After the shock wears off, hopefully you have had a bit of time to grieve, but there is usually pressure to have business continue.
I have found one of the hardest parts about experiencing the death of a coworker is getting quickly back to business. Most of the time the deceased had work that still needs to get done. If their work is either customer or employee facing, you have even less time to process what happened because you have to continue to meet the needs of people and the deadlines that are still approaching.
In my experience of dealing with coworkers deaths, I have been in the position where I was asked to temporarily complete some of the deceased’s work. I also have been in the position where my own job was being eliminated and I was asked to permanently replace the person. Being in either of these positions is simultaneously an honor and awful. I wish no one would have to be put in those positions. But these are often positions people find themselves in after a co-worker passes. So I would like to offer some advice, which is something I wish I would have had, to make handling those positions a bit easier.
Advice to the person temporarily taking over and knew the deceased:
- Do your best, it will never be done like the person did it before. Chances are good the deceased person knew their job well, and you will likely need to learn on the go.
- Understand the Management thought you handle the job, or they wouldn’t have asked you. It may have been hard for them to decide who to ask. They are grieving, too.
- Your other coworkers might treat you a bit differently, even if they liked you before. And they still probably like you. You just now represent something that has irrevocably changed, and they are coming to terms with the new reality.
- Your other coworkers might look at you and wish the deceased person was still there instead of you. They might even lash out or snap at you. Do your best to let it go and understand it is not personal to you. They are still grieving. Unfortunately, you have become the tangible reminder that things are now different.
- Try to come from a place of as much compassion and grace as you can. It will ease the interactions.
- Remember you the knew the person as well. Allow for your grieving process to continue.
Additional advice to the person who takes over the job permanently
- Understand your own limits and desires. If you are offered the job and you accept it, make sure it is because you really want it and ultimately it would be a good fit for you.
- Any time you take over a job from someone, others will have expectations of you. You will have expectations of yourself. However, when you take over a deceased person job, those expectations can be even higher, especially if you may also have a desire to make the deceased person proud. These feelings are normal. But remember you will only succeed in that job if and when you decide to make it your own, rather than trying to live in a shadow.
- Regardless of whether you knew the deceased, know your other coworkers are still understanding the new reality. Give them time and space to heal and move forward.
- It is highly unlikely the job will suddenly feel like your job and instead of the deceased’s. Know it will be a process, and there is no defined time frame for that process.
Advice to the people who are dealing with someone new doing the deceased coworker’s job
- Remember the person asked to do the job might be grieving, too.
- Chances are probably pretty good the person was asked to step up instead of volunteering, and it is likely the person feels overwhelmed. Offer to help as much as you can.
- Sometimes it is harder for the person trying to fill in than it is for you. The new person is trying to live up to unrealistic expectations because they so badly want to get everything right, to make it easier on others. Let them know you are supportive of their efforts.
- Understand the new person is trying to learn at lightening speed, possibly even while still doing parts of their previous job. Try to be patient. They will do things differently than what you were expecting, and they will make mistakes.
- Maybe the new person doesn’t even know the person who had the job previously passed away. If that’s the case, tell them. Nothing is worse than walking into a situation, and, not knowing the history, making a comment that would normally be fine, but given the circumstances, comes off as insensitive.
Overall the ability to be compassionate and patient with everyone, including yourself, will help the healing process and allow you to move forward. Deadlines can be reset and work can be corrected.
Anyone’s job duties are replaceable, but that human being is never replaceable. As you move forward, remember it is our connections to people that will always bring us the most sadness and the most joy.
*Original post on Thrive Global via Medium, updated here April, 2023