Employee Mental Health

How to Cope with the Death of a Colleague

Feb 7, 2024

Our co-workers are a significant part of our lives. The time spent with them is not only plentiful (given that we spend 50% of our waking time with them), but it is also full of highs and lows, conflicts and celebrations, successes and failures. Often our work relationships include meaningful friendships and even a sense of family. Which is why when one of them passes, we often face a tremendous challenge.

The workplace strategies we might use to address every-day business problems are not well suited to dealing with grief and loss. Nevertheless, there are some tools that can help you and those in your organization cope and maintain strong mental health in the face of tragedy.

Understanding the impact

The death of a colleague can impact individuals in many different ways. Understanding the different reactions someone might have can help you and your colleagues manage those reactions in healthy ways.

Researchers have developed many frameworks for this purpose. One of the most commonly used is called the Stages of Grief. This framework is not meant to strictly define how someone “should” react to a colleague’s passing — someone may experience some, all or none of the stages in any order or any number of times. However, this framework can help us anticipate and understand what we might feel when we experience significant loss.

The Stages of Grief

  • Shock/disbelief — You may not be able to comprehend that the death has really happened. You may feel numbness or disorientation. You may feel the need to deny the news or avoid thinking about it.
  • Anger — You may feel angry at yourself, others, a higher power or even the deceased for what has happened.
  • Guilt — You may blame yourself for what has happened, for not knowing more or preventing it, or for what you perceive to be missed opportunities with your colleague. This can be especially present when the death involved an accident or suicide.
  • Sadness — You may feel a deep sense of loss. You might feel decreased motivation or interest in things you once enjoyed. You may want to withdraw from others. You might experience feelings of hopelessness or sadness from previous loss.
  • Fear — The death of someone we know can cause us to worry about our own safety or mortality. You may have increased concern about the future, or experience feelings of loss of control.
  • Acceptance — As you naturally adjust to the changes that a colleague’s death can cause, you will feel the disruption to your life normalize. Though the sense of loss may never totally disappear, you may begin to feel ready to move past the more intense feelings of grief. Feeling associated with other stages of grief may continue to come and go, but you feel a readiness to move on, while still honoring your colleague’s memory.

Physical reactions

Loss can also cause changes in aspects of your daily functioning. These can include things like fatigue, forgetfulness, distractibility, body aches or changes to our appetite or sleeping habits. These may not be obviously attributable to a tragic event, but knowing that they may be present can help you give yourself and others extra slack and patience if they do arise.

Coping Strategies

Now that we understand what we might experience with the death of the colleague, let’s discuss a few helpful strategies. The goal of these strategies is to not to avoid discomfort, or to rush past feelings of grief. Rather, they can help you and your colleagues process the tragedy while maintaining the ability to carry out work and family responsibilities.


We’re sometimes unsure what personal feelings are appropriate to discuss in the workplace, but it is extremely important in this shared experience that people have the opportunity to express what they are going through. Expressing your experience has a way of diminishing the impact that uncomfortable feelings or thoughts may have. Tell others what you are feeling and how it is affecting you. Allow others to do the same by asking and listening.

It can be very helpful to talk about the individual who has passed in group or one-on-one settings. Often activities that memorialize the person can help people deal with the colleague’s passing. Your workplace may consider providing ways to facilitate the attendance of memorial services when appropriate.

Some may not want or feel comfortable sharing in these settings, and that is totally ok. If you’d rather not share your feelings publicly, other effective strategies include talking with someone you trust outside of work or writing in a journal.

Be patient with yourself and others

This can be a turbulent time for many, and emotions can be close to the surface. Grief can cause us to feel more irritable and sensitive. When feelings are tense at work, be as kind as possible to your coworkers and extend them an extra dose of grace. Be kind to yourself if you find that you don’t have your normal work capacity. Ask for help when needed and extend help to others when possible. Consider temporarily simplifying your routine and allowing yourself more time for self-care.

Again, keep in mind that everyone’s experience with loss will be different. Try to be understanding if someone’s experience is different from yours. Remember that the grieving process has no set timeline, so be patient with yourself and others as you make your way back to normalcy.

Get help

Challenges like grief and loss are not meant to be born alone. Use listening ears and shoulders for crying on offered by people you trust. In particular, take advantage of your free access to Tava Health therapists, who are trained to help people navigate difficult experiences. They can give you tools to better understand yourself and others and manage challenges in healthy ways. If you haven’t already, consider checking in with a therapist to see if you could use some support from a caring professional. Learn more at https://www.tavahealth.com.

While losing a colleague is never an easy experience, hopefully this resource provides helpful context for the grieving process and practical tips to help you and your colleagues through this difficult time. We at Tava Health are here to support you, and are always available online at https://www.tavahealth.com or at support@tavahealth.com.

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