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Navigating the Sudden Death of a Colleague

I returned the call, expecting that the team needed me to help with an internal dilemma of some type. Instead, I learned that my client had died. There are no norms or traditions to handle the sudden death of a colleague, a client, or a boss. The shock left me reeling.

Early in my career, multiple well-intended professionals told me not to care too much about my clients. I thought the advice was horrible, so I ignored it. The result of my rebellion?—genuine, deep relationships built out of mutual trust, and the kind of relationship that left me sad, angry, and reeling from the loss.

I initially focused on being available for my client’s team, so the shock took a few days to wear off. When it did, I knew the only people who would understand my relationship with my clients would be a few other clients. Not wanting to take up their time, I just chose one or two and did what any objective and level-headed professional would do. I threatened them.

“Look, I’m a little off my game because one of my other clients died, and it might come out around the edges. Let me tell you what will happen if you do that to me. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to rip you out of the grave or ocean or wherever you are, beat you up, and kill you.” They laughed, supported me, and it helped.

Since then, memories and images float into my mind of the interactions I had with my client and his team over the years. He was the kind of person that made you want to hug him one minute and bang your head against the well the next. Amid my reactions, I recalled pieces of conversations from other people about deaths in their workplaces, “I lost a colleague I’ve worked with for 20 years. It’s hard.” “Someone at work died, and it’s weird. They mentioned it, but that was it. No one is talking about it.”


Work Relationships are Real Relationships

Our culture has customs for family deaths—we get days off to mourn, are expected to be sad, and everyone understands that there is a type of “time out.” In the workplace, though, coping feels more complex. Many of us spend more time with our colleagues than we do with Aunt Nellie, and the hard truth is that while we can explain Aunt Nellie’s death and have bereavement leave, we may not struggle with her death nearly as much as we do with the person we emailed, texted, fought with, and laughed with each week.

We develop real relationships in the context of business as usual. When we have to deal with the sudden death of a colleague, part of us continues with business as usual, and the other part copes with the awareness of the loss. Compounding the issue is that our colleagues may have had a different relationship with the deceased than we have. Thus, we are left with an unclear path forward. How much do we talk about it? How do we talk about it? And are the varied emotions inside of us normal?


Suggestions to Help You and Your Team When a Colleague Dies

1. The most important premise to dealing with the sudden death of a colleague is that people process emotions differently. Give yourself and everyone the space to have different needs. The most common question people ask me is ‘is it normal to…?” People worry about their emotional reactions, especially to challenging situations like death. We are afraid of being too emotional or not emotional enough—embarrassed if we fall apart but wondering if we’re inhuman when we’ve held it together. Some of us have been trained to push aside emotion, so we never know exactly how to process it. We all understand that escape, through video games, alcohol, work, or other temporary reprieves, feels better than dealing with confusion, guilt, or sadness. Maybe you cared about the person who died. Perhaps you didn’t. Maybe you’ll think it hasn’t affected you and find yourself crying into your beer four weeks later. You might feel tired or overwhelmed. Honestly, the only way you can screw this up is to avoid thinking about it. When you do that, it will bite you in the ass later. Otherwise, know that your reactions are normal and roll with them a bit.

2. Don’t ignore the death. I remember a client whose company carried on without mentioning it beyond the first announcement. Ignoring the topic makes people who need to grieve feel like they are alone.

3. Don’t force emotional sharing. No one wants to be in an icky situation where s/he feels pressured to share more than comfortable. When I encounter people who don’t want to talk about their feelings, I go with whatever topic is comfortable and keep the door open for further conversations.

4. Create space to listen, even if you dislike emotions. People who feel uncomfortable with emotion tend to change the subject when others bring it up. If your colleagues or subordinates need to talk about it, be present. You don’t have to fix it or even know what to say. Just try not to push away their emotion.

5. Mix in deep and light conversations. People often use inappropriate humor in hard situations as a way of coping. It’s completely healthy and normal.

6. You don’t have to pretend the person who died was perfect. We love people in their entirety. Your shared recollections will probably include both the frustrating parts and the good stuff.

7. Allow time. No one expects to get over the loss of a family member in a week. Don’t try to clean out the office or wipe out the existence of the person who died. Instead, discuss what feels good with the team. Work together to support each other and honor the loss while moving forward.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/12″][/vc_column][/vc_row]