Leading DEI Conversations: Lessons on Integrating Facilitating Tools Into Work
Leading DEI Conversations: Lessons on Integrating Facilitating Tools Into Work
Get a Job You Love: Get Clear on Your Career with Belma McCaffrey of Work Bigger

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

grief at work

About a month ago, I was on a coaching call with a client who shared with me that a colleague had recently died. I paused our agenda and asked her how she was doing and how her team had handled the situation. Thirty minutes later, I learned that her company has one of the most supportive grief support processes I had ever heard of in a workplace. The company systematically supported the grieving process. They contacted the deceased employee’s family, informed all employees about the death, created an informal space for employees to grieve and process together, and attended and financially supported a memorial that family and friends could attend. Listening to her account, I couldn’t help but get emotional. And 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 we're again at the intersection of grief and business. However, we're not just grieving with an individual, a client, or a few people this time. Instead, we mourn with thousands of people grieving the death of recently targeted communities. As we process the recent shootings in Buffalo, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Uvalde, I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of our DEI efforts. Are we effectively holding space in a way that supports grief in the workplace? This year alone, we’ve had a total of 212 mass shootings. Over 10,300 hate crimes in the United States involve a firearm annually. Last year, the FBI reported that hate crimes were the 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. 90% of Americans have been pushing for stricter gun control laws. Others have stated that more stringent gun control laws would infringe on their second amendment rights. This debate hasn’t led to viable solutions, and we still have a gun violence problem. 

Just two years ago, we witnessed many organizations (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, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. While every effort counts, we also need to talk about how we value life, whose life value, and how our values influence how 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 below.

How we experience death as a culture

Many of us, especially Americans, don’t discuss death until we have no choice but to discuss it. It reminds us of our mortality. 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. This is due to the change many Americans experienced after the 1900s. According to historians, “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 witnessed a cultural shift from death awareness to death avoidance. We aren't as equipped or prepared to discuss death on a cultural level. 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 must be by 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, and your mind. How are you feeling, and what are you thinking as you experience the concepts in this post? 

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 speaks to one of our core issues as a society. Our internal narratives, biases, and stereotypes often influence our actions and how we treat each other. When accepting or committing identity-based violence and harm, we're saying that we don’t value a person (or their life) because we disagree with their very being. Therefore, any harm committed is justifiable. When someone is harmful because of how someone else shows up in the world, we deny their right to live, thrive, and reach their full potential. Continuing down a path of dehumanization can only lead to our communal destruction.

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 can empathize more with an individual death than 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 many people because the “individual” becomes another statistic rather than a person.

This phenomenon might explain why many were outraged at the stories and recordings of George Floyd’s murder. While statistics show that police officers disproportionately kill Black and Latino individuals, George Floyd’s murder 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 only to do or say something when there’s “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 the next hit to our nervous system. We act as allies, activists, or humans after yet another horrific death.

Interestingly enough, we’ve been pushing individuals and institutions to keep the momentum and action going without considering 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 how 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? 

How to address death, dying, and grief in the workplace

Each of us will likely grieve the loss of someone one day if we haven’t already. Whether your employees are grieving the death of a colleague, family member, or multiple people, you can play a significant role. Below are several ways to begin addressing death, dying, and grief in the workplace that feels authentic and meaningful. 

  • Be proactive
    Don’t shy away from creating space to process death and develop anticipatory grief practices. 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 indicate whether or not we should say or do something after one or more deaths have occurred. Having a process in place will help us become more intentional in our response, especially in the case of mass human suffering. One suggestion is to make drop-ins, office hours, or grief counseling available.

  • Pay attention to your biases and how you choose to respond to different deaths
    Because we may value some lives over 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 your first response to one or multiple deaths is “why were they killed?” and 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 response. This reaction is similar to when we place blame or shame on victims or survivors of sexual assault or violence. 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.”

    Since we 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 essential and can help us minimize this bias. Instead of finding reasons why someone might have been killed or killed someone else, take some time to question why people are inflicting violence.

  • Ask your employees collectively what they need for grief support
    Creating the time and space for people to process can be helpful, and it’s also important not to assume that everyone grieves the same way. While drop-ins and office hours can be beneficial, the goal is to have additional options and an opportunity for colleagues to share what they need. Maybe they’d appreciate time off, sharing their workload with the rest of their team, or support in participating in a protest. Remember not to put the process solely on individuals and groups 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 impacted by recent deaths and killings
    In 2012, Google was spotlighted for its death benefits policy because it sounded gracious. According to Google, if an employee dies, their family receives 50% of the deceased employee's salary for ten years. The children (if any) of the deceased receive $1,000 a month until age 19 (or 23 for full-time students). I know every company can’t be Google. Still, organizations should 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 off for 3-4 days (this doesn’t include vacation days or holidays), while other companies have extended protected time off to 20 days or more.

    While these policies are needed, they’re usually for people who are close or extended relatives of the deceased. Amid mass shootings and collective grief, workplaces haven’t 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. 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 flexible work was needed.

    Fast forward to the present. We now can re-imagine how we address collective grief as a society. Perhaps employers can extend bereavement policies so employees can decide how many days they need to mourn the loss of their community members without feeling the need to request special days off.

    This brings me to my final point...

  • Stop asking for proof of death and relationship before approving days off
    When people are grieving, the logistics of time off 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 previously addressed.

    In addition, people don't only grieve the death of those closely related to them. How we choose to create our grieving policies shows how we value relationships. We're in a moment where we have a window of opportunity to rethink our narratives about death, dying, and grief in the workplace and beyond. 

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

Death is something we can’t avoid. And unfortunately, there’s no knowing if or when identity-based targeted violence will stop. To address what we do have control over, I hope we can begin discussing the uncomfortable to move to a place of healing and transformation at work.

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