Coping with a Sudden Death in the Workplace

The loss of a loved one shatters our reality — even more so when it is unexpected, without warning.

Not surprisingly, there are many resources devoted to helping folks cope with the loss of a loved family member, but what do you do when the loss is in the workplace? There are often uncomfortable yet necessary conversations that need to take place, at seemingly the worst time imaginable.

Recently, our office of five suffered a nearly unbearable blow when our coworker and friend, Nathan Osburn was tragically killed in a car collision.

A father-of-four and only 42 years old, Nathan’s death hit the entire Denver community hard — the driver was high on marijuana and methamphetamine, fell asleep at the wheel and veered into oncoming traffic before striking Nathan. The first few days and weeks after his death, we walked around in shock and anger at what had happened to us, and to our office — our family-away-from-family.

We looked to each other with disbelief that our tiny little bubble had been shattered. Most of all, we looked to each other for guidance. What do we do? Who do we call? How do we move on? Where is the handbook for how to rebuild our business after a loss of such magnitude?

Nathan was killed by an impaired driver while walking in his own neighborhood, at four in the afternoon. He was young, a father — in the prime of his life. We struggled with anger, and disbelief that such a tragedy could hit so close to home, and could happen to a person who, on paper, did everything right.  And most of all, how do we replace him? Do we replace him? How does a business survive when one of the supporting pillars has crumbled?

The following are a few key things our business did to move on from such an unspeakable loss. While painful to have had to go through this loss, we wish there had been a roadmap — some kind of guide to help us in this tragic situation. If you find yourself in a similar circumstance, we are so sorry, and I hope these will help you:

Have a contingency plan

When I worked in the corporate world, there was constant planning and preparing for an emergency. In fact, often there was an entire team whose sole job was planning for every type of disaster or potential loss of business. We had backups of backups, computers off site, and literal books on whom to call, when every imaginable emergency hit. But what if you are a sole proprietor? Or team of two?  Or five? Or 10?

The answer is the same. Have a backup plan. Take the time to have a written document that includes not only what you do as part of the day-to-day operations in your business; but also whom you call and what to do in the event of an emergency.  Planning for death in our personal lives is often tough and taboo. It is nearly unheard of in the workplace. Having plans in place on what to do when things go wrong will save your loved ones (both family and business) much stress and worry.  It will also help in the case of future training. If your partner decides to retire, having a written account of everything that he or she does on a daily basis will help immensely with training a new partner.

Take time to grieve

Just because the person you lost was not a member of your immediate family does not make their loss less important in your life. It took me a couple of weeks after we lost Nathan to realize that trying to “tough it out” wasn’t working for me. While putting our business on hold was not an option, taking time to process my feelings of grief, while I wasn’t in the workplace, was. And it helped more than I realized at the time.

Treating the loss of my coworker and friend with the same importance as the loss of a family member made it easier to process, and eventually became a starting place for how to move on. Taking the time outside of work hours to work through my grief also gave me the opportunity to focus on rebuilding our business during office hours, which made my working hours far more effective. 

Reach out for help

After our loss, I kept looking around for someone to tell me what to do. What is the next right step? Who do we call?  Is there someone to call? Do I bother Nathan’s family with this? The next right step for our office may not be the next right step for yours, and it may take a series of wrong steps to get on the right path. Do not get discouraged.  There is no wrong way to move forward.

Is there someone who could help guide you? I’d say it’s likely.  Don’t be afraid to bring in a third party for advice. If you find yourself in a position like we did, it’s likely you may not be an expert. Why not ask someone who can help? In our case it was a combination of our own expertise, as the one who built the business; as well as an expert on processing grief in the workplace. Searching for, and ultimately bringing in, a new partner with a completely different personality than Nathan helped. It brought new energy into our office, giving all of us the jolt to get back into a routine that we didn’t know we needed. 

Embrace the new normal

It’s been so easy since our loss to look back on our time with Nathan with rose-colored glasses and wax poetic about how things could have been. I’ve come to realize that while reminiscing about our friend and how wonderful he was is good and cathartic, living in the past is not. Things were not perfect then and they are not perfect now. Life is perfectly imperfect even in the workplace.

Accepting that the good things that have happened to us since he left us — and have happened because we suffered a loss —  has helped. Looking back on how far we have come and grown as a group since our loss has also helped. I’m happy to say now that things are looking good and we are starting to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel. But it hasn’t been without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

Focusing everyday on moving forward for the better, while learning from our mistakes, keeps me coming back to the office. I know that is what Nathan would have wanted. In short, what my grandparents (and probably yours, too) always preached to me is true: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” The new normal for our company looks pretty good, and accepting that it will never be the same (both good and bad) was the first step.