Work, Illness, and Loss

Serious illness and death can shock us in a workplace. When a co-worker becomes seriously ill or even dies, your productivity and the dynamics of the workplace are affected. You may have spent many hours with the person and consider her a friend – not just a co-worker. Illness and death touch people’s feelings about their work and workplace, their own lives and their fears about death and dying.

Dealing with illness and death can be difficult. What can you do if someone you work with is seriously ill, or dies?


Respect the sick person’s desire for privacy. How much or how little of a sick person’s illness is disclosed is for the individual and his supervisor to decide. Rather than speculate, ask your supervisor if you have questions. A co-worker who is ill may frequently be absent from work. You or others may have to fill in. You want to be a good person – but it’s OK to feel some resentment at the extra work you have to do.

Discuss the situation privately with your supervisor. Your supervisor may not be aware of the level of effort others are undertaking to “cover” for the person who is ill. Remember: anything that affects your performance has the potential to affect not only your work and career, but your supervisor’s. Your boss can help you share the burden and possibly offer additional resources.

Maintaining office connections. A co-worker’s illness reminds us of our own mortality. Sometimes we shy away from a sick person as though the condition was contagious. Make sure the sick person is included in key meetings or invited to social gatherings. He or she may decline, but the gesture is important.

Keeping contact with an absent co-worker. For the seriously ill person, the connection to work can be vitally important. Sharing office business and staff news keeps the person from feeling isolated. The difficulty is to maintain this connection while balancing the desire for privacy – and the effects of the disease on the sick person’s energy. Some suggestions:

  • Stay in touch. Your presence in the person’s life is more important than the specific steps you take. Some companies “pitch in” and offer shopping, visiting or vacation time to co-workers who are ill.
  • Designate one person to be the office liaison, responsible for passing along information on how the sick person is doing; what he or she needs; and how much contact he or she feels up to.
  • Encourage your supervisor to call and/or visit. Encourage cards, letters or food deliveries that don’t require the sick person to actively interact. An informal office video in which everyone says hello or gives their own messages can work wonders.

These activities not only maintain a connection with the sick person, but can help with office morale and create a sense of community in the face of a crisis.


People who work together are like extended families and, when a person dies, friends and co-workers grieve. When the death is unexpected, as from violence or an accident, it can be particularly traumatic.

The grieving process. Feelings and symptoms of grief can take weeks, months and even years to manifest and evolve. People don’t heal on a timetable, but over time the painful emotions do ease. The brief time given to attend the funeral only touches the beginning stages of grief.

Some of the expressions of grief include: shock, denial, anger, guilt, anxiety, sleep disorders, exhaustion, overwhelming sadness and concentration difficulties. THESE ARE NORMAL AND NATURAL emotions but often scary experiences for the griever. Everyone’s experience is unique, but most feel one or more of these emotions. The extent, depth and duration of the journey depends on how close people were to the person who died; the circumstances of the death; and their own situation.

The grief journey is a time when the person is finding a new balance in life (which doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be the same — but it can be good) and growth (readiness to move ahead with one’s life).

Take the time to grieve. You and your co-workers will need time to grieve. Some things you might consider:

  • Attend the funeral or memorial service.
  • Consider a memorial board. A photo, card, a favorite joke, a story or a special item the person kept on his/her desk can be a way to remember.
  • Hold or participate in a fundraiser for a special cause or for the family of the deceased.
  • Create a book of memories to give to the family. Many people are not aware of the work-life of people they love. These will be unique memories for the family – and a way for you to privately express feelings and memories.
  • Conduct a workplace-only event. A luncheon or office-only memorial is a chance for co-workers to acknowledge their unique relationship with the deceased.

People experience grief differently. You – or a co- worker who was particularly close to a person who died – may feel depressed, absent-minded, short-tempered or exhausted. These are all normal feelings.

Creating healthy memories is part of healing. Some people find talking about the deceased helps them manage their grief. Others keep to themselves.  Respect the fact that others may feel more or less strongly than you – or cope differently.

A death generates questions and fears about our own mortality. If a co-worker dies, you may feel guilty or angry at the person, at life or at the medical profession. It may cause you to question your own life. These are normal emotions. Be aware of how you react to a deceased co-worker’s replacement. Your anger and disappointment at her performance, personality or work style may be less a function of the individual than your grief about the person they are replacing.

Get help if you have trouble coping with the loss of your co-worker or if you find that your work is suffering. A lag in your performance could be a signal that this loss is affecting you more profoundly than you thought.


Adapted from a brochure developed by the Hospice Council of Metropolitan Washington.



Evergreen offers individual and group support for anyone in the community who is experiencing the pain of loss through death. Professional staff and trained volunteers are also available to come to the workplace to talk about grief issues. We maintain a library at the office – and even more resources are available on our website (