Grieving a Colleague in the Remote Age

Death Of A Coworker

Work life is full of processes and protocols for nearly everything. But when an employee passes away, it feels like the rulebook goes out the window, thanks to the swirl of emotions present. Whether sudden or expected, the loss can be difficult for colleagues and leadership, as can the days, weeks and months following. Compounding the difficulties? The fact that the connections built and maintained are no longer strictly face-to-face. So how do you grieve the death of a co-worker and move forward together when you’re separated physically? What is the risk you run if you fail to address the collective team’s feelings properly, or not at all?

The importance of showing up

Whether you refer to your colleagues as your work family or are simply cordial with one another, learning about the death of a co-worker can be a stunning upset. And how leadership addresses it is of critical importance. Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta, told the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that these are the moments that matter in a workplace.

“How we show up for our employees during the most painful and traumatic periods of their lives is something they will never forget,” she said. 

Crying and yelling, sadness and anger—grief can bring all these emotions to the surface. In the work environment, these emotions can render a level of discomfort. But far worse than confronting those uncomfortable feelings can be what occurs if the company sweeps grief aside.

Don’t just send an email about the death of a co-worker

Imagine, for example, that you receive an email from your manager that your co-worker of 15 years, Greg, passed away. The manager emails the next day with a link to an online obituary and funeral arrangements. Then they don’t mention it again, except to reassign some of Greg’s tasks to you.

This cold and rather transactional exchange may leave you with a poor impression of your manager and the company. Plus, several emotional and physical symptoms—like fatigue, headaches, a lack of motivation or inability to concentrate—could begin to manifest as you grieve, particularly when without the benefit of social support

Not only are these feelings bad for morale, but they can also impact the bottom line. In 2003, the Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation estimated the annual cost of grief in the workplace to be around $75 billion lost in the decline of productivity. This 2003 survey statistic is still cited, and the cost is likely to have increased over the years.

So how can an organization go about showing up after the death of a colleague? Robert VandePol, former executive director of employee assistance and church assistance programs at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, outlined a process organizations can follow in the SHRM article:

  • Acknowledge (The facts, the personal impact the death has, that the death will impact team members in varying ways) 
  • Communicate (Provide accurate information to decrease the formation and spread of rumors and to create “a sense of order” to support the transition)
  • Transition (A plan for how people can make progress toward a new normal)

How to virtually provide support

So what are some specific tactics leaders can employ to show support and build connection during this difficult time?

  • An email notification is simply the first touchpoint. After you send that out to the larger group, consider sending a team message to individual co-workers. Ask how they’re doing and if they need anything from you. Set calendar reminders to continue check-ins in the days and weeks ahead, as grief isn’t a one-and-done emotion; it’s an entire process.
  • Set the right tone. Don’t be afraid to express your own emotions about the death of your co-worker. That demonstrates openness and invites employees to also feel comfortable discussing how they feel.
  • Consider devoting a team meeting(s) to honoring your co-worker. Some employees might also want to attend a wake or funeral, but that might not be possible for everyone. By having a Zoom meeting limited to work colleagues, people can have a space to come together and share memories. You could also have everyone contribute photos and share them during the meeting as well.
  • Make Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources available. Whether it’s via email or through having an EAP team member attend one of your team meetings, these trained professionals can help make sense of what everyone is feeling. 
  • Plan ahead, but prepare yourself for the unexpected. It’s not a bad idea to have a loose plan in place even before the death of a co-worker. This plan should outline protocols on sharing information, reassigning responsibilities, cleaning out desks if someone does have a physical office and getting back to business. But remember, everyone has a unique grief journey. A colleague especially close to the individual who passed away might feel too overwhelmed to take on that person’s responsibilities, whereas someone who wasn’t as close would be able to help out. Or perhaps you planned to just have one meeting honoring someone, but team members would like to build five minutes into your weekly meetings to share their memories. Pay attention to how your team is feeling, and readjust where possible.

Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

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Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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