Death in the Workplace: How to Cope

How to Grieve When the Prevailing Career Advice Is Never Let 'Em See You Sweat


Nov. 19, 2009 —

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.

But counseling isn't the only way employers help when a worker passes away. My informal survey yielded numerous tales of companies arranging for transportation to funerals, taking up collections for surviving family members, hosting memorials or renaming conference rooms after the deceased.

Jerri Barrett, a marketing executive in Palo Alto, Calif., had a former boss who even took it upon himself to educate staff about writing their wills and purchasing life insurance after one of the team died without either, leaving behind a stay-at-home wife and infant.

"[My boss] made sure everyone understood not just basic life insurance, but all the ramifications of not having it," Barrett said. "He arranged for all of us to get our wills done for just $200. I don't think there was anyone in our branch that didn't have a will or plenty of life insurance."

Band Together as a Community

Of course when it comes to honoring the dead, you needn't wait for management to take the lead.

"Rituals are an important part of grieving," whether you plant a memorial garden, leave flowers on your co-worker's desk or plan a group luncheon, Jeffreys said.

For "Laurie," a Seattle bookstore manager, an in-store memorial helped her and her staff come to terms with the death of a colleague who succumbed to cancer.

"A few of her friends from outside the store came, and a couple long-time customers who had become friends," Laurie said. "Everyone at the store was invited to attend and had the opportunity to speak. One coworker wrote a lovely eulogy, and we showed images of the [departed] coworker on a screen."

For Brittany Thompson, whose supervisor went missing and was later found dead, Facebook was the uniting force among her colleagues.

"During the weeks he was missing, it was touching to see everyone pulling together to find him," said the Louisville, Ky. web designer.

"A Facebook page was created, local media outlets were informed and bloggers and Twitter users did their part to spread the word. The knowledge that so many people cared and the strength of the online support group helped some of us find peace. The Facebook group grew into a memorial page for our friend, where people post pictures and share their favorite stories about the lives he touched."

Push Back On Management If Necessary

Unfortunately, there will always be those less-than-sympathetic managers who gloss over the office death and toe the "Back to work!" line.

If you're dealing with one of these insensitive sorts, Jeffreys recommends saying, "Could we get everybody together to talk about Joe's death? I think it could help us get back to business as usual." In other words, make a business case for it.

"You can't shut off grief," Jeffreys said. "If you try to ignore it, it continues and continues and gets in the way of daily functioning." Besides, he said, "If the company provides an opportunity for employees to deal with their grief, it adds a tremendous amount of credibility."

What about those who maintain that emotion has no place in the workforce? Jeffreys would like them to know that the mad men days of sweeping one's sorrow or rage under the rug are gone.

"You cannot just leave your feelings at home," he said. "That era is over."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see