In most professions there a things that we have to deal with, for which our education and training has not prepared us in the slightest. In HR, I would have to say the most difficult is being confronted with the bereavement, or the death, of a work colleague. When the death is of a work colleague, it comes with multiple bereavements as well.
Most people struggle with death, I think because as a society we have a tendency to treat this aspect of life as an aberration. It feels like an assault to our sense of certainty and order. With no intention of causing pain to the bereaved, sometimes people feel that the best thing to do is not speak of it, not to “dwell” on it; to “move on”.
When I was a very young child my baby brother, Danny died suddenly. I grew up seeing and experiencing the unresolved grief this visited upon my family. My mother told me that people used to cross the street rather than have to talk to her. She understood it was because they didn’t know what to say, but it hurt her deeply and made her feel very alone. And as children we felt that pain too.
With this experience indelibly printed on my heart, when I was first confronted by death at work, I didn’t want to be the person who crossed the street; and if at all possible, I wanted to help other people overcome their fears so that they wouldn’t cross the street either.
Recently a client of mine asked for assistance to help his staff cope with the death of a customer in their workplace. I recommended an Employee Assistance provider and the client said that they were tremendously helpful. He was relieved and grateful that he could provide the assistance to his staff. And I am sure they were grateful that their pain was not simply ignored.
Bereavement hurts; it hurts deeply, and we need to be able to help each other live with those feelings. The bereaved need the opportunity to be with each other and connect with each other – sometimes these are the most deeply honest moments many people experience.
As an employer, simply putting out a formal statement of regret and then carrying on as if nothing has happened will not help your workplace heal. It will make a huge difference if you can speak directly with your staff, and allow them to speak too if they need to. Don’t be afraid of tearing up – it is perfectly OK – no one will think less of you.
For many of us, our workplaces do become such an important part of our lives, that they are in essence, another type of family to us. As an employer, you are the head of this family, and it makes a huge difference if you can facilitate a gathering of staff, ex staff and clients, probably on your premises so that they can share their pain and their memories.
If you can create a more permanent memorial this will help in the healing. A Scholarship, and Annual Prize, or a plaque or room named in their honour; these tangible reminders help your employees to feel a permanent connection to their friend.
The Funeral is very important. In the past I have been asked by employers what their legal obligations are in providing time off for funerals – disappointingly, sometimes their concern is that too many people might go. Sadly, there are no legal obligations. But it would be ethical, and compassionate, to simply allow anyone who wanted to attend, the time off to attend.
I have to stress here that my recommendations are not based on my training or education, but simply on my experience advising employers, and also as a bereaved fellow employee. The ones who rise to this tremendously difficult challenge with compassion and love will find their employees will never forget their kindness.
If you are grieving the loss of a work friend and you find your employer is unable to step up, you should not let this leave you without the means to make those vital connections with your colleagues.
It is not “morbid’ to organize a gathering, or to talk about the person who has died. Death is a part of our lives. We may try to ignore that reality in our day to day living, but the shock of another’s death brings that reality indoors.
Most people (not all) need to be able to talk, share stories, laugh, cry and hug. Never be afraid to say the person’s name, or to realise that in doing so tears have sprung to your eyes.
And we should all try not to be too afraid to talk to the bereaved. There really is nothing you can say to make it better – and no one expects that of you. Just a hug, your love, your mere presence – and if possible, some practical assistance, is what can help.
And if you can find some words to write and share with the people who loved your friend the most, they will cry – but they will cherish your love for their beloved.
And please, please, try not to cross the street.
This piece is for my work friends Sally, Ivan and now Anthony. You will always be in my heart.