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Grief and Loss
How to Cope with the Death of a Coworker
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The loss of a coworker can be traumatic. Whether or not you were close to your colleague, it’s normal to grieve her passing.

The grief process can be confusing and provoke feelings of sadness, guilt and anger. It’s important to remember that everyone mourns and moves through the experience at her own pace, and there’s no one “right” or “normal” reaction.

How do you cope with the death of a coworker? While there’s no correct or typical way to do it, these suggestions can give you a place to start.

How to cope with death in the workplace

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve; these are merely suggestions that provide comfort to some people.

• Take some time.

Whether or not you were close to your colleague, grief is a normal and appropriate response to her death. Take time out to collect yourself: walk around the block, get a cup of coffee or even ask for an hour or two away from your desk. 

• Pay condolences.

Reach out to the family of your coworker, offering your sincere condolences. Sending a handwritten note is a nice touch. (If you can’t find the family’s mailing address, check with HR to see if they can forward your note to them.) The obituary may specify an organization to direct donations, and anything you’re able to contribute will be meaningful to the family.

• Share with others.

Talk to your coworkers about how you’re feeling. It’s important to be open and share your emotions. Others will appreciate having a space to discuss their own grief and share memories of the deceased, too. Lean on friends and family members as well, even if they didn’t know your coworker. 

• Take advantage of support resources.

Your organization may offer on- or off-site grief counseling or therapy and other resources. Many people find this type of support helpful during this difficult period. 

• Understand that the mourning process takes time.

After some time has passed, the organization will return to business as usual. While you do have to do your job, remember that everyone grieves at her own pace, and it’s normal to have continuing feelings of sadness and even anger. Be kind to yourself and recognize that these feelings are normal, in addition to seeking out support from others as you need it.

How do you honor a deceased coworker?

Honoring the memory of a deceased coworker can help establish unity and a culture of support within your organization. Some ways to memorialize your coworker are:

• Holding a memorial service for employees to share memories of the employee

• Planting a tree in her honor

• Setting up a scholarship fund in her name

• Having a fundraising event to raise many for an organization that was important to the employee

• Creating a plaque or naming a room or facility after the deceased

What to do if an employee dies

Your organization may already have procedures in place for handling the death of an employee. If not, here’s a general outline of what to do if your employee dies:

• Contact the family. 

When an employee dies, it’s important to remember that certain laws and regulations apply in terms of what you share and with whom you share it. HIPAA laws, for instance, still protect your employee’s right to privacy. Before you share information with clients or the rest of the company, ask the employee’s family about what and how much they want you to share, and respect their wishes. 

• Notify employees and clients.

Respecting the family’s wishes, share the news with employees and clients, especially those whose relationships will be impacted the most. You may also want to offer information about how people can pay their respects.

• Work out the logistics.

Establish procedures for returning any company property, either with the family or the employee’s close colleague. You’ll also need to discuss delegating work and responsibilities with your staff until you’re able to fill the position. It’s best to wait a certain amount of time before listing the role out of respect for your deceased colleague.

• Handle payroll and benefits.

You will need to hold the employee’s final paycheck pending notification of how her affairs will be handled and stop payroll. You’ll also need to contact beneficiaries of benefits, such as life insurance. Consult your state laws and legal advisors for more information about these and other procedures, such as distributing payment for accrued vacation and paid time off (PTO), as well as processing paperwork for the employee’s 401(k), COBRA for dependents and other benefits.

• Offer support to your other employees.

Your employees need to know you’re there to support them. Share the news with them in person and let them know that you’re there to talk. If possible, offer grief counseling on-site. Create a space where colleagues can express their emotions and share with one another. Direct them to additional support resources, too.

Should I attend a coworker’s funeral?

Whether or not you decide to attend your coworker’s funeral is a personal decision. The family may choose to keep the funeral private, but if it’s not, attending will probably depend on how close you were to your colleague. It’s certainly a nice gesture to pay your respects to her family.

If you’re a supervisor, you should allow your employees to attend the funeral without having to use PTO, vacation time or sick leave.

Resources

Coping with the death of a co-worker

(American Psychological Association)

This guide from the APA offers guidance on what to do and how to move forward when a  coworker dies. 

How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies

(Therese A. Rando, Ph.D.)

Although not specifically about coping with the loss of a coworker, this book offers advice on moving through the grieving process from bereavement specialist Dr. Rando.

If you’re having trouble coping with the loss of your coworker, it can also be helpful to see a therapist to work through the grieving process.

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