When a Team Member Dies
Though it is upsetting to even think about, there may come a time in your career when a person you work with suddenly dies. Whether it's a patient or a colleague, or whether you worked side-by-side or in different offices, the tragedy of an unanticipated death will produce intense emotions and lead to a multitude of previously unthinkable questions. This is, after all, not a topic that normally comes up in the lunchroom.
I was recently approached to “debrief” a dental team who experienced this kind of tragedy. During the two-hour meeting, the employees tearfully talked about the unexpected death of one of their colleagues. They were in shock. Some of them had never attended a funeral before and most of them did not know what to do or say to their co-worker’s family. Dealing with their own grief was a huge burden in and of itself. The purpose of my ‘intervention’ was to help them begin to come to terms with the loss, and to give them information about what to anticipate in the bereavement process.
Grief is the emotion we feel when we experience a loss. It is a challenge like no other. It can feel like a dagger in the heart. All deaths may be traumatic in some way, but a sudden death is always traumatic. Not only do we suffer with sadness, but our minds are trying to integrate a new reality - one that is different from the way reality should be. An unexpected death causes a uniquely difficult kind of grief. It challenges our basic assumptions about life, its goodness and its meaning. Without a goodbye and with much left unsaid, a sudden death can also bring about regrets such as, "I wish I had told her this," or "I hope he knew how much I liked him." These regrets are a normal part of grieving, especially when death comes suddenly to a person you love.
Things to Know:
Trying to make sense of or understand sudden losses can be difficult. It is human nature to want to answer the question "Why?" Yet, it may be difficult if not impossible to find an answer. Instead, the question "Why?" is more of a plea for meaning and understanding. The thoughts of Rabbi Earl Grollman provide a useful perspective for coping with this difficult question:
Now death has shaken your faith. ‘Why’ must life be one of sorrow? ‘Why?’ There are no pat answers. No one completely understands the mystery of death. Even if the question were answered, would your pain be eased, your loneliness less terrible? ‘Why’ may be more than a question. It may be an agonizing cry for a heart-breaking loss, an expression of distress, disappointment, bewilderment, alienation, and betrayal. There is no answer that bridges the chasm of irreparable separation. There is no satisfactory response for an unresolvable dilemma. Not all questions have complete answers. Unanswered ‘Why's’ are part of life. The search may continue but the real question might be ‘How [do I] pick up the pieces and go on living as meaningful as possible?’
There is no 'right' or 'wrong' or 'normal' way to deal with the sudden death of someone we know. How we grieve is as individual as who we are. Our cultural, personal and religious backgrounds all play a role in our response. Take care of yourself. Although your appetite may be nonexistent and sleep may elude you, eat healthful foods, drink plenty of fluids, rest, exercise and avoid alcohol at this time. Returning to work may be difficult, and a period of adjustment can be expected. Continue to reflect with your co-workers. You have lost a special member of your professional family. Be patient and kind, to yourself and to one another.
Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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