What to do when a colleague dies

“Jim was rushed to hospital from work with chest pains that morning at about 9.30am. We were worried, of course, but knew that he was in good hands. My manager called a team meeting just after lunch and told us that he’d died in the ambulance. I was literally stunned – it was like an out-of-body experience. A lot of us were crying, while some people just stood there with their mouths open. I’d worked with Jim for 12 years but even the newer team members who didn’t know him well were deeply affected.” Martin, Glasgow*

“Our security guard, Lee, was so full of life – just such a joy to be around. Everyone knew him and he’d been with us for years. The customers would even make a point to say hello to him and stop for a chat. He’d been off work for a few months because he had cancer, and we knew that he was really poorly but I guess some of us just assumed that he’d be back when he was better. Lee’s brother came in to tell us the terrible news on a Monday morning. We also had to tell our regular customers when they asked how he was doing. That was really hard and we had to relive it every time. I still miss him.” Sara-Jane, London*

“I didn’t know Becky that well because I’d only joined the company two months before she died in a car accident. It happened at a weekend so very few people knew about it when we got to work on the Monday. One of the directors made the trip down that afternoon to offer his support. We really appreciated the time he took to do this. It felt like the company cared about her loss and our reactions. Two years later, there are still times when something in-store will remind me of her, or I’ll see a customer who looks like her. It doesn’t go away really – that person is still there,” Benjamin, Manchester*

*Please note that names have been changed.

Any death – at whatever age, and by whatever cause – is distressing. And while people leave jobs for all sorts of reasons, it’s very different when a workplace looks and feels diminished because of a death.

What you can do for yourself and your colleagues

  • Talk about what’s happened. Most people are uncomfortable talking about death, or would like to but don’t want to make things worse for the bereaved. It’s important not to pretend that the death hasn’t happened – this can delay the normal grieving process, and can also suggest that colleagues shouldn’t express their feelings, or access help if they need it.

“My manager was really great after Becky died. He encouraged us to talk openly about how we felt, and reminded us about the help we could access. Once in a meeting, a colleague said that it was inappropriate to mention Becky, but my manager dealt with that pretty quickly! By being open himself, he gave us permission to be open too.”

  • Raise money for charity in your colleague’s name. Your team may find it helpful to organise an event or a challenge in memory of your colleague.

“We got together as a team and did a bake sale at head office to raise money for Cancer Research UK in memory of Lee. It was actually fun if you can believe it! We shared good memories of Lee, and had a few laughs at some of the hilarious things he used to get up to. We invited his mum and brother, and even though they didn’t feel able, they were pleased that we were thinking of them, and remembering Lee.”

  • Send a condolence card to your colleague’s family – either on your own or as a team. You can give it to HR to forward. Don’t worry if you didn’t know the colleague that well – the family will really appreciate their loved one being remembered. We can never make things worse when we’re showing compassion for another person’s pain.
  • Attend the funeral or memorial service if you can. In retail, it’s hard to be able to take time off at short notice, so your team might want to nominate one person who will be there to express your condolences and represent the organisation.
  • Don’t pack your colleague’s belongings away immediately. It’s tempting because their belongings are a reminder of the finality of their death, but it can be helpful to leave it for a few days.

“I was asked to help pack up Jim’s belongings the morning after he died but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this. I mean, I was happy to help of course but I knew that some of my other colleagues who weren’t in the office that day wouldn’t want to come back to an empty desk, and that they’d want to be a part of it. I suggested to my manager that we wait until Friday and make a bit of a deal of it. So, we gathered his belongings, and then we went to the pub after work to raise a glass to his memory. We cried, we laughed, we remembered. That helped all of us.”

  • Take care of yourself! Eating well, getting a good night’s sleep, seeing friends and family, and practicing stress management techniques can be really helpful in recovering from the shock and grief of the loss.
  • Be aware that any death can bring up memories of previous losses in our lives. It’s important to acknowledge any feelings that are coming up for you and talk to a friend or family member if you find that you feel overwhelmed.