Handling the Death of a Colleague
A tip sheet for journalists coping with the death of a colleague. Click here for an Arabic translation.
Few situations present greater challenges to a newsroom than the traumatic death of a colleague. While journalists are a resilient tribe, the death of a colleague will likely strain any news operation’s coping strategies, with ripple effects being felt far beyond the newsroom.
This tipsheet offers guidance on immediate issues that journalists may need to address following the violent death of a colleague.
UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES
Any sudden death comes as a shock and defies our ability to make sense of it. The complications only increase if the cause of the death is targeted violence.
Reactions differ greatly from individual to individual and often depend on how closely you identify with the event and person who has died. Even colleagues who are less close to the deceased or never met directly may have complicated feelings of grief and loss.
Recognizing emotional reactions for what they are - normal responses to an abnormal situation - can help minimize the impact. Some of these reactions include:
- Numbness or a sense of unreality, as if the event has not happened and the person is still alive
- Mood swings. Fluctuating between intense feelings of sadness and elation that you survived
- Lethargy or unusual feelings of exhaustion
- Persistently thinking about the event - including replaying it in your mind - even if you did not witness it directly
- Difficulties concentrating
- Feelings of guilt for having survived, or for not having done enough to protect others
- Avoiding reminders, and pushing away discussion of the event when others bring it up
- Intense anger directed towards perpetrators of the attack or others such as colleagues, family members or yourself
- Physical reactions such as bodily pains, dizziness, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath, or difficulty eating and sleeping
HEALTHY WAYS TO COPE
Decide how much you want to work on the story. The loss of a colleague makes the story personal. For some, reporting on these events can be disorienting, for others working on the short and on-going story can be helpful; getting to the truth can be a powerful way of commemorating a colleague or seeking redress. Consider how far you want to immerse yourself in the details. Be aware too that working on other stories involving trauma can be more challenging at times like this.
Seek and give social support. Research backs up what we instinctively know: in a crisis, human connection matters, and social support is a key factor in how well people cope with tragedy. Newsrooms that have lost a colleague have found it invaluable to come together around common activities. Reaching out to other newsrooms in distress can be helpful to you and to them.
Behave thoughtfully towards others. Everybody handles loss in a different way and at varying speeds. It is important to recognize that people’s personal coping styles may not be in sync. Some may need to talk things over again; others may do better by getting on with concrete tasks. Culture, gender, social class and generational background have a bearing on how people handle death.
Take care of everyday needs. Eating properly, and getting adequate sleep and rest are crucial to mitigating the body’s distress responses.
Keep to routines. When a crisis turns everything upside down, it can be tempting to suspend all routines. While things can’t – and shouldn’t – return immediately to business as usual, try to keep daily rituals and patterns as normal as possible. Routines help to anchor us in the present moment and enable us to handle what needs to get done now.
Pay heed to physical tension in your body. Exercise can be a great way of unwinding the physical tightening effects of distress. It also provides structure and can help shift mood. It doesn’t have to be intense: gentle stretching can help. Deep breathing from the diaphragm is perhaps the simplest and most direct way of releasing tension.
Be careful with alcohol, stimulants, and drugs. Alcohol may appear helpful at first but it is a depressant that impairs sleep and makes nightmares and intrusive images worse. Monitor how much you are drinking.
Remember to pursue pleasurable activities. In general, look for an outlet beyond work that takes you out of yourself and your preoccupations. Many people find seeking contact with nature - walking in a park or even just gardening - an effective way of shifting mood and perspective. Research shows that direct contact with the natural world has a measurable impact on how our hormonal and nervous systems handle stress.
Don’t shut yourself away. Taking time out for oneself is important, but be careful not to isolate yourself. Intense experiences can overwhelm our normal ability to process events. Research shows that maintaining connection with others is one of the most important ingredients for coping effectively with sudden trauma.
