When I was the Consul General in Kolkata, one of my employees committed suicide while on leave in the United States. The news came as a shock. While many of us did not know him well, he was a valued member of our team and the loss hit us hard. His staff, who had worked closely with him for over a year, were particularly devastated and struggled to come to terms with the news.
Luckily, a colleague who had experience with workplace deaths gave me excellent advice on how to rebuild and maintain my team’s resilience after losing a colleague. Here’s what I learned from this experience:
Take time to grieve
While work must continue, don’t return to business as usual right away. Give staff the time and space to work through their grief.
Recognize that everyone grieves differently
Grief is a very personal experience and everyone has different ways of coping. Some people want to jump back into work to distract themselves from the loss. Others need to process grief with their colleagues. A sudden workplace death may spark personal memories for co-workers who lost loved ones, triggering even more grief for these individuals.
Attend the memorial service
If possible, and if the family welcomes attendance, make sure that everyone in the office is able to attend the memorial service. While you may need to close the office for a few hours or even a day, memorial services are an important venue to share memories and provide support to family and friends. It will also help colleagues find meaning in the midst of a significant loss. In my situation, Kolkata was too far away from the family’s memorial service to attend so we held a separate memorial service at the consulate and sent photos and the signed memorial book to his family.
Be in touch with the family
Reach out to the employee’s family to express your condolences and talk about how much the employee was valued in the workplace. Ask the family how they would like to handle any personal items left at work. Be open to family members coming to the office and be generous about sharing positive stories. After someone dies, family members often want to learn more about their loved one. By being compassionate and open with the family, you are communicating with colleagues that you value them as a person, not just an employee.
Be thoughtful in how you replace the employee
Since work must get done, you will eventually need to clean out the employee’s workplace and find a replacement. Don’t move too quickly, however, since every change will trigger grief and loss. Give employees time to process changes. For example, let them know a few days in advance that family members are picking up the employees’ personal items. Provide advance notice that the position is being advertised or the office is going to be occupied by someone new. This will give people time to process the news so when they see the changes, they are more prepared. Consider dropping cell the person’s phone number rather than reassigning it to another employee.
Create a memorial
Memorials signal that while we lost someone, they are still important to the living. Memorials can have a powerful impact on a team because it also signals how much you care about all employees and that they will also not be forgotten upon their deaths. Memorials can be temporary, such as a board with post-it notes for messages and memories. Or they can be permanent, such as a tree planted in a common area to provide a quiet area for reflection and prayer.
Talk about the employee
Death makes us all uncomfortable and it can be tempting to avoid talking about the employee’s death in order to avoid this discomfort. However, silence will often have a more negative effect, with employees ruminating about what happened and not feeling able to express their thoughts. Also, employees may think their colleague has been quickly forgotten and wonder if they will also be forgotten if they die. Take time in staff meetings to ask about how people are doing and what they are thinking. Solicit memories and stories about your colleague.
Have you lost a co-worker? What impact did it have on you and your office?