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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

Coping with the death of a colleague

When a colleague has died, it presents us with a clash of relationships, expectations, boundaries and behaviour.  In most circumstances we have an implicit understanding of what ‘professional’ behaviour looks like.  Even if we don’t always live up to it.  But when a colleague dies, it represents a moment when our personal world spills over into our professional one.  In our personal lives, our religious and cultural context usually offers us a framework for grieving.  We might be overcome by unexpected feelings, but we have a general sense of what to expect.  At work it can feel much more complicated.  I spoke to The Independent all about the topic of coping with the death of a colleague. Click here to read the full article, or read on to learn what I had to say.

Coping with the death of a colleague can be draining, challenging and confusing. All the more so because of:

  • The nature of work relationships.  Our colleagues aren’t our friends or our family.  We might adore them, like them, hate them, respect them, fear them, or feel disinterested towards them.  And our grief might reflect this.  

  • The ‘other’ people in their lives.  Some of us spend more time with our colleagues than with anyone else.  We might have a treasured ‘work wife’ or ‘work husband’.  But when a colleague dies we often realise how little we knew about their personal lives and their friends and family. This might leave us feeling uncomfortable and awkward about expressing our grief.  

  • Mortality.  We all know that death is a certainty.  But yet there’s something shocking about the death of a colleague.  When someone is a permanent fixture in the office or in our email inbox, their death can feel like an assault on our sense of safety and certainty.  

  • Practicalities.  The death of a colleague might leave us awkwardly navigating some practicalities.  Letting other people know, taking on their work, clearing their belongings.  

It’s never easy to deliver or receive the news that someone has died.  And this can be even more difficult at work.  We might hear the news in passing, or by an email communication.  Or it might be delivered in a person by a colleague who we don’t know particularly well.  And this can make it harder to cope with hearing about the death of a colleague.  We might not feel able to express the words or feelings that come to mind, for fear of disturbing our professional image at work.  

Many of us wear a professional mask while we are in the workplace.  This can help us to set our worries aside and be productive at work.  It might also help us to be assertive and to command respect if we struggle with our self-esteem.  

But this professional mask can get in the way.  It can stop us from connecting with our feelings and expressing them when we are coping with the death of a colleague.  It might also stop us from seeking out the support and solidarity of colleagues who are also struggling with their grief.  

We can experience grief after any loss.  Even if it’s a colleague who we didn’t get on particularly well with.  We might feel a mixture of feelings.  There could be shock or sadness at the news of their death.  But if we haven’t got on well, or have perhaps come into conflict with them, then we might even feel a sense of relief.  This could be followed up with guilt or embarrassment at the thought of having these feelings.  

We don’t always experience strong feelings after someone has died.  Perhaps we don’t feel particularly touched or saddened by this loss.  And that can make us feel awkward too, if we are surrounded by people who seem to be experiencing a deeper sense of grief than we are.  

My advice if you're coping with the death of a colleague:

  • Know that your feelings are valid, whatever they are.  

  • You might feel all kinds of different feelings, and that’s normal too.  There’s no set framework for how we can and should process our grief.  

  • Find ways to express and explore what you’re feeling, so that it doesn’t stay locked up inside and left to fester.  

Keen to explore more?

I love working with people to help them to understand themselves.

If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch. Click here to contact me or click here to book a free 30-minute introductory chat.

Coping with the death of a colleague

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