From the day Elaine Riordan learned that her supervisor had died in a climbing accident, work would not be the same. "For a while it felt...

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From the day Elaine Riordan learned that her supervisor had died in a climbing accident, work would not be the same.

“For a while it felt like going to a funeral every day,” says Riordan, an editor and webmaster at a Seattle insurance company.

The supervisor’s colleagues subdued their sadness just to get through the day, and some suffered from physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches. Six months later others still can’t talk about their co-worker’s death. Some think they see him walking down the hallway, and have to remind each other that he’s really gone.

So much time is spent at work, it is inevitable that one day we’ll come face-to-face with the death of someone we’ve known for years. And the workplace can be an emotional minefield for those left grieving, especially when memories are linked to everything the lost colleague came in contact with, from the big ideas to the tiny scribbles on Post-it notes.

Most of us are unprepared to handle the death of someone we know, but even less prepared in a professional environment where relationships are often formal and emotions are kept muted.

At work it’s harder to be honest with our feelings, to express sadness in front of each other, says Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of the “Grief Recovery Handbook.”

“We are allowed to feel happy when something good happens to someone in the office, so why can’t we allow people to be sad as well?” he wonders.

Coping with grief at work


The employer should offer an optional grief support group so workers can talk about the loss, especially immediately after a death.

Know that everyone grieves differently. Some workers would like to be left alone, and that is OK.

Make a small memorial or keep the worker’s office intact for at least two weeks so people know there is a place they can go to when they need to.

Understand that grief is different for everyone. The “stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) have been criticized by some grief practitioners as too simplistic. A person never fully accepts a death, but just becomes reconciled to it and lives with it.

Grief is like a roller coaster, with highs and lows. Eventually the feelings become less severe but are still there.

Do something to channel the grief. Help the bereaved family with chores around the house, donate to a cause, or write down a few memories about the person who died. Grief is an emotion that has to be expressed in some way.

Source: Patricia Bartnick, certified grief therapist

What’s normal?

Dealing with death has changed the way the workers at the Jewish Federation get through the day. After the shooting four months ago that killed one person and injured five, the mood remains somber. It’s typical for someone to cry at her desk or need to go home for the day, or that another person will experience uncharacteristic anger over something trivial.

Sometimes it’s the small things that trigger the saddest feelings, says Tammy Kaiser, 33. She survived the shooting that day by jumping out a window. She has returned to work, but does not think that things will ever return to normal.

“It’s the little physical reminders you find in the office that you had forgotten about,” says Kaiser. “Nobody told me to prepare for these things.”

She was brought to tears recently when she discovered notes in a folder from Pamela Waechter, the 58-year-old fundraising director killed July 28 when a man forced his way into the offices and began shooting.

Kaiser also found it jarring when she was cleaning out e-mail and voice-mail accounts and unexpectedly came across messages sent from Waechter just hours before she died. Even looking up from her work to see new people sitting in the place of old colleagues can cause her to relive the shock of what happened. She has to leave the office or start crying.

Now she takes constant breaks and will sometimes go out to coffee five times a day just to break up her work into more manageable chunks. This has helped her to focus and concentrate.

“The problem with grieving at work is that the work is still there,” says Kaiser, who feels she was only working at 10 percent of her former capacity when she first came back. But even working a little bit has helped. Unlike other co-workers, Kaiser found it easier to come back immediately rather than take a vacation or deal with it some other way.

Productivity affected

Riordan, the office worker whose supervisor died, recalls experiencing multiple, conflicting emotions about working through her grief.

“Sometimes you have to get things done so you have to suppress your sadness, but then at the same time you feel guilty when you are able to work and when you do start getting things done,” she says. “It’s a strange thing.”

In the workplace, unexpressed sadness can turn into decreased productivity, problems with concentration, headaches, sleep loss, anger or somatic complaints, grief counselors say.

Many of Riordan’s co-workers who saw their supervisor daily never told him how good it was to work with him or how kind and encouraging they thought he was — and then suddenly he was gone and it was too late.

“At work it was kind of weird and sort of inappropriate to say how much he meant to us,” she says, referring to the boundaries in offices that can keep workers at a distance.

She has found that participating in activities to honor him has helped, including a memorial hike and a memory book to be filled with stories and artwork from his colleagues.

Kaiser found that taking action has helped her. Not only coming back and working as much as possible, but giving herself permission to feel sad at work if she needs to and to ask co-workers for help if she needs it. “The worst thing you can do is pretend everything is fine when it isn’t,” she says.

Workers can’t park their grief at the office door and put in a full productive day, says Friedman. “You can be strong or be human. The minute we try to hide our feelings and pretend everything is OK, we’re lying to each other.”

Diana Wurn is a frequent contributor to The Seattle Times; dianawurn@hotmail.com.