Death in the Workplace: How to Cope

Hallie Hawkins was deeply affected when Maria, one of six people she managed at a Charlotte, N.C. bank, died suddenly of an aneurism.

"She was like family," Hawkins said. "The team that I managed was like a group of sisters."

When Hawkins relayed the news that Maria, who was all of 40, had passed away, several of her team members wept openly. One co-worker "literally fell to the ground and could not get up."

Although most of us can't imagine having occasion to use the words "co-worker" and "died" in the same sentence, losing a colleague to illness, accident or sudden death is more common than you might expect. A quick poll of my professional network yielded dozens of e-mails about colleagues who'd lost a protracted battle with cancer, taken their own life or collapsed of a heart attack right at their desk.


In fact, a 2003 report by The Grief Recovery Institute found that the deaths of co-workers, friends and extended family cost U.S. businesses $7 billion a year in lost productivity.

The prevailing career advice is to never let 'em see you sweat, scream or sob at the office. But what if you find yourself distraught over the loss of a well-respected colleague? How much public display of emotion is appropriate then? How do you deal with the grief you're feeling while still remaining productive in your job?

Stifling It Not the Answer

"Losing a colleague that you've worked with for a period of time is not terribly different than when a good friend outside the workplace dies," said licensed psychologist Shep Jeffreys, author of "Coping with Workplace Grief."

"Because we spend so many hours a day in the workplace, it tends to become like an extended family."

According to grief experts, deep sadness, anger, guilt and loss of concentration can all be part of the mourning process. So can fears about one's own mortality and unresolved feelings about past losses.

"If you can't do your work, you need to find someone to talk to," advised Jeffreys, who's an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

"It could be a colleague. It could be a manager that you're close to. It could be someone outside work -- a family member, friend, spiritual advisor or counselor."

Talking Is the Best Medicine

After a co-worker committed suicide, "Nicole," a Silicon Valley technical writer who didn't want her real name used, had trouble focusing at the office.

"I couldn't help thinking about it," Nicole said. "Walking past his cubicle was hard, so I usually would take another route."

She got through those first few difficult weeks by sharing her anguish with her co-workers.

"Several of us holed up in a conference room or went out to lunch to rehash and process everything three or four times," she said.

Also helpful were the group counseling sessions with a company psychologist Nicole and her teammates participated in.

"I was able to see that others were hurting too, and I was able to hear some stories about my friend that I hadn't heard before," she said.

Take Advantage of Employer Resources

Like Nicole's company, many organizations offer employee assistance programs that provide counseling to workers in need.

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