In focus

Stephen Colbert is mourning the death of his assistant – how do you properly grieve a colleague?

American chat-show host Stephen Colbert was clearly grieving on air this week. Many people know what a difficult thing that is to do in the workplace, where there is a wide range of emotions to deal with, writes Katie Rosseinsky, but it’s essential to try

Sunday 07 April 2024 06:00 BST
Working through the sorrow: the death of a colleague can provoke a complicated form of grief
Working through the sorrow: the death of a colleague can provoke a complicated form of grief (Getty)

Monday night’s edition of Stephen Colbert’s late-night US talk show ended on a sombre note. The usually chipper host of The Late Show asked the audience to hold their applause, then appeared choked up with emotion as he briefly said goodbye, before leaving the studio in silence. What the people in the crowd didn’t know was that Colbert was mourning the loss of his long-time colleague Amy Cole: the executive assistant, who worked for the presenter for 16 years, had died a few days earlier at the age of 53. When Monday’s show aired on American TV, it concluded with a black title card dedicating the episode “to our dear friend”.

Grieving for a colleague – whether they were a good friend, a mentor or simply someone you might have nodded to in the kitchen – can be a complicated process to navigate. Any death inevitably forces us to think about our own mortality, but if the deceased was a co-worker, then their passing was probably untimely. If they were of a similar age or life stage to you, then the confrontation can feel especially stark; it’s hard not to think about the plans they had, and the things they’ll never get to do. And then there’s the fact that we lack “a clear template or expectation” when it comes to dealing with this situation, according to Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at the palliative care and bereavement support charity Sue Ryder. Often grieving colleagues are forced to coldly consider the practicalities – who else can make sense of the spreadsheets? Who can fill their job? – before they’ve even had time to decipher how they’re feeling.

When we lose a family member, we’re expected and even encouraged to take some time off to deal with our grief in private; we help to plan their funeral, think of ways to keep their memory alive and do all we can to get some form of closure. And we’re treated with empathy, as others can clearly understand the magnitude of that loss. But a working relationship is more difficult to categorise: it “often involves a mix of professional and personal dynamics”, Neumann says, “making it hard to navigate your emotional investment in the relationship”. It’s a bond that can be difficult to sum up to others. So if that person dies, you might not even feel like you’re entitled to the emotions you’re experiencing. “I didn’t know them that well,” your reasoning might go. “So am I overreacting? And does everyone else think I’m overreacting?”

Our co-workers are woven into the fabric of our lives. Their messages are sometimes the first thing we read in the morning, and their camaraderie and in-jokes can get us through the most stressful of times. Consider them this way, rather than as “just someone from work”, and it’s no surprise that their sudden loss might feel “like an assault on our sense of safety and certainty”, as counsellor registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Georgina Sturmer puts it. Hybrid working might mean that we see our colleagues less than we did before the pandemic, but “whether it’s in a physical location or not, you’re still spending a lot of time communicating with a colleague – maybe a lot more [time] than you would with close relatives”, adds Noel Bell, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.

Even if your relationship with your colleague “wasn’t particularly close or positive”, Neumann says, it’s “entirely normal to experience a range of emotions” – shock, confusion and even guilt are all to be expected. “Difficult feelings can often stem from grieving the relationship that you were never able to have, or knowing that any chance of reconciliation in the future has now gone,” she adds. And the experts highlight one response as particularly common, especially if the death came as a shock: replaying your final interaction with the deceased (and stewing over it). If you inadvertently ended things on a sour note, hearing those words echo around your head will probably only compound that sense of guilt.

A situation like this “presents us with a clash of relationships, expectations, boundaries and behaviour”, explains Sturmer. “In most [work] circumstances, we have an implicit understanding of what ‘professional’ behaviour looks like, even if we don’t always live up to it,” she adds. Outbursts of emotion don’t tend to be considered office-appropriate. In fact, most of us bring a tempered down version of ourselves to work, which Sturmer likens to wearing “a professional mask”; this can help us to “be assertive and to command respect”, or to maintain a little distance between your work life and your “real” life. But the death of a colleague, she adds, “represents a moment when our personal world spills over into our professional one” – when the sort of messy, difficult feelings that we’re more used to dealing with in private, away from our co-workers, impinge on office life.

Stephen Colbert appeared emotional on air after the death of staffer Amy Cole
Stephen Colbert appeared emotional on air after the death of staffer Amy Cole (CBS/YouTube)

The “professional mask” we’ve so carefully developed, Sturmer says, “can get in the way” at times like these. It “can stop us from connecting with our feelings and expressing them”, for fear of looking vulnerable, and therefore somehow less resilient and reliable, and it “might also stop us from seeking out the support and solidarity of colleagues”. This can be especially marked in companies where the culture is one of relentless competition and comparison between peers, the sort of place where everyone is constantly jostling to be seen as having the edge.

All businesses should have a bereavement policy, which might allow workers to gain support from HR or from external counsellors, notes Jane Murray, a bereavement services manager for end-of-life care charity Marie Curie. But “when there’s that competitive edge, you compare yourself to each other and think, ‘well, he doesn’t need [extra support], he seems to be OK. So why am I being vulnerable?’”. It’s important, she says, that workers are encouraged to access these services, and that they don’t “feel like a failure” for doing so.

Difficult feelings can often stem from grieving the relationship that you were never able to have

Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at Sue Ryder

Managers need to acknowledge, too, that no one does their best work in the aftermath of a bereavement. “Grief affects your ability to concentrate and focus for a period of time,” Murray says. “So, depending on how close you were to that person, it may well affect your ability to do those spreadsheets, add up those numbers, or whatever it is [you do] … Everyone in the team needs to be aware of that and just be gentle with each other.” The harsh reality is that often this is much easier said than done: these days, unfortunately, most companies rely on their employees working to their absolute maximum, all the time, and simply aren’t structured to make allowances when this isn’t possible.

If you’re still struggling to process your feelings, getting involved in any plans to commemorate your colleague might help, Bell suggests. “Find a way to honour their memory, whether it’s something being done as a group or organisationally,” he says: planning this might be a useful outlet for “sharing your feelings and talking about what they meant to you”. Those feelings, Sturmer adds, “are valid, whatever they are”, so you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about them. “There’s no set framework for how we can and should process our grief,” she says. “Find ways to express and explore what you’re feeling, so that it doesn’t stay locked up inside and left to fester.”

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