by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D.
Death is a natural part of what we expect to happen at the end of a normal life cycle. However, this is a difficult event to cope with under the best of circumstances. There are some deaths, such as that of a younger person who we do not expect to die so young or when someone dies from an accident or a suicide, that are particularly difficult. Although the death of a coworker from natural causes or from accidents is not something we have to cope with very often, it does happen. And when this does occur, it can seriously affect that person’s entire department at work. Through my years of working with corporate clients it has become clear to me that these deaths are similar to the death of a family member. The “work family” can be a very close knit group. Since we can spend more waking hours with coworkers than with our family members at home, losing a co-worker/friend can be a real challenge. This article is designed to give employees some ways to cope with a death of a co-worker.
First it is important to know that there is a wide range of normal emotional reactions to death. It is normal to feel grief as an intense sadness or depression. It is common, especially when you lose a close friend to be tearful and upset about their loss. In addition to the grief/sadness, there are other emotions that can affect us. Feeling angry that the person died or even guilty that we could not prevent it can occur. These emotions are even more common when the death was due to an accident or suicide. Another feeling that is especially common is a sense of vulnerability. We might worry that this could happen to me or one of my family members. We might start to worry about our family more than usual. The important thing here is to remember that these feelings are entirely normal and that they will not last forever.
WHAT WE CAN EXPECT
We need to be prepared that it takes some time to grieve the loss of a friend or a loved one. There can be a disruption of your sleep, appetite, and concentration. How long this lasts is very difficult to say. Some depends on how close you were to the deceased and some depends on your personality and sensitivity. It can be weeks before you feel that the worst of your grief is over. Although it may take time to cope with the loss, there are things you can do to speed up your grief reaction.
STEPS YOU CAN TAKE
Fortunately there are several things you can do to feel better soon. Below is a list of what we find helpful.
1. Talk to others in your work group who were close to the person who died. Talk about your reactions but also talk about the positive things you remember. It even helps after a few days to be able to tell stories that are happy memories of your friend and even to laugh with others about funny events you shared with the person.
2. Stay busy. This is pretty easy in most companies since your daily job demands take up so much of the day. It is best not to isolate yourself from others by staying home after the death of your co-worker. It is better to be at work even if you know you will not be that productive. If you are a manager, expect that normal routines and productivity will be disrupted.
3. Communicate with family members even if they did not know the person who died. It sometimes helps just to talk to loved ones even though you do not have to talk about your deceased friend.
4. Attend the funeral if possible. If not, hold a private memorial service with as many employees as possible in attendance. Following your traditional religious and cultural beliefs can often be a comfort.
5. Do something to show your concern for the person’s family. Sending food to the family’s home is sometimes helpful if the company has not done so. Later you may want to contribute money to any fund that is set up for the family and/or children. Sometimes sending a personal letter or cards to the family is important if you had a close friendship with the person.
6. If your company has a grief counselor on site, it often helps to attend any scheduled group sessions that are set up for your department. If you want you may also request an individual session with the counselor through your EAP. These sessions are always confidential so it can be a good source of support for a difficult time
As you can see there are a number of positive things you can do so cope with your grief. Again, this will not eliminate all of your grief and sadness, but it will help you cope more effectively with your loss. There are two things to try to avoid. Try to limit your use of alcohol as a way of coping. This might seem like a good escape but this will only provide short term relief and could create other problems. The second thing you want to avoid is isolation. Staying to yourself might feel like the natural thing to do but this will delay your eventual resolution of your grief. If you think that your grief reaction is not easing over a couple of weeks, you might want to consider calling the EAP for a private consultation.