Though it is upsetting to even think about, there may come a time in your career when a person you work with suddenly dies. Whether it's a client or a colleague, and whether you worked side-by-side or in different cities, the tragedy of an unanticipated death will naturally cause intense emotions and lead to a multitude of previously unthinkable questions. This is, after all, not a topic that normally comes up at the water cooler.
I was recently approached by a tearful young woman who quietly asked me for advice following my presentation at a corporate conference. Taking a deep breath and a long look around, she shared with me that she was notified the night before that one of her colleagues had died in a car accident. She was shocked, and confided that she didn't know what to do when she returned to work or what to say to her co-worker's family members - none of whom she had ever met - at the upcoming memorial service. Like many people, she had never attended a funeral before.
Thankfully, most of us don't have to deal with many deaths in our lifetime. My experience is different. During my former career at the Medical Examiner's Office I investigated thousands of sudden deaths and notified hundreds of people of the unexpected, often violent, death of a loved one. For almost two decades I was the person you never wanted to see on the other side of your front door.
Of the countless life lessons I learned from that experience, this one stands out: There is no 'right' or 'wrong' or 'normal' way to deal with the sudden passing of someone we know. How we grieve is as individual as who we are, and our cultural, personal and religious backgrounds all play a role in our response. With that in mind, here are six suggestions that my help you cope with the confusion of learning that a person you work with has passed away:
1. Sit down. Hearing this kind of news can literally take your breath away. You may find it helpful to sit or lie down for a few minutes to absorb the shock. If you are in the position of having to share the news with other people at work, either in person or over the phone, ask them to have a seat before telling them what has happened.
2. Collect your thoughts. Whether you're alone or with a group of colleagues under these circumstances, it will take time to begin thinking clearly again. Allow yourself a private or communal moment of grace to let the disbelief sink in. Clarity will reappear for different people at different times, and may come in and out of focus.
3. Reach out. You may want to call or visit another co-worker, a friend, family member or spiritual mentor to help you deal with the unexpected emotions that arise. It is perfectly acceptable to want to talk, cry, ask questions or feel an overwhelming need to be held. If you are in a supervisory position, do whatever you can to provide support for your staff.
4. Write it down. Time and time again people have told me how much they value and treasure the sentiments expressed about their loved one in sympathy cards. Don't be afraid to send a thoughtful, personalized note to the family, even though you may not know them.
5. Introduce yourself. If there is a public memorial service and you are able to attend, do so. Being there will provide you with an opportunity to honour your late colleague and learn more about their life. If you have a chance to meet the family, tell them about your connection and share a special memory.
6. Remember. Grief doesn't end when the funeral is over. Returning to work may be difficult, and a period of adjustment can be expected. Continue to reflect with your workmates; many charities have been founded or helped by the joint efforts of a group of co-workers who have lost a valued member of their professional family.
Hopefully you will never have to use this advice. But if you do, like the distraught young lady who came to me at the conference, I hope these points help ease your pain.
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