A colleague's unexpected death can create a profound sense of shock and grief in the work environment.
Quite often, the sorrow is expressed through words like "we've lost a member of our family" because it really does feel that way. We spend our days together, we form close, caring friendships and share in the joys and struggles of life as if we are extended family. Therefore, when a co-worker dies, it may hit people as hard as if they lost a loved one.
We are never sufficiently prepared to say goodbye to someone we interact with on a daily basis. According to Dr. Debra Holland, a California-based psychologist, people find it difficult to reconcile their last memories of that co-worker being alive and active with the news of their death.
If that person died of natural causes, we may search our memories for any clues that something was physically wrong. Did they just appear tired or pale or was it a symptom of something more ominous? If they died in an accident, was it because they were too stressed or preoccupied with work? If they died as a result of an incident on the job site, there may also be a deep sense of guilt that their death could have somehow been prevented.
Regardless of how the colleague died and the various emotions that surviving co-workers experience during the bereavement period, it can be especially difficult to continue "going through the motions" at work. The person who passed away was someone who had a specific role in the workplace and on whom we depended to help get the job done. Even though they have left a professional void, the entire company cannot stop functioning in their absence.
This is why it is important for workplaces to have a contingency plan in case of such a situation that will help bridge the workload while co-workers grieve the loss.
For many people, the news will make it extremely difficult to focus on work, which may temporarily disrupt daily operations. It could even present safety hazards for people using heavy equipment or carrying out functions that require great concentration. For some colleagues, a strong and prolonged emotional response to a co-worker's death may lead to depression and stress that will affect their productivity unless dealt with properly.
While managers consider how the deceased's responsibilities will be handled until a replacement can be found, they also need to be empathetic to what their people are going through, helping them to deal with the significant loss and honour the memory of their friend.
For co-workers, there are a number of ways to cope with the death of a co-worker and to remember the person who died:
Share your memories with others. The people you work with may be experiencing many of the same feelings of grief you are, although some prefer to do it internally and others externally. If you want to talk about it, get together with others who want to discuss their feelings and share personal recollections. It has been said that a co-worker grieving a loss will cope better when he or she feels cared for and supported by their work environment.
Take advantage of employee assistance programs. If they are available, and arrangements have not already been made to bring in a group counsellor, ask your HR department about your EAP options, which can help you come to terms with the loss and look ahead to the future.
Find a way to memorialize your friend. There are a number of meaningful and personalized ways to give tribute to your colleague. You may want to hold a work-only memorial service. Consider creating a bulletin board where peers can contribute photos, comments, notes and personal mementoes to honour the memory. There may also be an opportunity to memorialize them permanently by dedicating an event, planting a tree or renaming a special place in their honour.
Spearhead a charitable effort to benefit a meaningful cause. Some people find comfort in being able to do something positive in their friend's memory, such as establishing a fund in their name, setting up a scholarship for their children, donating to their favourite charity or fundraising to benefit medical research.
Accept that someone new will eventually fill the empty space. Although it may be unthinkable to imagine that someone irreplaceable will be replaced, it must eventually happen. Employees need to accept that someone new will fill that position and, possibly, sit in the chair of their departed colleague. The new person has big shoes to fill, so they should feel welcomed and supported.
Finally, give yourself time to grieve the tragic loss. It is important to think about the many positive contributions your co-worker made to the workplace, to your life and to the lives of others. The finest tribute you can offer in their memory is to try making similar contributions.
-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.