Dying Matters Awareness Week: When a Colleague Dies

During Dying Matters Awareness Week, Hospice UK encourages conversations about death, dying, grief and bereavement. Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, looks at what companies and colleagues can do to be supportive in the face of times like these- because, this year, the focus is how these issues impact us in the workplace. It is very […]

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During Dying Matters Awareness Week, Hospice UK encourages conversations about death, dying, grief and bereavement. Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, looks at what companies and colleagues can do to be supportive in the face of times like these- because, this year, the focus is how these issues impact us in the workplace.

It is very important to point out that people working in funeral service are the same as others when they are bereaved. There seems to be a misconception that familiarity with death means that it affects us less when it comes to us personally. However, it is very different experiencing grief yourself to helping others with theirs. Like others, we will deal with it in different ways; no two of us are the same. Everything relating to death and bereavement is unique. When we think about how we can support our employees and colleagues during a time of loss, we always need to bear in mind that treating everyone the same rarely works.

A particularly difficult period for a team can be if one of their number dies. Colleagues hold quite an unusual place for many of us; often we are thrown together and may not have lots in common outside of work. However, in a traditional ‘in person’ workplace, they will be people who we spend a lot of time with. If we work with someone every day, we probably see them more frequently than we do anyone else, apart from those we live with- friends and family included. Therefore, the loss of them might feel like a significant change to our workplace- and this in itself can be a cause of grief as we mourn a change of dynamic. Of course, some people will feel very close to colleagues, and may develop a more personal relationship. You may also work with a person for a very long time, but even if this is not the case then there could still be a close bond.

One of the starting points when navigating a bereavement with a group of people is to respect that different people will feel differently, even those who have ostensibly similar relationships with the person who has died. It’s often hard to really know how someone feels about someone- it’s not unusual for people to ascribe characteristics to someone who they don’t know well, or to find something in a person that reminds them of another, and this might not even be recognised until something like their death happens. This disconnect can feel confusing and, at a time of emotional upheaval, a lack of commonality with others can exacerbate that effect. It is a strange fact that you often don’t know how much you will miss someone until you are faced with the reality of that very situation, and grief can take you by surprise in its intensity- this might be thought to be particularly true of someone who you didn’t necessarily think of ‘in that way’- a colleague is a prime example of this.

What’s really important for a team at a time such as this, therefore, is openness, honesty, and respect. Everyone should be encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings, understanding that these are personal, and will be different from others. This could take many different forms, and part of what needs to be considered is that some people might enjoy a reminiscence in a group, or in a more casual setting, or away from the workplace, while others might prefer to chat to one or two others- and that the space they shared with their colleague might feel like a good place for that to happen.

Larger companies could consider bringing in someone independent to facilitate these varied emotions and to find commonalities, and perhaps encourage people with similar views to come together, and also explain the nature of grief and bereavement more general to stress that there is no right or wrong answer.

Whether to attend the funeral will, to an extent, be dictated by what form it takes- it may be that a decision is made for a smaller or family-only ceremony, or none at all. Assuming there is one which colleagues are able to attend, I would generally say this should take place wherever possible- although there might be practicalities if everyone wants to go. Managers may feel the temptation to not attend, enabling their staff to pay their respects while still keeping the department or business running, but they should not underestimate the impact this may have on themselves- especially if they are already carrying the emotional weight of the team and would have found the funeral cathartic. They may be worried about becoming emotional in front of their team members, but this feels quite an old-fashioned view in times when we now know that even the highest person in a company is still human.

If a line manager cannot attend, this decision should be explained to whoever has arranged the funeral so that they understand this is not a snub- a traditional view would be that senior colleagues should attend to show the value of the deceased person to the business as a whole, and it may transpire that not attending is very much the wrong thing to do. This might conflict with personal feelings, which is a further difficulty.

In some cases, someone from the person’s workplace might be expected to speak at the funeral- especially in prominent industries or where they were particularly significant to the company or business community. Who this is should be carefully considered- there is a risk that such a tribute can seem impersonal if it comes from someone who has obtained all their information second-hand. Alternatively, as already mentioned, colleagues can form close bonds and the funeral might be a genuinely upsetting time, which might be exacerbated by the pressure of having to stand up to present a whole aspect of a person’s life.

I have sadly had to attend the funeral of more than one colleague and I have always found it to be a rewarding experience. In those cases, I had met the people concerned later in their lifetimes and, although I knew some of their personal lives in the present day, there was a whole swathe of their past life which I was unaware of, and going to their funerals meant I learned more about them.

As this post suggests, the loss of a team member or colleague can be complicated, but this is no different to many other types of bereavement. Grief is rarely straightforward and is often mixed up with other feelings. However, understanding the differences between us, and treating each other with sensitivity and respect is paramount- and doing so may even bring a team closer together as they share the loss itself, if not all the feelings each of them has.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


May 11, 2023

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