When a colleague dies it can have an impact on us in a variety of ways. Many of us spend as much time at work as we do at home which can mean that we develop bonds with our work colleagues even if we don’t spend time with them outside work. This can result in their absence creating a real gap both professionally and personally. So how do you deal with the death of a colleague – both practically and emotionally?
When you hear the news
Sometimes a death can be sudden and unexpected and this can feel like quite a shock, other times we knew our colleague was ill. Taking a moment in the workday to think about that person and come together as a team can be important. It can be a simple gathering over coffee or a walk with your colleagues. For those who work remotely, it may be helpful to arrange a conference call or arrange a day when everyone can be in the office. However you choose to do it, it’s important to acknowledge that the death has happened.
Be prepared for it to impact your work
Grief manifests itself emotionally and physically, so be prepared for the loss of a colleague to impact on your work. People often see work as a distraction from grief, but in this instance work can act as a reminder – of their absence, and of the loss. You may become overwhelmed by feelings of loss, or experience fatigue and loss of concentration. You might find it hard to delete anything electronic of theirs, or to advertise their job role. This is all normal. Be as kind and patient to yourself as you would be to someone else who was going through this.
Talk about them, and share your grief
When someone dies, it can still feel like a taboo subject. You may be inclined to just ‘get on with the job’ and avoid talking about your colleague’s death. This may not be the best approach as not talking about it will only delay the grief, so try and be open and honest with your colleagues and manager about how you are feeling. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your colleagues, make use of any organisational support (such as Employee Assistance Programmes), NHS psychological therapies (IAPT) or charities like Samaritans.
What to do with their workspace
Your HR department and manager should put a plan in place for your colleague’s workspace, but you may wish to be involved in deciding what to do. Your colleague’s belongings can either be a happy memory or a painful reminder, so make sure you communicate with your manager and colleagues about what would help you. The family of your colleague may want to keep the belongings from their workspace and your manager should be able to help with this too.
Telling other people
Although it will be your organisation’s responsibility to communicate news of your colleague’s death, you will inevitably receive questions and communications from other colleagues or clients who don’t know what has happened. It can be really helpful to talk with your manager and colleagues and put a plan in place about how to respond to questions, as taking responsibility for (repeatedly) sharing the news of a colleague’s death can be emotionally and physically draining.
This can be a good time to check with your colleague’s family to find out what they would like shared about the person. Knowing whether or not the family are happy for colleagues to attend a funeral or memorial can help with questions from fellow colleagues about how they might pat their respects.
If you want to, remember and honour them
There are a variety of ways you can remember and honour a colleague who has died. You can attend their funeral or hold a separate memorial at work to mark their passing. Depending on the size of your organisation, you could also plant a tree or put up a plaque to commemorate them, or set up an award or scholarship in their name. They may have had a favourite charity or cause you can support in their name or you may want to take part in activities they enjoyed, for example watching the rugby together or going for a walk in their memory.
For further advice on caring for yourself following a bereavement, download our guide here.