Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Coping with the death of a co-worker

Most people spend more time with their co-workers than they do with their families. Workplaces often become communities of caring. Our lives intertwine as we travel through life together.

We gather around marriages, birth of children and grandchildren, struggles, birthdays, illnesses, graduations, holidays and deaths. Like any community, the intensity of connections among those that inhabit them varies. The common denominator is that we are known to each other.


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More information

Counseling services and facilitators for group discussions are available for all U-M employees.

• Campus employees can contact the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at 734-936-8660 or by going to the FASAP website.

• Health System employees can contact the Employee Assistance Program at 734-763-5409 or by going to the EAP website.

And so the impact of losing a co-worker ripples throughout the workplace.

It is not uncommon to respond with shock and disbelief to the initial news that a co-worker has died. This is especially true when the death is unexpected, but can also be true when a co-worker has been ill. When the death is unexpected, the mind has difficulty reconciling that the person we chatted with over coffee this morning has died. Suddenly, we are reminded of the preciousness of life and how quickly one's world can be turned upside down.

If a co-worker died of either natural causes or suicide, we may search our memories for clues from the person's demeanor, face or words that something was wrong. Feelings of regret, guilt, and anger may ensue if clues are found that indicate that something was not right.

Guilt may arise out of a belief that if we had taken action our co-worker might still be alive. Guilt may also visit if our last interaction with our co-worker was highly charged with no closure. We may feel guilty about feeling burdened with new tasks as a result of our co-worker's death. We may feel guilty simply because we are alive and they are not.

Regret comes as we acknowledge that the things we intended to do with that person will never be. We will not be able to tell them how much we enjoyed their presence in our lives. We regret the fact that we never got together for the movie we always talked about. And so death invites us to pause and note what is important in our lives.

Anger at ourselves may bubble up if we believe that we did not take time to notice a co-worker's distress and offer assistance. Or we may be angry that the co-worker chose not to take care of their health.

In the midst of sorting through the meaning of a co-worker's death, we are challenged by memories of him or her in our workplace. Walking past their work area may give us a painful jolt, seeing another co-worker crying may upset us, entering the staff room and expecting to see their smile can make the absence more noticeable.

In the days following a co-worker's death one may be easily distracted and have trouble concentrating. Some may be more focused than ever as a means to contain their grief. You may find yourself alternating between being very focused and unfocused.

Expect more mistakes and for projects to take longer than usual. If you are tearful, take a break, talk to a co-worker, or go for a walk. Remember you are all in this together. Practice kindness with yourself and others. Know that grief brings up powerful emotions. Some may retreat to silence, while others may be irritable and lack their normal sensitivity. Apply empathy and compassion to their suffering.

Here are some tips people can use to take care of themselves and their co-workers:

• Create a safe place for whatever emotions you are having.

• Know that you may find yourself on an emotional roller coaster and that your ability to focus will waver.

• Apply kindness when you are being hard on yourself.

• Take breaks as needed .

• Spend quality time with family and friends.

• Engage in activities that replenish your energy.

• Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise.

• Let your co-workers know you care.

• Notice how you are reacting to others.

• Give your co-workers the benefit of the doubt.

• Offer help if you know a co-worker is overwhelmed by their workload.

• Attend the funeral if doing so will assist your grief.

• Offer your ear if someone needs it.

• Ask for what you need.

In addition to offering counseling services for individuals, the Employee Assistance Program also provides facilitators to lead discussions in departments who would like to meet as a group.