Team work in practice - Dealing with death in the workplace
By Ross Thomson
Sometimes life has a habit of dishing up a curved ball when one least expects it. One of the hardest challenges to deal with at work is the death of a close colleague. In this article we take a look at different stages of the grief process and how one workplace helped their staff through this difficult time…
A Real Life Story
One working week, several years ago, started off just like any other. At the time I was employed as a Sales Engineer. On the Wednesday of this particular week, I had just completed a very successful meeting with one of my major clients in a neighboring city. This meeting had been so important that my Sales Manager had decided to meet up with me at the client’s office. I stayed in the city overnight in order to visit further clients in the area, while my Manager headed home. We parted with the understanding that we would catch up in the office the next day, in order to finalize the outcome of our meeting.
The following afternoon when I was driving home I received a call from the company Director, asking me to pull over and stop my car on the roadside. Then with a breaking voice and choking back tears, the Director told me that my Sales Manager had just been killed in a car accident.
6 Stages of Grief
Stage 1 of Grief – Shock (or Denial)
My first response was that of total shock. I was not even too sure how I managed to drive the rest of the way to my home that evening.
This first stage of grief is the body's way of initially saving oneself from the devastating pain of the loss. At best it is a blessing, but at worst it can become a long-term numbness to feelings that resembles a sort of living death. It will pass naturally as long as the other components of the grief process are honoured.
Mixed in with this feeling of shock was a sense of disbelief. My manager had been one of those people that had been well respected and admired by all who knew him and I just could not believe he was gone.
This disbelief occurs when one’s mind attempts to protect oneself from the reality of the loss. You may lie to yourself and think about the person as if they were still alive. A certain period of denial is normal but if prolonged, it can keep you stuck and prevent resolution.
Stage 2 of Grief – Anger
Then came the feelings of anger. “It isn’t fair God!! Why do you let things like this happen to such good people??”
When you lose someone that has been close to you, it is only natural to be angry for a period of time. You may be angry with the person for leaving you, angry with yourself for what you did not do in order to save them, or angry with God for taking them away. Or, you may just be angry at the unfairness and injustice of life.
It was at this point that the company I was working for made a wonderful gesture. The owner’s promptly dedicated a corner of the company’s grounds as a place of remembrance for this Manager. When any of the staff members felt overwhelmed by their emotions, they were each encouraged to take time out in this corner of the grounds away from everyone else. This was quite useful because often in European culture we deal with grief in a primarily solitary manner.
Stage 3 of Grief – Guilt
Despite the death and associated grieving, work had to go on. It was still necessary to respond to client’s requests, to process orders, organize timely deliveries and respond to any ongoing technical questions. However, taking time out in the “crying corner” provided a much needed release of the build up of emotions that occurred from time to time during the day. At times it felt almost surreal to be at work with so many feelings welling up from within me. There were even times when the feeling of guilt seemed to raise its ugly head.
There seems to be a human tendency to blame oneself when something happens to another person we are close to. It is only natural to blame oneself for a period of time after someone close dies. This is a normal part of the grief process, but it is extremely important that you move through it and don't get stuck in this stage.
Stage 4 of Grief – Pain, Sorrow and even Depression
As the days wore on after my colleague’s death, there was often a sense of despair. Work itself didn’t have the same sense of challenge. I sometimes wondered, “What’s the whole point to it all?”
These feelings of sorrow often exist throughout the entire grief process, and are the core feelings of grief. In the early stages one is often distracted from one’s sorrow by denial, anger, guilt and the resulting confusion. Fear of one’s own feelings can be a tremendous barrier to the experience of sorrow, triggering all of the one’s own defence mechanisms. However it is necessary, and healthy, to truly face and experience the pain and sorrow and, in so doing, move forward in the grief process.
All through this time of grieving good counseling services were offered to staff. Having someone else to talk through our feeling with was a helpful part of the journey.
Stage 5 of Grief – Acceptance, Release And Resolution
Eventually the company owners planted a tree in the “crying corner” of the company grounds in remembrance of our lost colleague. This tree seemed to serve as a living monument to a colleague who was sorely missed. In some way it helped many of us to finally let go.
This stage of the grief process is accompanied by a sense of acceptance of the reality of the loss, a sense of "letting go." There may also be a degree of forgiveness that occurs in this phase. The denial, guilt and anger stages are over, and the pain and sorrow is not as intense as it was before.
Often people ask, "How long does it take to get through this?" The answer is usually different depending on the severity of the loss and on the health of the individual who is grieving. Grieving moves in cycles, and it may seem as if we are through the grief for a substantial period of time. However, when a birthday or anniversary comes along, many of the same feelings we felt when the person died once again appear. These feelings of loss can also come back at other times when one is feeling low emotionally, particularly if one has not reached resolution.
Stage 6 of Grief - Return to the willingness to Love
It is often suggested that there is a sixth and final stage to the grieving process. This stage occurs when the grieving person is able to laugh again and to get involved back in life. Fear of connecting with others can slow one down or even stop someone at this point, because new love means the risk of new loss. However, by honouring and completing all aspects of the grief process, one can overcome fear and move forward. This occurs through an appreciation for one-self and the life you have left to live.
Grieving should be seen as an act of love. It begins when someone or something you love, or care about, is lost and the stronger the love the greater the grief. The act of grieving honours both you and the significance of your loss.
Bereavement Support: What can we learn from this story?
This article has provided a real life example of the death of a colleague and how one company helped its colleagues cope. The company’s strategy was to acknowledge the loss and provide employees with a way of expressing their emotions at work. They also provided a counselor for staff, who they could talk any issues through with. This experience has also taught me a lot about grief. It is a form of honouring someone and I need to let it happen. Grief feelings will also emerge at certain times, long after I thought I had recovered from a loss. This is because grief is an ongoing, meaningful process.
Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.
DeFoore, William Ph.D. (2007) Stages of grief process. Retrieved from www.grownups.co.nz
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