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How to Support Your Employees Grieving the Death of a Coworker

As one of the early adopters of Workplace Healing’s Human Recovery Platform™, Cohen-Esrey Development Group was able to spring into action with employee grief support immediately following the unexpected death of a coworker.

When Jay Johnson, an energetic and charismatic 31-year-old, died in his home in June, it sent shockwaves throughout his extensive network of friends and colleagues.

“Jay’s death was just a complete and total shock to our team,” says Lee Harris, CEO of Cohen-Esrey Development Group, which is headquartered in Merriam, KS. “I have never seen somebody that young so connected politically and otherwise. For such a young man, he had so many connections and developed many relationships that served him well—and served the company well.”

Described by his colleagues as “incredible” and “truly a character,” Jay was a development director for Cohen-Esrey based in San Antonio, TX. He was passionate about helping families find safe, affordable and quality housing. During his tenure, he was responsible for the development of 806 units across the cities of Texarkana and San Antonio, with 900 more units in the works. “He leaves a huge hole in our organization,” Lee says.

Putting the Human Recovery Plan to work.

As one of the early adopters of Workplace Healing’s Human Recovery Platform™, Cohen-Esrey was positioned to spring into action immediately to provide head and heart-based support to Jay’s many grieving coworkers.

“The Human Recovery Plan enabled us to be intentional about supporting our teammates,” Lee says. “We did not experience the kind of helplessness or awkwardness that so often occurs when a death like this happens. Instead, we had a series of steps that we developed and implemented to help with the grieving process.”

Marilee Scheid, Director of Learning & Development at Cohen-Esrey, who helped build the Human Recovery Plan (HRP) following Jay’s death, has since built plans for other life disruptions employees have experienced. “The HRP software is super simple and intuitive,” she says.

death of a coworker

Lee and his team chose a balance of head and heart-based tactics in the initial days and weeks to support employees grieving the death of their colleague, including:

  • Acknowledgment. The very next morning after learning about Jay’s death, the managing director pulled his team together to share the tragic news. Lee, who was in Florida, joined via Zoom. “It was very emotional. We excused employees for the day if they needed to go home,” he says.
  • Connection through storytelling. For the employees who chose to stay in the office, Cohen-Esrey brought in lunch. The team was able to express their grief and take time to exchange fond memories of Jay. “We recalled how he loved to travel solo and just meet people and befriend them,” Marilee says. “Jay used to say, ‘I’m the only millennial that hates technology.’ He wanted to talk to people. If I emailed him, he’d call me. He had a big smile and a big heart.”employee grief support, grief support
  • Company-wide messaging. After connecting with Jay’s immediate colleagues, Cohen-Esrey featured a front-page tribute to Jay in their company-wide newsletter. In addition to describing his impact on the company, the article highlighted Jay’s individuality and spirit: “Jay especially enjoyed working with neighborhood groups to gain support for the apartments he was developing. He loved travel, his dog ‘Tom Bruise,’ trying new foods, dapper clothes, the arts, and he was always up for an adventure.”
  • Logistical support. Because many of Jay’s closest colleagues were based in Kansas City, Lee made the company jet available to whoever wished to attend Jay’s memorial service in San Antonio. “Our team members who were able to go were thrilled they could take advantage of that. They said that they came away with a more complete feeling after attending Jay’s celebration of life,” Lee says.
  • In memory of. “We had just opened the first project that Jay worked on in San Antonio, and we built a playground that he insisted be a completely accessible playground for anyone with a disability. I understand it’s the first and only one in San Antonio,” Lee says. “We’re going to put a plaque on it — the Jay Johnson Memorial Playground—as another way to celebrate his life and help our team show respect. It is a way he can live on for his friends, family and our team.”
  • Listening to employee concerns. Although Jay didn’t have children, he did have a beloved dog. Marilee says that one of his colleagues expressed concern about what had become of him. They soon learned that Jay’s dog had been taken to a city pound, but no one had been able to locate him. “I couldn’t find him,” Marilee says. “The mayor actually helped find Jay’s dog and get him out of the pound. That’s how tight Jay was with the community there.”

Ongoing education with a human touch.

unexpected death, death of a coworker

Cohen-Esrey leadership also turned to their Workplace Healing Client Relationship Specialist for additional support when it came to crafting appropriate messaging related to bereavement and addressing questions that came up as they built their Human Recovery Plan.

“Our Client Relationship Specialist was amazing. One of the things that I learned is not to use the term ‘provide closure,’” Lee says. “She pointed out that people grieve in different ways and sometimes there’s closure for some people but others aren’t ready for that yet.”

Marilee agrees. “Little nuggets of information like that are really helpful, especially for those of us who don’t have the knowledge or experience that Workplace Healing has as we support team members going through the bereavement process.”

Strengthening corporate culture.

The Human Recovery Plan is an interactive solution for any innovative organization that prioritizes the health and well-being of its employees. It also ensures managers have access to the necessary tools and resources to confidently and successfully support their teams.grief support, Lee Harris

“We have five core values at Cohen-Esrey,” Lee says. “One of those is team member fulfillment. Workplace Healing is instrumental in helping us deliver this core value by enabling us to customize the kind of support that a team member needs during a grief event. It plays right into the foundational elements of our culture.”

Grief support at your fingertips.

Interested in exploring how Workplace Healing’s on-demand, 24/7 Human Recovery Platform™ can support your organization? We make it easy to learn more. Contact us to schedule a demo today.

Human Recovery Platform™, Human Recovery Plan, Workplace Healing

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