Death at the Worksite: Helping Grieving Family Members

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

With heart disease on the rise in this country, it is not surprising that fatal heart attacks occur in the workplace. Other deaths — from accidents, for example — can also happen during working hours. Thus, it is important that employers know in advance how to deal with such crises, not only to avoid disruption in workflow, but also to address the needs of the families and co-workers involved.

Few responsibilities are more difficult for managers than that of informing the family about an employee’s death at work. When an employee dies on the job, the manager suddenly takes on new and unfamiliar tasks that require immediate attention. After the call to 911, the family needs to be notified — a difficult but necessary task. Who will do it? What should be said? If you are a manager or supervisor, below are some tips.

Advance Planning

  • Understand Your Own Response to Death

Understanding your personal response to death can reduce your anxieties and help you feel more confident during this stressful time. Consider your first experience with the finality and pain of death and grief. The more you understand your own personal experience, the more you will be able to anticipate your reactions when helping others. You will be able to put your anxieties aside, and reach out more comfortably to bereaved co-workers and family members.

  • Acquaint Yourself with the Process of Grief

To gain a better understanding of what grieving people experience, read books such as: Living When A Loved One Has Died by Earl Grollman, or The Mourning Handbook by Helen Fitzgerald. A summary of workplace grief issues is found in the American Hospice Foundation’s: Grief at Work: A Guide or Managers and Employees, which can be ordered on our Publications and Products page.

  • Review Corporate Policies

Refresh your knowledge of corporate policies relating to bereavement. The family may want to know how the company can be of assistance. Model corporate policies are described in the American Hospice Foundation’s Grief at Work Resource Manual, which can be ordered on our Publications and Products page or by calling 202-223-0204.

Ask the Employee Assistance Professional (EAP) or human resources department to prepare a list of the tasks that must be done after a death in preparation for a funeral. The list may include tasks which the company or EAP may help to:

      • Arrange to transport those arriving at airports or train stations for the funeral.
      • Find places for out-of-town relatives and friends to stay nearby.
      • Look after the needs of the children.
      • Help out with funeral arrangements.

When the Death Occurs

Your employee has just collapsed at her desk. You make a call to 911, and you have requested that the EAP come to spend time with the employee’s co-workers. The body of your employee has been taken to the hospital where she probably will be pronounced dead. Someone needs to notify the family. Below are hints to help you in this difficult task.

  • Know the Details

The family will have a lot of questions and will ask for detailed information. Before you call or visit them, learn as many details about the incident as you can. Get the facts or find out where you can get them. Take a pad with you to jot down questions that you will need to follow-up on. If your employee has been taken to a hospital, be prepared to meet the family members there and plan to stay with them for a period of time, at least until other family members, friends or neighbors arrive.

  • Be As Relaxed As Possible

Dress comfortably (if possible) to be as relaxed as you can. If you do not have an opportunity to change clothes, it would be okay to take your tie or jacket off. Avoid any artificial relaxants like alcohol or sedatives. You need to be as clear-headed as possible.

  • Clear Your Schedule

Clear your schedule so that you can stay with the family for as long as needed. If you are on a tight schedule, let the family know how long you can stay, and help them find someone who can be with them after you leave, such as a friend or relative.

  • Take Another Person With You

Consider taking another person with you. This might be an EAP counselor, a policeman, a friend, or a clergyman. A second person can provide moral support, not only for the family, but for you, too. This person can:

    • Share in the hard decisions that may come up.
    • Lend a second pair of eyes and ears to assess what is happening.
    • Serve as a backup just in case you forget some important detail.
    • Help in case the family becomes upset.
    • Debrief after the visit is over.

At the Home

If you do not meet the family at the hospital, plan to go to the home to deliver the sad news. Don’t be surprised at your own anxiety; this is a tough job. Upon arrival:

  • Be Seated

Ask if you can come in and if you can sit down. Invite the family members to do so as well, as this will indicate that you are going to be there for a while.

  • Be Aware of Your Facial Expressions

The serious expression on your face is going to be a strong clue that something is wrong. This will help prepares the family members and let them know this is not a social call.

  • Avoid Small Talk

Without small talk, take a few seconds to build up to the death news, saying something like “Hello, John. I regret that I am bringing some sad news,” or “I am sorry to be the one to tell you that Betty had a heart attack at work this morning and died.”

  • Don’t Rush

Speak slowly, giving simple, factual information. Give people time to absorb what you have told them. Let them know you can stay for a while and invite questions. You may have to repeat the story several times, as family members try to absorb what you have said. They are hearing you; but they may still be in shock and not believe the news yet.

  • Consider the Health Status of Family Members

If you have prior information about the health of the family members, it might be wise to contact the family physician or therapist. Otherwise, watch the physical reactions of the family and suggest professional help if you see some of the following: unusually pale skin color, persistent sweating, shortness of breath, continued hysteria, vomiting, twitching of facial muscles, or any other symptom that causes you to feel discomfort.

  • Prepare for Varying Reactions

Be prepared for many different reactions, such as anger, tears, disbelief, screaming, total calm, or physical blows. People react in such varying ways and there is no way to predict their emotions under such circumstances.

  • Review Company Policy with Family

If it feels appropriate, review certain parts of the company policy that pertain to the family’s immediate needs and assure the family of the company’s support. Alert them that airlines offer lower rates to close relatives who need to fly to a funeral.

  • Don’t Forget the Children

Don’t forget the special needs of any children who may be there. Help the adults tell them what happened and invite questions. During time of crises, children often hide in their room, under the bed or in the closet. If you noticed children earlier, inquire as to whether the family would like them to be involved in the conversation.

  • Help With Phone Calls

If you feel comfortable, ask if you can help with some phone calls. Help the family call those who may need to be notified immediately, such as other family members and friends, the family physician, clergyman, and funeral director. People who will need to be notified later include: cemetery personnel, pallbearers, insurance agents, attorneys, newspapers, and possibly, the children’s school. Look for friends or relatives who can be with the family when you leave.

Hopefully, you will seldom, if ever, have to deal with the death of an employee on the job. But if and when it happens, you don’t want to be caught off guard. Other employees will be watching what you, and will consciously or unconsciously form judgments about you and your company. Preparing now for such eventualities will create an opportunity for you and your company to gain heightened respect and loyalty.