Good Grief: Coping with death in the workplace

Grieving is a natural and a healthy response to the loss of someone close to you. It’s a necessary part of the healing process—one that reminds us of our capacity to love and of the deepest connections we have with the people in our lives. In our grief we are reminded of our humanity, and with it we are also confronted with an overwhelming awareness of our own powerlessness to control the world that surrounds us. In other words, grief is real, and it cannot and should not be avoided.

But there is also a restorative dimension to grief and loss. Most of us have lived long enough to experience the loss of family members and friends with whom we have shared indelible connections. In these cases, the parting gift of the deceased is oftentimes the chance to reconnect with the people and places that have marked our lives and that make us who we are. Families come together, and friendships grow and deepen. Growth, renewal, and gratitude are therefore often the unexpected byproducts of our experiences with grief and loss.

But how do we cope with the loss of people in our lives with whom we have not forged a personal bond? It’s true that each of us experiences grief differently—but with the loss of a family member or of a close friend there are more clearly defined attitudes and expectations of how we might be coping and exactly what steps we might take towards managing our grief. But when it’s business partner, a teammate, or a co-worker who dies, the grieving process is often less defined and more confusing. We may not know “how to feel,” and the built-in support systems that re-emerge when family members and close friends die are not always apparent to us. What might the grieving process look like in these circumstances?

In an article on its website, The American Psychological Association considers both the emotional and physical impact that the death of a coworker causes on workers and workplaces. First citing the emotional impact, the APA suggests,

A co-worker’s death may cause you to become tense and irritated. Those feelings can make an already- stressful work environment worse and create new problems elsewhere in your life.

With regard to the physical impact, the APA suggests,

Trying too hard not to think about a co-worker’s death has its own consequences. Those who attempt to lose themselves in their work risk burnout, a state of intense mental and physical exhaustion. Some may turn to unhealthy behaviors to cope with their sadness such as overeating, drinking alcohol or taking prescription drugs.

So, while the protraction and intensity of grief varies from person to person and from workplace to workplace when a coworker dies, the experts make it clear that grief is normal and that finding a way to process the loss is essential.

The APA offers three suggestions about how workplaces and their employees can manage grief together in a constructive and healthy manner. First, and most importantly, the APA cites the importance of sharing your feelings with your co-workers who are oftentimes experiencing the same emotions that you might be sitting with. Mutual support can help everyone get through his or her grief. Second, the APA suggests that employees take advantage of employee assistance programs. According to the website, in most cases these programs are staffed by experienced counselors who “can offer support and structure to help individuals and groups come to terms with a loss.” Lastly, the APA cites the importance of planning ahead—that managers might work with human resource departments to establish protocols and procedures for responding to a worker’s death.

Grief and loss in the workplace can have just as much of an impact on our wellness as they do in our private lives. Our brains are not wired to quantify loss or to compartmentalize grief. In fact, the same restorative power that reunites families and reconnects friends when someone dies offers just as much of an opportunity for growth and gratitude for workplaces when a coworker dies. Likewise, the parting gift of a coworker can be the strengthening of relationships and the reaffirmation of the value and importance of the people with whom we are fortunate to interact on a day-to-day basis.

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. –John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII

Work Cited: American Psychological Association. Coping with the death of a co-worker. American Psychological Association. 12 November 2012. XXX