Coping with the death of a coworker
For many people, coworkers become like family, and in some cases even closer. Subsequently, a coworker’s death can be extremely hard to cope with—especially if you were close to the person or if the death was unexpected. We spend most of our waking hours with them, building special bonds of trust and friendship that are unlike other relationships.
You or a coworker who was particularly close to a person who died may feel depressed, absentminded, short-tempered or exhausted. These are all normal feelings. You may also feel anxiety and guilt if the death occurred in the workplace or if your last interaction with the person was unpleasant. And even if the coworker’s death came after a prolonged illness, you may still experience shock and depression when you hear the news.
How we cope with death depends on many things, from our personal beliefs to the presence of other stressors in our lives. You may find that thoughts of the deceased make it hard to focus on work, resulting in mistakes that can disrupt an organization’s functioning.
During your daily drive, a preoccupation with a coworker’s death may cause distractions that could easily lead to a car accident. In more extreme cases, a coworker’s death may cause you to become stressed and angry. Those feelings can make an already stressful work environment worse and create new challenges elsewhere in your life.
Grieving a coworker’s death can have a negative effect on your physical health. Long-term feelings of deep sadness can disrupt eating and sleeping, draining you of energy. Grief can also cause people with chronic health conditions to deviate from their prescribed diet, medication or exercise regimens, with serious health consequences.
In addition, prolonged grief regularly leads to depression. Depression has been linked to many other health concerns, such as heart disease and stroke. In one study, for example, depression increased the risk of diabetes by 17 percent. Researchers also found that depression boosted women’s risk of stroke by 29 percent. Trying to not think about a coworker’s death has its own costs. Those who attempt to lose themselves in their work risk burnout. Some may turn to unhealthy coping behaviors such as overeating, drinking alcohol or taking prescription drugs.
What you can do
Grief is a natural process that requires time to deal with. You may find these suggestions helpful:
- Find a way to keep their memory alive. Honor your coworker in a way that best reflects the work they did. Ask coworkers how they want to see your team member honored. Those who were quiet during the earlier stages of grieving may feel drawn to a project like this.
- Raise support. Hold or participate in a fundraiser for a special cause or for the family of the deceased.
- Create a book of memories to give to the family. Many people are not aware of the work life of people they love. These will be unique memories for the family and a way for you to privately express feelings and memories.
- Conduct a workplace-only event. A luncheon or office-only memorial is a chance for coworkers to acknowledge their unique relationship with the deceased.
- Attend the funeral or memorial service. Share your feelings. Your other coworkers may be experiencing the same emotions you are. Mutual support can help everyone get through the grieving process. Take advantage of employee assistance programs, if available.
- Respect coworkers’ privacy. It’s OK to ask how they are doing, but don’t assume they want to process the loss with you. You can listen and be there without trying to “fix” the grief. If you’re not sure how to grieve in your workplace, first consider what you want to share and what you don’t want to share with fellow employees. Don’t be afraid to keep your boss or supervisor informed if you’re having difficulty adjusting to returning to work.
- Allow yourself time. It may take you several weeks or months to process your coworker’s death or go back to feeling normal. You’ll need to take the appropriate time to return to functioning at normal capacity. Talk to your coworkers and ask for help when needed. Tell your supervisor what you may be experiencing. Grief is a process. You’ll experience some good days and some bad days. You may become frustrated if you seem distracted or get a little tired more easily at work. This is a normal reaction during the grief process.
- Counseling can help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a licensed mental health professional who can help you manage your grief more effectively. He or she can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them. Mental health professionals use a variety of evidence-based treatments—most commonly, therapy—to help people improve their lives.
Remember, with open communication and the right support, the workplace can be a comforting and encouraging place for those experiencing a loss.