When a Teammate Dies
You don’t have to go very far before you find someone who has experienced the death of a coworker. For our teams, sometimes that death can be extremely close and sometimes only a small ripple away. When employees look to HR for their leadership and ask for appropriate responses to a team loss, often HR’s efforts result in policies and procedures.
Do they just show up the next day and carry on? Can they go to the funeral? Has the family made any requests? These more operational type moments are really the easy part. A checklist of answers like There will be time off for the funeral and we will send flowers. The direct team and friends can attend the funeral or the manager will go as the face of the organization. This avoidance of emotion often leaves employees holding in their feelings and not really knowing what to do with them. Everyone is thinking about it but no one is talking about it.
Some organizations are aware of the need for more and will call in a grief counselor for a couple of hours to discuss as a group. Other organizations give extra time off to those who were close. But rarely do we have open discussions in a timely manner.
After the funeral is over and our teams are back at work, how do organizations make space for what is left? How do we foster a work environment that teaches us how to tend to our grief? We unfortunately still need to level set on what grief is because there are as many definitions are there are people.
No one knows what to do with grief because grief is not something we can solve.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying! We cannot sit in a silent space. We have such a hard time with being uncomfortable. So much so, we often hear statements like:
“At least you had time to say goodbye..”
“I know exactly what you are going through…”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get over it soon…”
“You’re young! You can fall in love again!”
All statements that essentially dismiss the griever and their grief. We push it back down and ignore it. We placate and avoid it because we are uncomfortable. We live in a time where no one wants to talk about death with the people they love, nevermind at the workplace!
So, how can we honour not only the person who died but also the grief of those who worked with them? How do we bring compassion, understanding or frankly humanness to the people we are responsible for when we are not fully sure of what grief is in the first place?
Grief is a Skill
Grief is something that we tend to. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness to really begin to understand how it plays into your days. For me, all it takes is a great parking spot to remind me of my best friend (who was also my coworker) and my mind goes to a different place instantly. Six years later, it takes skill to intentionally pull into that parking lot and giggle out a quick thanks to her knowing she has my back on a rainy day.
Being able to intentionally set some time aside for self-awareness in your team's days is a great way to reflect on what skills we are learning. Moments of pause before or after meetings, breaking up routines to allow for personal time. Walking meetings, 10-minute breathers after team meetings. Asking the team to each take time and reflect on what they will miss the most. Being open with the loss.
“To this day, we still quote her and it brings a certain calmness to the room. It brings a sense of camaraderie. A knowing that as a team, we can do hard things. We still shed a tear for her loss, but we do it together. We have learned that this isn’t something we have to hold until our off time, we can learn to heal together.” teammate
When it gets bad
And it will. Every grief is different. The 5 stages of grief were never meant to be in order or separate. In fact, they can happen all at the same time. You will have those that will compare experiences, over-reactors, under-reactors, and without question, a very large group of people who will pretend it never happened.
Before I began this work, I had a client where one of my main contacts died of a heart attack. In my next meeting, I opened with a moment of appreciation for all of his work, shared a favourite story and gave a moment of silence to the room. It was abruptly interrupted with his “replacement” as he notified us that he had a hard stop in 30 minutes and wanted to add something to the agenda. The room went from bow heads and smiles to chairs pulled tight and furrowed brows.
Grief shows up in so many different ways. Random outbursts, protective comments or behaviours, abruptness. It’s in these moments that our teams really need to practice regulation and forgiveness. Thankfully, with the growth of self-awareness and regulation the conversations in these moments become easier, more intentional and the trust in your team is richer for it.
This takes practice and leaders who are willing to build in moments for reflection.
When I came back to work after my friend's death, I incorporated 15-minute breathers after meetings for the whole team (I just made meetings 15 mins longer and kept watch of time). It was these breathers that gave us time to level set and ultimately be fully present for the next meeting. Some would take the time to be alone, others would grab a coffee and two teammates started taking a walk around the block with one rule...no work discussions.
Filling their Shoes
As teams fill the gaps or we hire into a role, we really need to be aware of the dynamics in which we do this. There will be a lot of legacy type conversations. There will be confusion. Do we stick to the course, do we switch it up? Can we hire someone exactly the same?
It’s a time for leadership to step in and open the floor to possibilities. This works for some and not for others and in all honesty, there is no silver bullet here. It can be a combination of things though.
A reshuffle of the department, where everyone is taking on something slightly new and the new hire has a slightly different role. A torch that is passed so the new person is included in the legacy and a team commitment is made to honour them, their ideas and to not compare them.
The project could also change slightly and then be shared across the team.
What I would not recommend is ending the role or handing it off right away. There is something that happens when everyone actively picks up the pieces together. There is a sense of community and trust that is being shared through the work itself giving grief somewhere to go. There is forgiveness, openness, honouring, inspiration and ultimately a legacy that can be created when everyone fills their shoes.
A medical clinic team of 25 were struck with the horrible news that their “office mom” was tragically killed crossing the street. The loss of their matriarch was devastating. This office decided not to hire another Matriarch for one year. It was a conscious decision. They spread the work across the team, hired an office assistant. They set up a tiny corner of the kitchen that was in honour of her and reminisced of the snacks and lunches she would make them. One year later, they put aside the idea they needed another Matriarch and that having everyone carrying a piece of her responsibility was too important in their lives to give up.
Death and Grief are hard topics to discuss even with people we love nevermind in an organization that requires us to be constantly productive and professional. We do, however, have a cultural pivot moment in times like these. A chance to embrace the human spirit and prove that we are as trustworthy as we say we are.
It takes courage to open conversations with those who are bereaved, it takes a sense of vulnerability to sit in a room quietly and support. It takes respect and trust to be able to ensure that each struggle is important and that these struggles can be carried by everyone.
It also takes practice and patience. This is not an easy shift especially if your organization has trust issues to begin with. The best piece of advice, however, is really to lean back, make space and give your employees grief somewhere to go.