Coping with the Death of a Coworker

Article | October 2018

Coping with the Death of a Coworker

When we lose a coworker, we may be impacted in significant, and sometimes unexpected ways.

Death of a Coworker

Grief is expressed in very personal ways. The death of a coworker will affect each person differently. Reactions and feelings of grief can be shaped by a number of different factors.

Feelings and reactions

Relationship you shared

It may have been strictly professional or have deepened to become a close friendship. As with family members, some work relationships may even become tense or difficult. The specifics of your relationship with the person will impact your experience of grief.

Manner of death

Your feelings and reactions may be stronger and harder to manage if the death was traumatic, such as an accident, suicide, or violent death. A death that occurs at the workplace, that you witnessed, can be especially difficult. You may feel shock, anger, a sense of vulnerability, confusion, disbelief, or guilt, to name a few. If the death was due to natural causes, such as a heart attack or illness, you may react with some of the same feelings; however the intensity of your experience may be different. If your coworker was terminally ill over a long period, you may have been trying to cope with grief and a sense of helplessness for a long time.

Role and connections at work

They may have been a new employee or someone you did not know well. Or they may have been a long-term and well-liked employee who mentored and supported others.

Maybe they have family members at the company. Losing a coworker can be both a personal and professional loss. You must cope with their absence and establish a “new normal” in the workplace.

Workplace environment

If your workplace is a team environment, the loss of a key employee may have an impact on your job. The grief experience can be amplified if there have been other losses at your workplace in the past. On the other hand, if your workplace has never experienced a death before, the loss can hit especially hard. Some workplace cultures are uncomfortable with expressions of grief or emotion. Others tend to be more open to and supportive of expressing emotions.

Understanding the emotions of grief

There is no “normal” reaction to loss and no “right” way to grieve.

Many different emotions may be felt as we come to terms with the loss and try to fold it into our everyday lives. Possible emotions include:

  • Shock is a common first reaction. It is often followed by denial or disbelief. This may be a way that our minds initially shield us from overwhelming emotions.
  • Sadness may be very intense and deep, especially if you were good friends.
  • Grief from other losses may be triggered.
  • Anxiety about how the workplace will function without the deceased, such as how the workload will be addressed.
  • Fears about your safety and security, depending on the cause of death.
  • Betrayal, mistrust, tension, or anger; feeling that the death is something that shouldn’t have happened.
  • A need to return to a normal routine; a sense of urgency or expectation to “move on” from the loss. Guilt or self-blame regarding an unpleasant last conversation, tension in the relationship or an inability to help them. Struggling with the “what ifs.”
  • Feeling vulnerable, aware of your own mortality.
  • Helplessness, particularly in cases of a long-term illness or witnessing a workplace accident.
  • Anger, a lack of patience, or being short-tempered.
  • Numbness or not being able to feel your emotions.
  • A lack of reaction or feelings of grief. This can happen if the relationship was strained, distant, or tense.

Coping with grief

Avoid judging your own or others’ reactions. It is unhelpful in dealing with grief. Give yourself and coworkers permission to experience the emotions that come up, even if there is no emotion expressed. There is no “right” or “normal” way to feel when someone has passed away, and grief has no timeline.

Memories of the deceased are always present at work. It can help to have a way for everyone to share openly.

Consider a bulletin board where people can post stories, memories, and pictures of the person.

Be kind to yourself and take a break if you become tearful or overwhelmed with emotion.

Consider doing something for the deceased’s family as a team, if possible and permitted. This might be a donation to a charity, making a memory book or sending photos of the deceased that the family may not have. Pool together financial contributions to give gift cards for useful items, such as child care, meals, housecleaning, lawn service, etc.

Self-care is vital during times of stress. Make sure to eat well. Get regular exercise and the sleep you need to feel rested. It can help to express your emotions and talk about the experience with friends, family members, or a counselor. Calling your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can help you connect with supportive resources, if applicable.

Memorials or good-bye rituals may be helpful. Attend the funeral or ceremony, if possible. You may wish to create a memorial in the workplace, such as planting a tree in their honor or hanging a memorial plaque.

Cigna Can Help

If you have EAP coverage through Cigna, we are available by phone at (877) 622-4327 any time to help you understand what services are available to support you during this time.

This material is provided by Cigna for informational/educational purposes only. It is not medical/clinical advice. Only a health care professional can make a diagnosis or recommend a treatment plan. For more information, you can call the number listed on your health care identification card.