Death of a Co-worker

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa Williams

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We spend a tremendous amount of time with our co-workers.  They touch our lives every day.  We work together, laugh together, complain to one another, experience successes and failures together, have good days together, and bad days together.  Many times we consider our co-workers friends, sometimes we consider them family.  And yet when we experience the death of a co-worker we often don’t feel we have permission to grieve in the way we would grieve another friend or family member.

There are many reasons coping with the loss of a co-worker can present unique challenges.  Co-workers are not always acknowledged for the significant role they play in our lives, so we may not feel supported in our feelings of grief.  People may assume you should be over it quickly.  Our family and other friends may not know the co-worker who has died; we may not know the family and friends of our co-worker.  It may be unclear or confusing how involved we should be in funerals, memorials, or other remembrance events.  If we cannot grieve with our co-workers we may feel completely alone, yet our employers don’t always encourage us to grieve openly or together.  Emotions and work are not things that usually go together.  Work has long been considered a place to be productive, not to shed tears.  This can be a hard habit to break.

It is important to acknowledge that as a society we are not comfortable dealing with death, so this is not an issue limited to the workplace. After a death it is not surprising to find that your boss and your HR department are not comfortable with grief, and hence totally lost when it comes to supporting grieving staff.  Not to mention they may be grieving themselves.  That doesn’t mean acknowledging grief in the workplace is a lost cause.  We may just need to be more proactive.  So what can you do as a manager, HR professional, or just a “regular” employee?

Acknowledging the loss.

We know grieving in the workplace can feel foreign and unnatural.  Acknowledging the impact of the death of a co-worker can make sure that everyone feels safe expressing their feelings.  The loss of a co-worker is often not validated as a significant loss, so this acknowledgement can allow everyone to feel they have permission to grieve.

Set up a forum for group discussion.

Ideally this will be lead by a professional counselor, either from the organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a professional grief counselor coming in to facilitate a short-term grief group.  A professional is a must for a death that occurred physically in the workplace or for a suicide loss.

If your employer truly is unable to pay for a professional to come in, grief groups can be organized among staff.  If the group is unable to meet during the work day, it make take the shape of a weekly lunch, breakfast group before work, or dinner group after work.

Take advantage of employer services.

Many companies have an EAP that offers one-on-one counseling services.  If this is the case, as an employee you may wish to find our what is available and schedule an appointment.  As a manager or HR professional it is important after a loss to make sure staff are aware of how to contact the EAP.  Send out an email and/or post the information in a staff lounge to ensure everyone knows how to utilize these services.

Do something for the family.

For many people it is very important to send flowers or send something else to the family.  Make a plan as a team or company to do this.  This can be especially important if it may be a financial strain for any individual to send something, but as a group and with the support of management it may be easier.  The obvious choice is to send flowers, but there are plenty of other options:

  • circulate a card (worried about what to write ?  get some advice on writing a sympathy card here)
  • send a food basket
  • make a donation to a charity the person was connected to
  • send a useful item (like a gift card for a maid service, lawn service, or carry out restaurant)
  • create a memorial book for the family, with memories and work accomplishments
  • gather photos from work events that the family may not have of the person to share
  • donate to a scholarship fund for the person's children

For more ideas take a look at our post on alternatives to sending flowers for ideas.

Attend the funeral.

Co-workers can sometimes feel unsure if they should attend the viewing, funeral, or other memorial.  Establishing what the company will support and making plans as a group can ease this uncertainty.  As a manager or HR professional it is important to clearly establish whether staff will be allowed to attend a service during work hours or if liberal leave will be in effect.  To support people in attending you may wish to plan carpooling from the office, or even a shuttle.

The reality is that many workplaces will not be able to shut down to allow all staff to attend a memorial.  If this is the case, ask for volunteers to work.   This will allow others to attend the service.  Those who were not as close to the person who died, or who do not wish to attend the service, may volunteer.  If this is the case make sure to acknowledge them for their willingness to help others who wished to attend.

Create a memorial and/or a memorial post to co-worker who died

Sometimes very few staff will be able to attend a service, due to logistics or if it is being held out of the area.  Even if many staff attend the service, doing something specific for the workplace may also be important.  A small ceremony where people can share memories is easy to organize and can be very therapeutic.  Additionally, creating a memorial at the office can be a wonderful way to remember the person who has died.  A small memorial plaque, planting a tree, naming a conference room or meeting room, or a simple memorial bulletin board like the one I stumbled on at the wine store are all wonderful options!  You may also wish to do a memorial slideshow or photobook at an all staff meeting, annual holiday party, or other organizational event.

Have some other ideas for handling the death of a co-worker?  Leave us a comment!

For more ideas on how to support ourselves and each other through grief of all sorts make sure to subscribe.  We will send new posts straight to your inbox.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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7 Comments on "Death of a Co-worker"

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  1. Mary michell  August 21, 2022 at 11:56 am Reply

    I lost a coworker in a car accident last week I question my tears since I only knew him at work.i have a lot of stress prior to his death .he was a very nice person I was surprised as much i cried as if he were a close family member

  2. Harry  November 7, 2019 at 2:35 pm Reply

    Go to click on Blog. Then click facing he loss of a co-worker.
    I feel Cortney Drake-Heck stole your article and didn’t give you credit. A few words are changed or paragraphs are flipped.
    It’s also published under Vertin Family Funeral Homes. Blog.
    However, I feel it’s important that you get some credit for the wonderful article.
    Wausau. WI

  3. Linda  September 9, 2019 at 7:00 pm Reply

    I work in Employee Assistance, and we handle this issue with some frequency. One thing I always mention is that for some, old losses may resurface even if they did not know the recently deceased co-worker well. For those who are organizing their own groups without a mental health professional around, I think this is useful to remember, and possibly mention. This helps the person who is experiencing this be less surprised or confused by these feelings, and reminds all to be kind to everyone who might be nursing a hidden grief. Co-workers can be affected as they recall their own family member’s death from the same cause, or when the work loss closely follows any loss in their personal life – pet loss, family member, friend…

    Suicides are particularly difficult in this regard, because some may be thinking, “they seemed to be doing so well in their career, and if even they could do this, why should my life (that I see as less successful, etc.) even matter?”

  4. Anonymous  June 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm Reply

    I worked somewhere where a person died of cancer in their fifties.

    The coworkers set up a shrine for this person in the hallway. You could not pass it without seeing it. It remained for months. That’s overdoing it I would say.

    In another case in the same workplace, an employee apparently committed suicide at work using lethal supplies that were, due to the nature of the work, completely normal and everyday things to handle there. Not sure how that should have been handled either.

  5. Mary Case  August 12, 2016 at 5:01 pm Reply

    We recently lost a coworker very suddenly in a car accident. We put together pictures and notes and gave them to her parents. I love the idea of having a memorial at work; we need this. We should reprint the pictures and post them at work where we can continue to grieve. Her funeral will be many miles away in another state. Thank you.

  6. review  January 4, 2016 at 1:49 am Reply

    Thanks for finally writing about >What’s your grief? <Loved it!

  7. James Rathbun  November 21, 2013 at 8:47 am Reply

    Optimum Ideas. We should always attend the funeral program and also have some memorial arrangement in the memories of our supported co-worker. It is great to creating a memorial at the office that can be a wonderful way to remember the person who has died.

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