Have an outlet for unacknowledged feelings. Coming to terms with what has happened often requires confronting painful material. Push it away and it’s more likely to boomerang back later in a way that might be more problematic. Talking things through with people you trust is often very helpful. The simple act of writing can also be a powerful way of working through and re-ordering painful experiences. Scientific studies have found that keeping a personal journal is an effective way to tackle despair and depression.
Be gentle on yourself. You may find yourself thinking, saying or doing things that feel inappropriate. Feelings of guilt, while common, may well be disproportionate or unfounded. Some people blame themselves for not having done more to prevent the death, even if there was clearly nothing they could have done to make a realistic difference. Some people may feel guilty for having survived. In the case of a violent death, survivor elation, an intense feeling of relief that you were not killed is common. Try not to attack or blame yourself for having such reactions, or give too much credence to these thoughts. Acknowledge that mortality brings up confusing and contradictory feelings - and then focus on aspects of the situation you can control moving forward.
Handling thoughts about the perpetrator. You may have intense feelings of anger at the perpetrator. There is nothing wrong with anger in itself: it can fuel positive and meaningful action. But there could come a point when the feelings become so intense that they dominate everyday thinking in ways that corrode work performance and damage relationships.
HOW TO BE A SUPPORTIVE COLLEAGUE
Social support matters. Looking out for colleagues can be a powerful way of doing something positive and proactive in a crisis. The death of a colleague is likely to shake everybody in the newsroom. Death is a subject that many of us will feel hesitant to talk about. We might fear that we are going to sound insincere or trite, or feel that we are intruding in someone’s private space. Nevertheless, it is better to acknowledge what has happened in some simple way than to leave a person feeling isolated. Saying “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing. Traumatic experiences increase the tendency for people to retreat into themselves. There is a difference between being respectful of somebody’s need for personal space and giving the impression that you are avoiding them.
If you are concerned about a colleague, you might reach out and ask if they would like to talk. This is not a matter of playing amateur psychologist and “fixing” somebody: it’s about being fully present and listening in a way that helps the person feel connected to others.
Try the following:
- Find a time and place for a conversation where you won’t be interrupted
- Just listen and let them say what they want to say
- Remember being receptive and present is usually the simplest and most effective thing one can do
- If specific problems come up, invite them to brainstorm their own solutions
- Offer practical help with work or other things
- Offer more opportunities to talk and be together
- Digging for difficult feelings or immersive details of what happened
- Assuming you feel the same way they do, or know how they feel
- Giving unsolicited advice in the hope that you can fix things
- Offering unwanted religious perspectives
- Judging or trying to “correct” their feelings
- Telling your story without listening properly to theirs first
- Suggesting that they should have gotten over it by now
- Telling somebody how well you are coping, when the information has not been asked for
In general, remember that people tend to open up more in crises, so it is important to be mindful of boundaries. Respect the confidentiality of your conversations and don’t take advantage of the trust people may place in you. Moreover don’t forget your own self-care needs.
BE AWARE OF THE MAGNIFYING EFFECT
Trauma has a tendency to magnify patterns and emotions that may be lying under the surface. If you feel an argument developing, try not to fan the flame. Instead, see it as a cue to take a deep breath and make your point more gently. It is important that co-workers do what they can to avoid widening any fault-lines. Isolation and division will only increase the stress level and diminish a newsroom’s capacity to respond to external threats and stay on task.
Remember, too, that in a traumatic situation colleagues are more likely than usual to be negatively impacted by gossip or criticism, especially if it has an edge that is directed at their personalities, or centers on a perceived failure to respond appropriately during the crisis. Respect and courtesy become doubly important when the social fabric of a working environment is strained by a traumatic event.
Divisions may emerge over who has the “right” to speak for or about the deceased. For instance, colleagues who were particularly close to the deceased might find it irritating to hear others who didn’t know the person well, or who were even antagonistic towards them, talking about their own personal feelings of loss or confusion. A sudden traumatic death puts everyone in a difficult position. People may struggle to find the right words, or behave awkwardly or obstructively, without fully understanding how their emotions are directing their actions. They may become obsessive about minor issues that aren’t a priority to others.