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When a Co-Worker Dies by Suicide
Workplaces, like families, are not immune from tragedy. Sooner or later a team of any size will probably have to deal with the death of one of its members. How people in an office or on the factory floor react depends a great deal on how that death occurred—by disease, accident, suicide or crime. A sudden, shocking death can have a greater emotional impact than one that was expected. And suicide can be among the most shocking, as well as emotionally disruptive.

Expect strong emotions
With suicide, the natural mourning process is supercharged with emotions of shock, guilt and possibly anger. Russell Friedman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, says suicide sometimes is not a surprise—as in cases when the victim was “obviously in misery” due to some cause such as drug or alcohol abuse or bipolar disorder. Even then, though, Friedman says suicide touches off “unresolved grief,” a sense among survivors that they did not do all they could to help the victim when he was alive, and they often feel guilty because they’re convinced they should have done more. “Suicide adds a dimension of unfinished emotional business to the relationship that has ended.”

Reach out to the family
Suicide also carries a stigma, rooted in religious, cultural or social traditions, that makes co-workers uncomfortable in dealing with or talking about the event. Loved ones of a suicide victim can find their grief compounded by isolation when friends avoid encounters for fear of saying the wrong thing. This may be the worst thing they can do. Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of the upcoming book How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say, says co-workers should make sure to “participate in all the mourning rituals” such as memorial services and receptions.“ The mourning rituals are a comfort to the bereaved,” she says, “but they are a comfort to those in the workplace, too.”

Miller says co-workers of the victim might help themselves emotionally by doing something for the victim’s family—putting together a memory album, delivering meals to the family, delivering the victim’s belonging from the office so that the family members don’t have to go to the office. If you do drop off belongings, she says, make sure you do so when the family is at home. They will be glad to see you.

The manager’s role
Managers can do their part by talking about the victim in a caring and compassionate way, and offering help to the family (which will probably have some benefits paperwork to do along with their other burdens). They also need to give workers plenty of opportunity to vent their feelings. “This doesn’t mean that a manager needs special training,” says Michael L. Buckman, a senior vice president with the career management firm Lee Hecht Harrison. “But a manager needs to know that people around the victim may be harboring some tough emotions and should be allowed to express them.”

Supervisors should also watch for posttraumatic symptoms among employees, Buckman says. Is an employee starting to show up late to work? Does she suddenly seem tired or forgetful? “If a person’s pattern changes in some way, that can be a sign that this person can be having some kinds of issues with the incident,” says Buckman.

How long should it take for a team of workers to get emotionally back on track? If a supervisor has encouraged workers to talk openly—and they do—Buckman says one can usually spot the “acceptance” phase of grieving when they stop talking so much about the suicide and the victim.

Bob VandePol, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Crisis Care Network Inc., says it’s hard to set a recovery timetable because different co-workers can have widely different responses to the suicide. “You can anticipate a wide range of recovery times following a traumatic event such as a suicide,” VandePol says. Some people will be intensely sad, others might be angry, others—those who may have only been casual acquaintances with the victim—will get right back to work. But he says supervisors should be ready for emotions to well up well after the event, as on anniversaries, seasonal get-togethers such as holiday parties, or the completion of a big project in which the victim had played a major role.

VandePol, whose firm provides critical incident response services nationwide, advises supervisors to follow an “ACT” strategy:

  • “A” stands for, “Acknowledge and name the tragedy”: Don’t shy away from using the word “death” to describe what happened, and be ready to understand and accommodate the wide range of responses—grief, anger or indifference—that fellow workers are likely to feel.
  • “C” is for “Communicate competence and compassion.” That is, show you are tough enough to handle the crisis and keep the workplace on track, but be compassionate toward the mourning co-workers at the same time.
  • Manage the “T”—the transition—by getting individuals to help if they need it (such as an employee assistance program) or getting them back to normal work in stages. VandePol says it’s good to bear in mind that employees can be more mistake-prone after a traumatic event, so it can be a good tactic to focus them first on relatively simple, concrete tasks. “If you fall off a horse, get back on a pony, he says.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control

How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say by Robbie Miller Kaplan. Prentice Hall Press, 2004.

Sources: Russell Friedman, executive director, Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Robbie Miller Kaplan; Michael Buckman, senior vice president, Lee Hecht Harrison, Chicago, Ill.; Bob VandePol, President, Crisis Care Network Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.

By Tom Gray
© 2003-2004 Achieve Solutions