When Death is Difficult to Talk About: Addressing Death, Dying and Grief in the Workplace

Home Resources Articles When Death is Difficult to Talk About: Addressing Death, Dying and Grief in the Workplace
Crisis SupportDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion

About a month ago, I was on a coaching call with a client who shared with me that a colleague of hers had recently died. I paused our agenda and took a moment to ask her how she was doing and how her team was handling the situation. Thirty minutes later, I had learned that her company has one of the most supportive grief support processes I had ever heard of in a workplace. From contacting the deceased employee’s family, informing all employees about the death, creating an informal space for employees to grieve and process together, to attending and financially supporting a memorial that family and friends could attend, the company systematically supported the grieving process. Listening to her account, I couldn’t help but get emotional. Here we were, planning to discuss what was on the agenda, just to be reminded that business can’t always go on as usual. 

Another month has passed, and here we are again at the intersection of grief and business. However, this time we are not just grieving with an individual, a client or a few people. Instead we mourn with thousands of people grieving the death of communities that were recently targeted. Whether we’re discussing the recent shooting in Buffalo, Los Angeles, Dallas or Uvalde I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of our DEI efforts and whether or not we’re intentionally holding space in a way that supports grief in the workplace. This year alone we’ve had a total of 212 mass shootings and in an average year, over 10,300 hate crimes in the United States involve a firearm. In fact last year, the FBI reported that hate crimes were at their highest in 12 years!

Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time we’re having a conversation about mass shootings or racially-targeted violence. For the past several years many people in the United States have been pushing for stricter gun control while others have stated that stricter gun control laws would encroach on their second amendment rights. This debate has not led to any viable solutions and we’re still left with a gun violence problem. Just two years ago we witnessed many organizations and companies (including ours) looking for ways to support Black employees and friends while beginning to adopt anti-racist frameworks and teachings after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many others. While every effort counts, we also need to have a conversation about how we value life, whose life we decide to value and how that influences the way we view death, dying and grief in and out of the workplace. 

In an attempt to be more vulnerable and intentional with you, I’ve added invitations (short prompts or questions for you to consider) at the end of each section of the blog post. 

First things first…

Many of us, especially Americans, don’t discuss death until we have no choice but to discuss it. It reminds us of our own mortality, and we often think of it as something that happens to “those people over there” until we begin to face our own mortality, or experience the loss of someone close to us. Part of this is due to the change many Americans experienced after the 1900s. According to historians, initially “most people died in their home, leaving family members to prepare the body.” However, once end-of-life care services moved from the home to institutions, we began to witness a cultural shift from death awareness to death avoidance. On a cultural level, we are not as equipped or prepared to discuss death, and on a workplace level, “death seems to be the undoing of everything we value at work: control, growth, productivity, connections. Death can’t be fixed or mastered.” To put it briefly: it’s uncomfortable and deeply vulnerable for many of us. If we have to start somewhere, it has to be with exploring the narratives we’ve created about death, dying and grief on a personal and cultural level. 

Invitation: As you continue reading, notice and name what is coming up for you. Check in with your body, your breath, your mind. How are you feeling and what are you thinking as you experience the concepts in this post? 

This is also about how we value (or don’t value) people when they’re alive

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” This quote by the late Paul Farmer truly speaks to one of our core issues as a society. Our internal narratives, biases and stereotypes often influence our actions and the way we treat each other. When it comes to accepting or committing identity-based violence and harm, we are literally saying that we don’t value a person (or their life) because we disagree with their very being and therefore any harm conflicted is justifiable. Whether the harm is conflicted because of someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, ability/disability, class, etc., we are denying someone’s right to live, thrive and reach their full potential, by using our power to target and wreak havoc on a person or a community because of who they are. 

The problem with this narrative is that it will literally destroy the world, even for those of us who hold social power and privilege. If our morality and collective compassion towards each other is influenced by a social hierarchy and the hierarchy is influenced by harmful and false ideologies, then we’ll continue to not only perpetuate current systems of oppression, but we would need to create new forms of oppression for this type of hierarchy to exist. As you can see, it won’t end well for any of us.

Invitation: What biases do you have about certain identity groups? Where do your beliefs or mental models come from? How are your beliefs negatively/positively impacting someone else’s livelihood? 

Individual death vs. collective death

Research shows that our response to death can change depending on the number of people who die. An individual death often elicits more of a response, emotion or action because our brains are able to empathize more with an individual death as opposed to multiple deaths. In fact, the more people die, the less we care. We see this when people experience psychic numbing, a psychological phenomenon where we become indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people because the “individual” becomes another statistic rather than a person.

This phenomenom might explain why many were outraged at the stories and recordings of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. While statistics show that Black and Latino individuals are disproportionately killed by police officers, the story of George Floyd awakened many of us who had become numb to the harm and violence of white supremacy culture in communities of color. 

It’s true that since 2020 many of us have made anti-racist and anti-oppressive efforts as a result of horrific killings being shared in mainstream media, however it’s problematic for us to only do or say something when there’s “that one tragic story” that makes it on the news and pushes us into action. The danger of psychic numbing is that we lose our sense of action when we become numb to mass human suffering. We accept things as they are, and harmful realities begin to feel “normal” until our nervous system is jolted again and we’re forced to act as allies, activists or humans after another horrific death takes place.

Interestingly enough, we’ve been pushing individuals and institutions to keep the momentum and action going without taking into account the human reality of numbness. My question for us is this: How do we break through the numbness while also taking action to address collective pain and grief?

