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How do you manage the death of a colleague?

When I first became a team leader I never even considered that I might have to deal with the death of a colleague. The naïve view of the very young manager, I guess.

25 years on and sadly I have had to navigate my way through the deaths of 4 wonderful colleagues.

Sadly, with the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) taking hold it is likely that many more leaders and managers will need to cope with the difficult situation of handling a death in their organisation.

Here are some of the things that helped me, I share in the hope that they may help you.

1) Respect what the individual wants to share with their team mates.

2 of my colleagues had long standing terminal illnesses and both handled them in very different ways. One sharing what stage they were at, the other not wanting anyone to know just how bad things were. Take your lead from the individual (where you can) and only share what they (or the family) want sharing.

2) Telling the team is hard.

However the person has died, whether through a long term illness, recent decline or even by suicide, this is the hardest part. Prepare yourself first - think about what you will say. Lean on HR teams or other leaders. Create a safe space to tell people the sad news. With so many of us working remotely at the moment this is even more tricky, and you will need to consider the method of delivery - be sure to follow up with people individually after any group announcements. Have someone who is supporting you through the process as well.

3) Give people space and time.

One of our colleagues was part of a call centre team I was managing. After telling people the news, arrangements were made for other people to step in to take calls that day – some people simply could not get back on to the phones after hearing the difficult news.

4) People deal with grief differently.

Some people were able to get back to work and wanted the distraction, others needed to go home or go for a walk. Allow people to be free to react how they want to. Some people wanted to attend the funeral, others found it too difficult. It’s all ok.

5) Give people time off.

Funerals may be delayed or limited in number, at the moment, but when memorial services can be held allow anyone who wants to attend, to go. Arrange transport if possible and organise flowers or a donation. Look at any employee assistance program to see if you can arrange bereavement counsellors. These organisational details are important to those grieving.

6) Remember.

After the funeral or memorial service, the team might decide that they want to organise a tribute or do something in memory, where possible support this. It might be in the form of a plaque or picture or it might be in the form of running a marathon or doing a charity event. One year on, people may want to do something special or hold a moment of remembrance.

7) Take care of yourself.

Dealing with your own grief at the loss of a team member, colleague and friend can be emotional for you as well. When trying to lead a large team through the process as well, it can become overwhelming. Take advice for yourself, take time for you and allow yourself to shed a tear too. Make use of the help being offered to you. You don't have to do it all yourself. Allow yourself to grieve and recognise that your emotional state will be heightened during this period. I had a great team around me who looked out for during this time, and realised that whilst I was busy being strong for others, that maybe I needed an outlet too. Reach out to those around you.


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