Although "coping with a colleague's death" is typically not covered in "leadership trainings or company handbooks," the novel coronavirus epidemic, which has already "claimed more than 200,000 lives so far," has thrust our society "into a reality of collective grief," Arielle Dance, an integrative women's health researcher, writes for Harvard Business Review.
Dance provides insights on how to manage your team through grief by sharing five lessons she learned after the death of a colleague.
1. Authenticity is important
According to Dance, it can be tempting for leaders to feel they have to appear composed and in control of a painful situation, "but sometimes we need to display vulnerability, not composure," Dance writes. She recommends leaders provide a place for their staff to freely express their emotions.
"By showing them that there is no shame in authentic emotion, you're giving them a platform to experience their own processes of grieving," Dance writes.
Dance, who works in cancer care, explained that while both she and her colleagues "understand the impact of death," they "had remained shielded from the personal grief of losing someone we work with" until about a year ago.
Dance writes that as a manager, she was the first person in her office notified about her staff member's death. After she composed herself, she writes that she met with the other managers and together planned—with scripting from HR—to break the news to the broader team the following day. However, the next morning, when telling her staff the news, Dance writes that she "went off script and sobbed through the meeting"—and her colleague "held [her] hand and sobbed with [her]."
In short, she writes, "I gave my team the space to feel, process, and share stories that day, and I can still see how important that step has been for all of us today."
2. Your plan is not the only plan
"Prepare your heart for the unexpected," Dance writes.
Dance planned to wait about one month before clearing the staff member's desk, as she wanted to hear what the person's family wanted to do with her belongings. "I thought it should still look like her space for a while—it didn't feel right to start removing pieces of her yet," she writes.
But days later, her company's IT department started to request the staff member's computer. "I became overwhelmed with hunting down every piece of equipment she had signed out, when all I wanted to do was lay down and cry," Dance writes.
Then, after the funeral, she had planned for the staff member's family to come in to collect her belongings on a quiet day, but they wanted to come in as soon as possible. "They arrived with boxes and bags," Dance writes. "They wanted to toss things that I treasured and keep things I had to shred for confidentiality purposes."
Dance explains, "Every person and family handles the grieving process differently"—and ultimately, there's "no right or wrong way to handle these processes." Ultimately, "having open communication with the family and your office leadership is essential," she writes, adding "Be patient with them. They—like you—are doing their best."
3. Clearly communicate your grief
When dealing with your own grief, remember that while "humans are (usually) understanding, … they are not mind readers," Dance writes—which means you have to clearly communicate your feelings of grief or of being overwhelmed.
Using her own experience as an example, Dance writes how, in the immediate aftermath of her staff member's death, she "felt the company was unknowingly rushing my grief." As a result, she "tried to ignore the flood of emails from HR, IT, and other departments."
However, when she finally spoke with a member of her IT department, the person "expressed her own feelings of grief and shared memories of working with our late staff member"—and that "unexpected interaction" assured Dance that her colleague's memory "would not be erased."
4. When hiring someone new, utilize the buddy system
When it came time to hire a replacement for Dance's deceased staff member, Dance writes that, through a discussion with her own manager, she wasn't yet ready to provide information to any potential new hires about the workplace culture, the deceased colleague, and more—she was still too entrenched in her own grief. As a result, she leaned on her team members for support throughout the hiring process.
"Nothing may really prepare you for what to say about your friend who you lost, but having a buddy during the hiring process can give you a boost of energy and support," Dance writes.
5. Keep the person's memory alive
"Find a way to honor your team member that best reflects the work they did and the work they would have done," Dance writes. You can do this by asking staff how they might want to see their colleague honored.
For Dance's part, it's been nearly a year since her colleague died, and her team is figuring out how to honor her legacy. One way they have so far is through donating more than $4,000 to her staff member's favorite charity.
According to Dance, her goal isn't to rush her staff's grief, but to let everyone know that it's OK to be sad when they pass their late colleague's desk or see a meeting invite with her name on it.
"It's alright to linger in the quiet moments when you remember the sound of her voice or laugh. We do not have to feel bad for laughing at stories or pictures of her," Dance writes. "As a team, we can keep her legacy alive by caring for the cancer survivors and volunteers who[m] she adored" (Dance, Harvard Business Review, 11/5).