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Death is Normal: Supporting Colleagues Through Loss

By Kiahnna D. Patton

Kiahnna D. PattonEveryone who lives will die.

Full stop.

Imagine a creepy-crawly you can’t see in the dark, the unknown of a seemingly bottomless ocean you can’t see the floor of, the anticipation of speaking in front of a crowd, or tapping the side of your head only to discover the sound and movement you felt in your inner ear was caused by a rogue spider! The hairs on your neck stand up! Death is Freddy Kruger, The Candyman, The Red Wedding, a knee on your neck. It’s unknown and the anticipation of it can be terrifying, just like the images conjured up in the previous sentences.

Among the many things we’ve dealt with over the past year, death has been a major one. Countless colleagues and friends have lost loved ones this year to the pandemic and unrelated causes, and death remains a feared and taboo topic. Many of us are ill-prepared to deal with closing out the numerous personal affairs of the deceased as well as our own emotions. It can feel overwhelming and complicated. Some of us decide to tough it out and deal with it alone. Some deal with portions of what we’re feeling and ignore, or perhaps not recognize, the other emotions that negatively affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Others seek help and heal in healthy ways. So, many scenarios are possible.

Last year, in the early days of the pandemic, I unexpectedly lost my father to cancer. My job was to close out his affairs. While I was more than happy to do the work, little did I know how much was involved and the extent to which that work would distract from my grieving and the healing I so desperately needed. I sought solace from a fabulous psychologist who helped me work through the grief. Then, exactly one month later, we lost the love of my brother’s life and sister to us. I was on again, handling business. Some people love to keep busy and cope with death in that way, but we have to be careful that our coping mechanisms don’t turn into avoidance that makes for an even longer runway for healing.

Death is not separate from life, meaning that we need not compartmentalize and avoid thoughts and feelings that pop up during work hours. After all, we bring our whole selves to work, not just a limb or organ. How then, can we support our colleagues through their healing? There are organizational resources and individual actions we can take to honor each other’s needs. They include:

  • Provide expansive and generous bereavement policies that allow for extended grieving
  • Recommend employee assistance programs to provide mental health benefits
  • Create a culture of psychological safety, which allows for individuals to be their whole selves without fear of negative consequences
  • Use an online service to send a meal to your colleague
  • Send a note to let your colleague know you are thinking of them
  • Give them space
  • Grant grace – emotions may be unpredictable, and regaining focus may be doubly hard

I suggest that when you experience loss, as best you can, give people a little guidance around how to interact with you. Sometimes you may want to communicate but not be bothered at the same time. I remember sending a text to friends to inform them of my father’s death and in the same text to say that I was not ready to talk. At work, I left the following automatic email reply:

“I’m grieving the loss of my first love and number one guy, my father Louis Patton, Sr. He was a magnetic personality, a great listener, a veteran, a singer and songwriter (google R&B group Side Effect), the most fantastic cook, my coolest dance partner, a political junkie, a friend to thousands, my inspiration to live my life on my own terms, my confidant, and my most enthusiastic cheerleader. I miss him dearly and have a bit of grieving to do. I will not respond to your emails in the immediate future, so please seek assistance from my wonderful teammates.

In mourning,

Kiahnna”

I received a little more space to grieve and do a bit of work by giving people the opportunity to empathize while signaling that I was unavailable. For those of you who have and will experience loss, I hope you will find your way to face it with courage and empathy for yourself and others.

Kiahnna D. Patton is senior human resources business partner at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and a nonprofit founder.

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