Recently one of our young team members passed away from a sudden illness. As a leader, how can I support others in the team through the grieving process?
I’m sorry to hear about the death of your colleague, that must have been a terrible shock and it will take time to adjust.
Dealing with the grief of bereavement is both difficult and oddly straightforward. Difficult because it is a debilitating and exhausting pain, but straightforward because there is nothing that you can actually “do” to make the feelings any easier or less impactful. It takes as long as it takes to move through it to something more comfortable.
Grief is dealt with via a willingness to walk through the emotion until you reach the other side, and so the most valuable thing you can do for your team members is to provide them with the time and space to express their feelings. You might do this collectively and/or individually.
Give your team an opportunity to talk about their late colleague, but make sure you do so within limits. If you allow the conversations to go on without a boundary, then it’s likely to become harder rather than easier for the team to operate.
You may have to (sometimes gently) pull the team back into dealing with the priorities of the day whilst acknowledging how difficult it will be at times to focus.
If team members are finding the situation especially hard, it's worth signposting them to more specific support and a mental health provider like Spill — if your company offers something of that kind — is the obvious place to send them.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, it's also important to maintain some continuity and normality. The world already seems to be spinning off its axis when someone dies so it can be incredibly helpful for us to have somewhere to go and be around people who are the same as they were before the tragedy occurred.
One aspect of grief that can catch all of us off guard is the indiscriminate way it brings us to our knees without any warning so be prepared for people to suddenly be hit by emotions that they hitherto may not have been experiencing.
In the longer term, finding a way to remember your colleague might help everyone to feel more at peace with such a dreadful occurrence.
I recommend reading Spill's guide on how to support a bereaved colleague at work for further support and guidance.
That’s such sad news. I can’t imagine what you and your team are experiencing at the moment. I suspect their death has had a huge impact on the team in different ways. It’s a lot for you to go through because you will also be grieving whilst trying to support others around you.
The first thing that comes to mind is to be mindful of your own needs at the moment; you are experiencing this emotional event too, so make sure you are supported; this may be by others outside of the company. I don’t know what your relationship was with the person who died or how much grief you’re carrying at the moment but know that, if you can’t hold someone else’s grief right now on top of your own, that’s okay. This is not about walking away from others’ needs, but knowing that you alone don’t have to manage it. You could ask for more support from others in the company or a third party, such as a grief charity or a mental health support provider like Spill.
Everyone grieves in different ways — there is no one ‘right’ way. Allow people to do it their way. Some may need very little from you or the company as they may be more private or stoic; some may need more input. Check out what each team member needs. Don’t assume; ask. You may want to put some time aside with each person one-on-one so that you can offer some space to talk about what’s happened, the impact it has on them and what they need at this time.
Remember, you alone don’t have to be the person that provides what they ask for, but you are alongside them making sure that, where possible, their needs are met. (We also need to be realistic about what is and isn’t possible.)
Regrettably, there are no magic words or magic fixes for this; a really sad and unfair event has happened. It’s okay to not know what to do at times like this. We are all different and have different needs when navigating our way through an emotional time. Role model to your team how you are looking after yourself, and then carve out time to understand what they need. You will understandably want to make people’s pain smaller but this is not up to you; it’s up to them. However, you can let them know you are part of their scaffolding however they may need. Look after yourself.
Thank you for your question, I am sorry to hear that you have had a bereavement in your team and hope you can give yourself time to process and grieve in the same way you want to support the rest of your team.
Death affects every person in different ways; there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no set timescale as to how long the grieving process lasts. To begin with, I suggest creating an environment where it feels safe for your team to talk about the person who has passed away, whether that is talking about how they feel about the death, sharing memories about the person, or anything else that feels relevant. Just giving them an opportunity to talk can make a big difference in the healing process.
It is also important to remember that there were probably some people who worked more closely with the team member who passed than others and so the death may affect them more, so perhaps create some time to check in on them more frequently; even if they don’t want to talk (and not everyone will), just offering can validate what they are experiencing.
As I said there is no set timeline for how long someone grieves; however, having a basic knowledge of the stages of grief might allow you to better understand how it might affect your young team.
The stages are:
1. Shock and denial
2. Pain & guilt
3. Anger & bargaining
Moving through these stages is rarely a linear experience but being aware of them may help you accept that there may be a bit of emotional turbulence in different ways throughout your team in the coming months.
Finally, although I understand you wanting to support your team, remember to take time to process how you are feeling too. Who do you have in your life that you can talk to? Whether that is a peer at work, your boss, family, friend, or a therapist, please don’t forget to look after yourself in the same way you are trying to look after everyone else.