Six normally seems like a good number. For instance, if you have experienced something six times, you have likely gained significant knowledge about it and you may become a person others look to for advice. But sometimes even one is too many, let alone six. I had been in the business world for a little over 10 years and over that time I had experienced the death of six coworkers. I have seen and dealt with a lot of grief in the workplace. It never gets easier.
It’s the work email no one is ever prepared for: a coworker has passed away. It seems so out of context. Dealing with death is supposed to involve losing a loved one, a family member, or a friend. It is not supposed to involve the loss of a coworker. Work is often a way to escape from a loss, not center stage for dealing with one.
Some people will be fortunate to never have to experience a coworker’s death. But others like myself who have experienced it know the grief of losing a coworker can be different from the grief of losing a loved one. People will go through a grieving process any time there is a death; however, the nuances of grief are rarely, if ever, talked about. It is okay to acknowledge your grief for a coworker may be different from your grief for a loved one.
Your feelings about a person who has died and the effect of the death on the community you are in with that person plays a big part in the grieving process. When a family member dies, you know how you felt about that person and you can anticipate the level of family drama related to it. When a friend dies, most of the time, you know how you felt about that person, or that person wouldn’t be in your life. But what happens when it is a co-worker? How did you feel about that person? What does their death mean for you and your workplace? These are questions you unlikely ever thought about prior to the person’s death.
If you knew your coworker was coping with a terminal illness, you are slightly more prepared for the email, because at some level you understood your coworker’s death was a probable outcome. That does not negate the fact it can still be hard to process. However, most of the time dealing with a coworker’s death is unexpected, which can create even more chaos and unsure emotions.
For most of us, our work culture makes it difficult to show emotions at work. This just adds to the challenge of dealing with a death. It is important to still allow yourself to feel your feelings, even if you have to do it outside of your working hours. Allow yourself space and time to process the death.
So often we feel we must try to only focus on the good or match what others are saying. It is okay to have conflicting thoughts and emotions about the death. You and your other co-workers probably had varying reactions to the deceased person when they were alive. Those opinions, thoughts and feelings are still valid. It is reasonable and expected that your relationship to the deceased and your reaction to the death are uniquely yours.
Here are some thoughts or emotions you may be experiencing that are rarely acknowledged, but all of them are valid. It is acceptable to relate to some of these statements, none of them, or to have any other similar thoughts about your deceased coworker.
- Liked them as a person, and were or could have been friends outside of work
- Liked their work, but didn’t care for them as a person
- Like them as a person, but struggled with their work knowledge or work ethic
- Were completely neutral to them and their work
- Occasionally said “Hi”, but but never needed to interact with them outside of a break area
- Absolutely adored them, and their work, and this loss is really personal for you
And to complicate the death even more, you maybe thinking and processing the following:
- Does their death mean more work for me?
- What happens to all the stuff they were in the middle of?
- Are they going to be replaced?
- How can I work with anyone else?
- I wonder how long their space is going remain empty?
- What if I am told I have to sit in their space?
- What if I kind of want their space?
- Am I bad for thinking about work, when someone just died?
Giving yourself permission to have any of the above thoughts or any other similar thoughts will ultimately help you in the grieving process. It is about allowing yourself to fully feel and acknowledge the full range of your own thoughts and emotions instead of limiting yourself only to what you perceive you have the right to think and feel. You have permission.
Acknowledging that you will grieve differently than any of your other coworkers and they will grieve differently than you is okay. The best thing you can do for yourself and your other coworkers is to have compassion and patience, especially if tempers are short. Understand this is going to be a process, with no defined time frame. You and your coworkers are also creating a new normal; you will never go back to the normal it was before the person passed.
Deaths always create a new reality, but it is up to you to grieve the loss. And remember, you have permission to grieve for a coworker in your own way.
*Original post on Medium 2016 (updated here, April 2023)