Nearly a year after a colleague died, I learnt about her death through social media. Not only did it come as a shock, it pushed me into an abyss of guilt. I scrolled through our last text exchange, and then dialled the phone numbers of those with whom I had spent so many hours in the past, and we reminisced about the days gone by.
Coping with the death of a colleague, “irrespective of whether you have been close”, can be a traumatic experience, says Nagpur-based counsellor Vijayshree Bajaj. “A colleague is someone you see on a daily basis. You sit close by, work together, share a meal, perhaps share your personal stories too, every day. There is conversation and there is socialising. So, losing a colleague is like losing a friend,” she explains.
Leadership training and employee handbooks don’t typically cover the subject of coping with the death of a colleague, leaving managers to muddle through the process of keeping morale and productivity at the same pace while helping the team process their feelings and overcome their sense of loss or fear.
While some may be deeply affected—so much so that it affects their work and personal life—others may be able to cope and move on sooner. Notwithstanding, it may take weeks, even months, for life as we know to come back to “normal”.
Coping with the death of a colleague—or a former colleague—is akin to losing a family member, according to an article from the American Psychological Association. Each team member processes their grief differently.
Studies show that Indians, on average, spend more than eight hours at work every day—about 48 hours a week. Within this time, there is work, of course, but also coffee breaks, breaks to stretch your legs, and lunch time, when work-related conversations often give way to swapping personal stories and anecdotes. Inevitably, some of these colleagues turn into friends.
Even if they don’t, to face the death of a colleague you are used to seeing every day, can come as a shock. The only way to cope with the loss is to give yourself the space and time to grieve, says Kolkata-based counsellor Rakhi Sengupta.
“Grieving is a process and each individual may take a different amount of time to get through this process. There is no fixed timetable,” Sengupta says. The process could take three-six months but if it goes beyond, one should seek professional help, she suggests.
Although each individual may have their own coping mechanism, the important thing to remember, says Bajaj, is to find a way to let one’s emotions flow.
Sharing one’s feelings is crucial, according to the article from the American Psychological Association.
“Your co-workers may be experiencing the same emotions as you are. Mutual support can help everyone get through the grieving process,” it states.
Suppressing one’s feelings at such a time is not healthy. “Sometimes, when you don’t talk about your emotions and suppress it with work or something else, it will surface in the form of certain patterns,” Bajaj says.
For instance, getting irritated easily, avoiding social groups and interactions, anything that may trigger a memory. If one goes through such a pattern for more than a certain period, say, six months, professional help must be sought.
“If you don’t find someone to share your feelings with, or feel that you are alone in what you are going through, journalling may help. It is a great way to get things out of your system. Write the exact words that come to your mind, even the cuss words,” says Bajaj.
“It takes courage to show your vulnerable side and is also essential to coming in terms with the loss,” Sengupta adds.
An article by the Society for Human Resource Management states that grief can impact the workplace performance of grieving employees in several ways, including loss of focus and concentration.
“The management (of a company) bears the responsibility of creating a support group which gives its employees the space to talk about their emotions in the event of death of a colleague,” Bajaj says. Taking time off work, perhaps two-three days, to process the loss before facing the vacuum, can also help.
A 2020 Harvard Business Review article suggests, similarly, that team leaders and managers should not rush through grief and ‘getting on with things’ when a colleague dies.
Rather, the company should hold space for their teams to grieve and express their emotions freely. One should also communicate their feelings to fellow teammates, when grieving, especially when overwhelmed at work. Colleagues, even if well-meaning, cannot read minds.
According to the article, another important thing to do with one’s team if a member has passed away, is to find a way to honour the person who has gone. Team managers should ask colleagues how they would like to honour their friend, and how to keep their legacy alive.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a writer currently based in Bhuj, Gujarat.