Saying Goodbye Forever

Saying Goodbye Forever

Last year, during the dark days of the first lockdown, nonagenarian Captain Tom Moore raised our morale, our smiles and a quite incredible amount of money for charity when he did his 100 laps. We were charmed by his upbeat outlook, his determination, his gentle good manners and his frank enjoyment of his moment in the sun. It was with great sadness that we heard of his death yesterday. Our thoughts, wishes and prayers are with his family.

Although death is always with us, it’s always a shock when it comes. One of the most challenging situations an employer may face is managing the aftermath of the death of an employee. The loss of a colleague is likely to be stressful. Employees who worked closely with the deceased may feel they've lost a member of their extended family. Even employees who did not know or did not get on well with the employee may feel upset.

Counselling can reduce the impact of a colleague’s death. If you provide an employee assistance programme, make sure that your employees are made aware that they have this opportunity if they wish to take it up.

There is no way of knowing how you will find out about the death of an employee. You may learn about it from the deceased’s family, but sometimes the news will come from another employee. No matter how you hear of the death, respond quickly by notifying immediate staff and close work friends directly, and the rest of the company by email. Remember to contact staff who are ill or on leave.

If the family are willing (and the social distancing rules permit it) allow your staff to attend the funeral or memorial service if they would like to do so. Attending the memorial service is an important part of the grieving process.

The relationship the deceased employee had with colleagues will determine how the workplace decides to remember him or her. Examples of work group responses include: creating a memorial bulletin board with photos and other images meaningful to the work group; or holding an event such as a lunch or reception in memory of the deceased employee. Invite family members and close friends outside of work to share their memories with the group. At the moment such events may have to be virtual or the memorial event can be deferred until it is safe to meet again. You might also create a memory book filled with stories and sentiments from colleagues to give to the family, have a fundraiser to give a financial donation to a chosen charity, or write an article about the employee for the in-house newsletter.

Some of the practical issues which you will need to consider are as follows.

  • Who will clear the deceased’s desk and personal belongings? Family members or a close work friend may want to handle the task of boxing up the deceased's personal belongings.
  • Take steps to change the voicemail message, retrieving messages (voice mail and email),handling inquires intended for the deceased employee. These tasks could be shared or rotated among staff to ease the emotional burden of having to tell callers that the employee has died. Prepare a brief statement to assist those who reply to calls.
  • Make arrangements for unfinished tasks or imminent work requirements. A short-term plan can be put into place until a more permanent decision can be made. It is best to make temporary arrangements as soon as possible to lessen the level of anxiety that might already be present in the staff. Make it clear what is needed and who is responsible.
  • Don’t make any sudden changes in regard to the organisation of workspace. People need time to grieve the loss of their colleague before seeing his or her workstation dismantled. In a month or so, there will be more acceptance of the changes which come from the death.
  • Consider when the replacement employee should be appointed. A new employee needs to be prepared for possible negative comparisons with the deceased employee. If the deceased was particularly well-liked, the transition will be even more difficult. It is advisable to give staff notice of the new employee's start date, relevant work background and to prepare them for the change. It is a normal part of accepting a loss to welcome someone new.

It will take time to come to terms with the loss, but after the initial shock and grief, time will start to heal. If you notice that after a period of time one of your employees still appears to still be grieving, talk to the employee, give feedback on what you have observed and share your concerns. You may suggest that he or she seeks some counselling. Often, a loss in one area of someone's life, as in the loss of a colleague, triggers unresolved feelings about previous losses or anticipated losses and the employee may need extra assistance in coping with these feelings.


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2021 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.