Invitation: Reflect on the way you’ve been responding to recent events and stories of mass suffering. Have you felt moved to take action? If so, what have you done? If not, what have you been doing instead? 

What does death, dying and grief have to do with the workplace?

Since employees are human first, it’s very likely that each of us will one day grieve the loss of someone. Whether employees are grieving the death of a colleague, family member, or the death of multiple people that have been killed, workplaces can play a significant role in supporting people through this process while simultaneously taking the action that’s needed for the individual, the team and the company as a whole. Below are several ways companies can begin addressing death, dying and grief in the workplace. 

Accept that death, dying and grief are part of the human experience

If and when an individual or a collective group of people are grieving, don’t shy away from creating the space to process this reality. In fact, the best thing you can do is to begin creating anticipatory grief practices in an effort to be proactive. We know that death is inevitable on a personal level and that as it relates to mass deaths, our empathy muscle begins to weaken (re: psychic numbing). As a result, we can’t always trust our feelings to be an indicator as to whether or not we should say or do something after one or more deaths have occurred. Having a process or action items in place as options will help us become more intentional and deliberate in our response, especially in the case of mass human suffering. You may find that drop-ins, office hours, or having a designated person colleagues can talk to while grieving are protocols your employees might appreciate having beforehand. These protocols show that you care enough about your employees to create the space and time they need to be fully human at work.  

Pay attention to your biases and how you choose to respond to different deaths 

As mentioned before, because we only value some lives and not others, our response to who and how people die may vary. There’s a conversation to be had about who we choose to grieve with and how we choose to grieve. Over the past years I’ve seen how biases and harmful internal narratives justify the killing or death of one person over another. I’ve also seen how people have made an excuse or provided reasoning for certain perpetrators (e.g. “mental health issues”) and not others (“innate criminals”). For example, if you find that your first response to one or multiple deaths is “why were they killed?” but for another person or group it’s “this is so horrible and should have never happened”, you may want to question the difference in your responses. According to Sherry Hamby, a psychologist at Sewanee University, there’s a “powerful urge for people to want to think good things happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing.”

If we already have biases about certain groups of people when they’re alive, it exacerbates our “just-world” bias even further when they die or are killed. Taking a moment to reflect on what we read or where we gather information is important and can help us minimize this bias. Instead of trying to confirm your biases by finding reasons why someone might have been killed, take some time to question why people are inflicting violence in the first place. 

Ask people what they need during times of individual or collective grief

Creating the time and space for people to process can be useful, and it’s also important to not assume that everyone grieves the same way. While drop-ins and office hours can be helpful, the goal is to have additional options and an opportunity for colleagues to share what it is that they need at the moment. Maybe they’d appreciate time off, sharing their workload with the rest of their team, or support in participating in a protest. Whatever it is, remember to not put the burden of proof or process solely on individuals and groups who are experiencing grief. Too often, employees with marginalized identities have had to determine or contribute to the way their company addresses mass violence while simultaneously grieving. Take the time to trust yourself and the collective wisdom that exists within your company to brainstorm ways you can support your colleagues.  

Create and implement policies that support the deceased, family members of the deceased, and/or communities being impacted by recent deaths and killings

In 2012, Google was in the spotlight for their death benefits because of how gracious they sounded. According to Google, if an employee dies, their family receives 50% of the deceased employee’s salary for ten years, and the children (if any) of the deceased receive $1,000 a month until age 19 (or 23 if they’re a full time student). Now, I know every company can’t be Google, but it’s really important for companies and organizations to have a bereavement plan or policy so that employees (or their family members) who are grieving feel supported and accounted for. While bereavement policies in the workplace continue to evolve, most policies only cover protected time (this doesn’t include vacation days or holidays) off for 3-4 days, while other companies have extended protected time off to 20 days or more to incorporate the time people might need to heal and continue grieving. 

While these policies are important and needed, they’re usually for people who are close or extended relatives of the deceased. In the midst of mass shootings and collective grief, workplaces haven’t really figured out what formal policies or guidelines might support multiple people at once and how to implement them. Most efforts to provide time off for collective grief have been isolated or case by case instances depending on the company and their understanding of grief. In fact, workplaces are only now broadly accepting the need for flexible workplace policies due to COVID-19. Before then, many employees had to request flexible work plans and make a case for why the plan was needed. 

Fast forward to the present, we are now being pushed to re-imagine the ways in which we discuss and address collective grief as a society. Perhaps bereavement policies can be extended so employees can decide how many days they’d need to mourn the loss of their community members without feeling the need to request special days off. This brings me to my next point…

Stop asking for proof of death and relationship before approving days off 

If people are already grieving, this is the last thing they want to think about. Trust that your employees are telling the truth, and recognize that if you’re feeling distrustful of a colleague or an employee, there may be other issues going on that should have been addressed before time-off was requested. In addition, one does not only grieve the death of those closely related to them, so how we choose to create our protocols directly connects to how we think about relationships and values we place on some relationships versus others. We are in a moment of time where we have a window of opportunity to really rethink our narratives about death, dying and grief in the workplace and beyond. 

Individual death is something we can’t avoid, and unfortunately there’s no way of knowing if or when identity-based targeted violence will stop. In an effort to address what we do have control over, I hope that we can begin discussing the uncomfortable so we can move to a place of healing and transformation in our workplaces.

Invitation: What bereavement practices or policies do you currently have in place at your company? How might you begin creating new policies or revisiting old ones that will take into account both individual and collective grief?