Death by suicide often renders a lot of silence, shame, and regret among family members, friends, and colleagues. Survivors are often left wondering if there was more they could have done to help the person who was suffering. They may ask questions like, “Why did this person do this?” “What if I could have done more?” or “What if I had known this person needed help?”
When a person dies by suicide, it is important to remember that their coworkers are often their friends as well. Or they at least spent a lot of time with the person, in conversation, working, sharing time and space together, potentially over many years.
Although losing a coworker to suicide is a significant experience for everyone within an organization, it is not always adequately acknowledged. There are many reasons for this, including:
- Family members of the person who died might not know their loved one’s colleagues, or the type of relationship shared with them
- Workplaces might have a culture that does not acknowledge the emotional experiences or grief of employees after the death of a coworker
- There can be the tendency to rush things in order to get people back to their usual work
The reality is that the death of a coworker due to suicide can have a significant impact on their workplace. This loss and the many feelings that may come as a result can sometimes take colleagues by surprise. No matter what your relationship to the person was, their death can cause some difficult yet normal emotions to surface.
The more we acknowledge feelings of grief and loss at the time someone dies, the easier it is to cope, heal, and recover.
How to Inform Employees About the Death
Ideally, there should be a consistent message to staff about what has happened. This prevents the news from being left to the informal channels of communication in the workplace, which can result in misinformation being shared. Here are some guidelines on how to inform staff about a death of a coworker by suicide:
- Communicate about what has happened in a timely manner
- Explain to staff that an employee has died, and briefly describe the circumstances while avoiding any erroneous details
- Keep your message factual, caring, and supportive
- Direct people toward resources for coping (if there are any)
How to Cope with the Death of a Coworker by Suicide
- Acknowledge the loss. When it comes to suicide, there is the tendency to not talk about what happened. Perhaps the family has made this request or, because people aren’t sure what to say, they don’t say anything at all. However, it’s important to acknowledge what happened in such a way that respects the individual’s privacy and dignity. Without talking about it, gossip and misinformation can fill the workplace. It is better to explain what happened and give employees a chance to express their feelings about the loss.
- Help colleagues express their feelings about the loss. It can be helpful to give employees the opportunity to speak to a mental health profession in order to process their feelings surrounding a loss of this nature. You can also organize a critical incident group debriefing for employees who were closer to the colleague who has died, and for others who may have been impacted.
- Create memorials or rituals to honour the coworker who has died. People naturally want to gather and come together after a colleague dies. Taking time to do this in the workplace, in an organized and intentional way or through a life-honouring ritual, can support the healing and grief journey. Supporting people to attend the funeral/celebration of life is also important.
- Consider ways to meaningfully remember this person. One example is to provide a memorial board where people can share photos, memories, and stories about the colleague who has died. This can also be a space where cards and condolences can be gathered so that others can see and read them for comfort and support. It’s also a good idea to send condolences from the workplace and coworkers to the family who has lost a loved one.
- Understand that people need time to process the death of a coworker. People often report spending more waking hours with coworkers than with their own family members. The death of a colleague to suicide is a real loss and it can take time for individuals to come to accept and grieve the loss.
A psychologist friend of mine used to always say to me, “Grief is like a bank loan – you either pay now or pay later. If you pay later, it comes with interest.” In other words, the more we acknowledge feelings of grief and loss at the time someone dies, the easier it is to cope, heal, and recover. The workplace can play a role in acknowledging the loss by offering a supportive message to staff and normalizing the fact that people will have feelings about what has happened. These are all healthy and helpful approaches after the death of a colleague.
Employee Wellness Considerations
After a death of a colleague by suicide, it is important to be aware of the contagion factor that can sometimes happen in the aftermath. Making employees aware of the resources that are available to them such as employee assistance programs (EAP) or other forms of support can be especially important after this kind of loss.
Some organizations will also choose to offer suicide prevention and mental health training in the workplace – not just as something to position after a loss of this nature, but rather as part of a proactive and broader employee health and wellness strategy at work. Here is a suicide prevention resource for employers that can help: Preventing Suicide at Work
When a coworker dies by suicide, be kind and compassionate. Recognize that the loss is now part of the workplace and the employees’ shared experiences, and provide messages of care to help cultivate healing and connection during times of loss. Remember to take the time to grieve and honour the person who has died – doing so will lay the foundation for moving forward in healthy ways.
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