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4 ways to cope with the loss of a colleague

A few days ago, Sheryl Sandberg published a very candid Facebook post about what she has learned about grief since the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, last month. Her sentiments provided insight into a situation that many of us have come in contact with at work, but often don’t know how is best to react and show our sympathy. During the last few years, I have had the unfortunate task of helping my team deal with grief at work. Many of my teammates have lost a parent, child, or close friend, in addition to co-workers.

When tragedy strikes unexpectedly in the workplace, it can derail the entire team. Often times, work can be a distraction for us when we are grieving–a place where we can focus on something else and attempt to forget about the loss for a brief period of time. But when the person we lost is a co-worker, work only serves as a reminder of that person–from memories of conversations we had with them in the kitchen to noticing the absence of the energy they brought to meetings. As we sit and stare at the empty desk next to us that used to be filled with an incredible force of life, we can’t help but well up in tears.

On the other hand, the workplace can also provide an incredible community when we are grieving a common loss. Because we are experiencing it together, we don’t feel the isolation and awkwardness that Sheryl Sandberg describes having felt when she returned to work. There is no “elephant in the room” because everyone is grieving together. As a leader, managing grief in the workplace can be tricky, especially when the person who has passed away is a co-worker. From my personal experiences, here are some of the most important things I’ve learned:

Give people room to grieve
When there is a death in the office, it’s important to understand people are going to need time to work through it. Some people may only need a few hours, while others may need a week or even longer. Let people know it’s okay to take the space they need, and to encourage them to take a walk or talk to a co-worker if they need to clear their head. Assume productivity will decrease for at least a few days, and be okay with that. Invite in a grief counselor (be sure to vet them first) to be available for employees to talk to throughout the day.

Connect with their families
Often times, family members don’t have a sense of who we are at work–it’s not generally something we talk about with parents or friends. We lost two employees tragically at Yelp, both of who had very strong friendships with many of their co-workers. They were popular in the office due to their “joie de vivre” and ability to make anyone laugh. We decided to invite their families to the office, get to know their co-workers, and listen to stories about them. This gave the families a sense of how beloved their family member was in our office, and to our entire organization. Strong bonds can also be formed out of these introductions. I still keep in touch with a family member of one of the employees we lost, and value that relationship dearly.

Don’t judge the relationship
When someone dies, it can be easy to judge the reactions of others. Some people who barely knew the person will be greatly affected by the death. This may come as a surprise, or seem unnatural to other people in the office. Give people the day off to attend services and allow those affected by the death take some time off as well. It’s easy for a manager to assume someone who didn’t know the deceased person may be taking advantage of this time off. But remember, everyone grieves differently. One thing I have learned over the years is that the smallest interaction can have a huge impact on someone. So remember that even if a person didn’t know the deceased well, the grief they feel might be just as strong as someone who was much closer to them.

Don’t be afraid to grieve alongside your employees
As leaders, we need to be the rock for our teams. We lead them through adversity and calm them during chaos. But when someone in the office passes away, we may also be grieving ourselves. I still remember how I felt when I had to stand in front of 300 people and let them know one of their co-workers had passed away. I couldn’t hold back my tears as I gave them the news. I was incredibly sad about losing him, but also distraught for all of them; I knew how painful the next few weeks and months were going to be. For many of them, it was the first person they had ever lost. We have to remember that we, too, are human, and that it’s okay to show emotion.

Erica Galos Alioto is the senior vice president of Local Sales at Yelp.