If you’re lucky, you will never need the advice in this article; unfortunately, when you spend as much time at work as people tend to these days, deaths in the workplace are a real thing that happen and need to be dealt with. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that can be given here, as everyone will handle the death differently; you may have been closer to the deceased than someone who sat further away, it may be the first death you’ve ever had to deal with, or you may simply be the kind of person who shows more or less emotion than your other co-workers.
The two most important things to remember are that the death should not be ignored - it’s an insult to the deceased and it could cause problems later on when repressed emotions finally emerge - and that there is no "right" way to react. Some people will obviously be devastated, others will hide it, and others may take time to even come to terms with the fact that it’s happened. Focus on yourself and not on feeling that your co-worker isn’t sad enough, and be wary of forcing yourself to smile, it could make things worse.
There are, however, a few steps that you, your co-workers and your bosses can take to try and help each other through this difficult time, and even do it without making yourself more upset:
1. Acknowledge the Death
There should be no expectation that it’s possible to just continue with business as normal; even if the office is closed for a few days, it’s going to take longer than that to get used to your co-worker’s absence, and you’ll want to talk about them. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as no one feels pressured into joining in if that’s not how they cope with death. Consider this exercise:
- Ask everyone to look through their pictures from office parties and other events, to find pictures of the deceased
- Gather the pictures together to create a display
- Use that display as a focus point for everyone to look at the good times and talk about the deceased as the one who always drank too much at the Christmas party, the one who was always the first to get up and do karaoke, or the one who gave great Secret Santa gifts
Alternatively, you could create a bulletin board to put in a public place that would serve as both a reminder for the employees and a way for visitors to learn about them, with their name, some pictures and any other articles about them or symbolic objects. A more permanent option could be to have a page set up on the history section of the company website.
2. Remember them in the Office...
You don’t have to have a meeting every morning for the rest of time to be sad about them, but there are other things you can do to preserve their memory, either within the department or as a company as a whole:
- Does your company hold an annual picnic or other event?
Rename it in their honour - if it was an event they loved, you’ll remember the things they used to do there, and if they hated it then it will be an inside joke for everyone to laugh about how much they would hate having their name attached to it.
- Was the deceased the office thief?
We’re all guilty of making off with the odd piece of stationery, but if the deceased was rather well known for disappearing with peoples’ staplers and pens, then this act could now be known as "Bob-ing" or "pulling a Bob." Not only would it be a nice way to remember them, but it would sound much nicer to accuse someone of "Bob-ing" your hole punch than "stealing" it.
- Is there a certain place they spent a lot of time?
If they spent a lot of time in a certain room, it could be named after them; if they spent a lot of time in a certain place, such as by the watercooler, it could be a good location to put a plaque of some kind. Something could be done in the cafeteria, or you could put a bench or tree in your outside lunch or smoking area.
- Were they known for wearing something unusual?
Perhaps they loved bowties, wore bright colours, crazy hats or unusual glasses. Start having a "casual Friday" where everyone wears whatever your coworker used to wear and you’ll get to have fun as well as remembering them for their quirks rather than their death.
- Were they the office prankster?
Have a monthly "prank day" where someone - or everyone! - pulls a prank that the deceased either loved to pull themselves or one that you know would have put a smile on their face. If this is too frequent, perhaps rename April Fools’ Day and celebrate it in their honour.
3. ... and Out of The Office
What was their favourite hobby? Perhaps it was dancing, or bowling, or fishing or reading. Whatever it was, make a plan to go out together and spend some time doing or trying that hobby, or simply get together to give it a go:
- If they loved dancing or bowling, you could spend a night at the local dance hall or bowling alley, or even join a competition and name your team in their honour. If you win, you won it for them, and if you lose at least you had fun trying
- If they loved fishing you could spend a Saturday morning fishing - and if all the rest of you happen to hate it, then you could simply spend the time complaining about how your horrible morning is the deceased’s fault
- If they loved reading, create a book club to read their favourite book; you might even decide to keep it going!
- If they loved bad films, you could have a film night and marathon their favourites
4. Make a Contribution
Did the deceased have a favourite charity? If not, perhaps your donation could go to the relevant charity of the illness or cause that they died from, such as an organization raising awareness of road safety if it was a car accident.
People who weren’t as close to the deceased might not like the idea of being asked to give money, but individual contributions could be kept anonymous to avoid any pressure on how much to give (if anything), or it could be done as a company-wide event such as a sponsored walk to raise whatever you can. Or, as above, you could take part in a competition in their honour and use the prize money.
In more tight-knit companies, you could raise some money to give to the family to help with the funeral and other costs, or even start a scholarship or college fund for their children.
Dealing with the death of a co-worker can be just as difficult as dealing with the death of a family member; after all, your co-workers do start to become family after a while, as people tend to when you spend a lot of time with them. Choose to talk with your co-workers about the good times and find a way to memorialize them rather than feel like the best approach is to be miserable; the deceased wouldn’t want you to be unhappy and there are far better ways to honour someone than with tears.
Have you ever had to deal with a death in the workplace? How did you deal with it? Let us know your tips in the comments section below.