by Dr. Jill Murray
Recently, I was asked to conduct grief counseling at a professional corporation. A well-loved young employee had committed suicide and the entire office was grief- stricken. Although he was working as an intern, he was—by everyone's accounts—extremely bright and motivated. He was about to take professional licensing exams and then upon passing was going to be offered full-time employment. I was told that he felt very confident and excited. He had a wife and parents who adored him and much to look forward to.
When I arrived at the office, the employees were in various states of disbelief, numbness, confusion, and a great deal of grief. This was an unbelievable and unexplainable situation. I spoke to the entire staff in the conference room at which many were crying, some looking down and shaking their heads slowly, and others seemed angry. After discussing the stages of grief and loss and ways they may be feeling, I was given a private office with a door and employees were given the option of talking with me as they wished. Many of them took advantage of this gift their employers had given them.
When an employee dies—whether he takes his own life, passes after an illness, or his life is taken for him—it shakes the entire staff in a way that nothing else can. The dynamic of the "team" changes irrevocably. Staff questions themselves: "Did I do enough? Did I tell him I cared about him? Could I have done anything to prevent this? What does this mean about my own mortality?" Oftentimes, they question outside forces: "Was the workplace too pressured? Did they feel stressed? Was their home life alright? Why in the world did this happen?"
When I spoke with this very intelligent and logical group of employees, they had all of those questions, but the most often asked question was, "WHY?" When someone we care about passes, we naturally want to make sense of the situation. Our brains are just wired that way. We want reasons, we want to wrap it up in an explainable bow. We want "closure". Above all, if we can explain it, it won't happen to us. We can feel safe.
As I spoke to this lovely group of people, I realized that they were problem solvers. That's what they did for a living. People brought them big problems and they fixed them. They had a very logical way of dealing with the world. Unfortunately, because death isn't always logical—especially suicide or homicide—it may be difficult to twist our brains around the idea that we may never know.
There are predictable stages to grief and loss, however, and explaining them to this group of employees was helpful:
Denial—you can't believe the person is gone,
Anger—you are angry at the deceased, yourself, the world,
Bargaining—making bargains with a higher power, yourself, if/then statements
Depression—this may be exhibited in a lack of focus or concentration, sick days, substance use or overworking to numb feelings,
Acceptance—accepting that the co-worker is gone.
It is important to note that these stages are not necessarily linear and most people will bounce around out of order from stage to stage even after they've accepted the loss. It usually makes one feel "crazy" or out-of-control. This, too, is normal. There is no predictable length of time as to when these feelings will subside. It could take weeks or months in an office environment. Reminders are everywhere and certain anniversary dates trigger new grief.
It is very important that employees are offered the opportunity to process their grief and to express their feelings. This can be accomplished in a group or individual environment at the job site so that it is convenient for employees to do so. It also builds a team mentality around the grief, that no one is alone in their pain. It gives staff the chance to question, reminisce, and share rather than feeling alone in their pain.
Certainly, an employee's death can trigger many expected as well as unexpected responses. Working alongside a licensed psychotherapist can head off a downward slide that can dramatically affect your work environment.