memory journal there for people to write in can help. Depending on the connection to the late co-worker’s family, it might be appropriate to pass the book along to them once it’s full of remembrances.

Morgan Irish-George’s co-worker was killed in a car accident en route to a vacation. Her boss gathered everyone together to talk about the death, Irish-George says, but several colleagues also took initiative to help everyone cope after the initial conversation.

“One employee arranged to have a therapy dog come walk through our offices and building to have a pet and a smile,” she says. “Another coordinated a grief counselor to be made available for a session for those who would like it.”

Seek Support Wherever You Can Find It

Depending on the culture of the workplace, you may or may not be able to seek support at work. If management isn’t open to memorial activities in the office, organizing an after-work gathering is another option.

It’s an opportunity for colleagues to “create something on their own level,” Curtis says, to come together to remember their colleague. It doesn’t have to be formal—even meeting at a restaurant or grabbing a drink or coffee where everyone can chat could be beneficial.

And if you feel like you need support and can’t get it at the office or from your colleagues, Curtis recommends spending time with friends, your loved ones, or even a pet to feel connected to others outside your grief.

Be Kind to Yourself

It’s crucial to take care of yourself, Curtis says. Eating healthy and exercising are good options, but it can be hard when you’re grieving.

“You can’t beat yourself up over it,” she says. “Instead look for smaller things, smaller moments of self-care.” This can be as simple as noticing and focusing on the smell of your coffee in the morning or reaching out and texting someone you’re thinking about to help you feel grounded.

“Typically in bereavement, going to work is a distraction,” Leong says. But “when the person who dies is your co-worker, that doesn’t necessarily take you away from it.” Moreover, she adds, “part of bereavement includes being foggy-headed and distracted and that’s going to impact productivity.”

If you notice you’re distracted at your desk, instead of brushing it off as fatigue, recognize that you might be grieving. And make space for your emotions, Curtis says.

“Feelings get stronger and bigger because they don’t feel like they’re being heard or acknowledged.” She recommends doodling or imagining a container and asking your feelings to go there, not to be locked up, but to wait until they can be processed outside of the workday.

Beyond these exercises, you might be able to take advantage of grief-related programs or services some workplaces offer through HR, and you might want to seek out therapy. If the workplace is becoming a trigger, Curtis recommends talking with your manager about setting up flex time or seeing if you can take anywhere from a couple days to weeks off.

Know That it Takes Time

More than 10 years ago, when Jen Giangregorio was working in retail, a co-worker drowned one weekend.

“He was young and smart and he just drowned,” Giangregorio says. “It was horrible. We were all devastated,” she adds. “I still think about it.”

The loss of a co-worker will always be in your thoughts, and could be triggered 20 years after the event. There’s “no quick fix,” says Leong. “You will always know this has happened and the person will always be gone.”

Be patient and give yourself space to express your emotions when they come up.

After my colleague’s death, the rest of us continued working, but the company temporarily put a pause on any new tasks. We sent a floral arrangement to my co-worker’s family, and I eventually took over some of her responsibilities. It was weird to delete her off our Trello and Monday boards, and I caught myself trying to send her an email a couple of times.

But while I still think of her nearly a year later—and I’m sure I’m not the only one—we’ve managed to reach a new normal.