How to manage in times of grief

A study of the recent tragedy at the Co-op shows need for quick action


Photo illustration by Paul Moore

Compassion, communication and empathy are crucial elements immediately after a tragedy in the workplace.

Employees spend enormous amounts of time with each other.

They often joke with one another to get through the day. They make plans to barbecue over the weekend. They go out to lunch together. Over countless deadlines and terrible cups of coffee, they become friends.

Then one day tragedy strikes. Tragedy brings loss, which triggers grief and it doesn’t matter what form the tragedy takes, tragic circumstances isolate and devastate.

Sandy Levey-Lunden, a Bellingham-based grief and loss counselor who has worked across the country and internationally for more than 28 years, said businesses are equipped to handle the most volatile of situations in their industries, but when a tragic personal loss descends on a workplace, employers are faced with a situation they are often not equipped to handle.

However, Levey-Lunden said grief in the workplace offers employers a unique opportunity.

“They can show how they will take responsibility for everything that happens in the workplace and demonstrate that they care,” Levey-Lunden said.


The first step: open communication

Levy-Lunden said she has counseled thousands over the years who suffered from grief and loss, and no matter what the loss, the most important tool is communication.

First, Levey-Lunden said, employers need to make employees aware that a loss has been suffered by a co-worker, and they need to recognize who has been affected and to what extent. Next, she said, is to allow employees to talk about feelings either with counselors or amongst themselves away from customers.

“A lot of people go to work and don’t share what is in their deepest heart,” Lunden said. “This can be the beginning of an illness because it got pushed down and festered.”

Lunden said people try to fool themselves into thinking no one cares about their pain but if employees talk about their feelings, a measure of healing can begin.

“We need to allow ourselves to be cared about,” Lunden said. “If we feel that no one cares, then the grieving will get even stronger.”


Tragedy at the Community Food Co-op

Disastrous loss comes in many forms.

On Feb. 24, 2008, Jeff Calvert, finance manager for the Bellingham Community Food Co-op for seven years, shot his ex-girlfriend at her Port Angeles home and then turned the gun on himself.

Deborah Craig, human resources manager for the co-op, said Calvert’s name was in the news online before it was in newsprint, so the co-op management did have some advanc notice before it was widely public knowledge.

“I remember I immediately started to hyperventilate,” Craig said. “When we found out we all had to calm each other down.”

Craig said the general manager was on vacation, but she met with the available managers to discuss a plan to deal with the media and to communicate what had happened to the co-op’s employees.

They went to Calvert’s department first.

“These were the people who worked closest with him,” Craig said. “They were very upset.”

Craig noted that different employees had very different reactions to the news. She said some people had an immediate reaction to the news while others had a more delayed response.

“The people that had to take on [Calvert’s] workload were calm right away but a month later, were not as strong,” Craig said.

After that, the co-op’s management tried to verbally inform as many employees individually as they could while they worked or as they came onto their shifts.

“We told everyone to feel free to have a moment off the floor and sit by themselves,” Craig said.

Craig said they also wanted to alert employees that there would be some media attention surrounding this event and that they did not have to talk if they didn’t want to.


Seeking help from grief experts

One of the first things the co-op’s management did when it heard about the tragedy, Craig said, was to immediately call Employee Assistance Program, a division of St. Joseph Hospital and a regional nonprofit that specializes in advising management how to manage employees and media during any situation, big or small.

Dennis Dashiell, lead employee assistance professional with Employee Assistance Program, said violent and tragic situations aren’t any business’s specialty.

“It’s not their usual excellence,” Dashiell said. “It’s our usual excellence.”

Craig said the program immediately dispatched two grief counselors to the co-op who began to touch base with employees and see if they could assist them in any way.

“They were there within 30 minutes,” Craig said.

The counselors set up off-site and employees were encouraged with talk with the counselors as needed.

Dashiell said he has assisted businesses through industrial accidents, shootings and serious and fatal accidents. He said they first determine what the employer wants to communicate and how they want to communicate it.

“We go about scripting how we want to have the conversation,” Dashiell said.

Dashiell said the mode of communication is especially important.

“One company thought they were being fast and sent news of an employee’s death by e-mail — it was not taken well,” Dashiell said.

Craig said the employee assistance professionals assisted with the management of employees and took some of that responsibility off the management.

“We had our stuff to deal with too,” Craig said.


In the weeks afterward

Craig said the co-op’s management wondered how they might bring about some closure for their employees.

“Some suggested some kind of ceremony, but a memorial didn’t seem appropriate,” Craig said.

Instead, they set out a bowl of water with a stack of dissolvable paper so employees could write down anything they wanted to let go of in relation to the incident and place it in the water.

“People needed to have some kind of closure,” Craig said. “That was an event to say ‘OK, now I can not feel this way all the time.’ ”

The co-op also set up an information table for Bellingham’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) and matched all employee donations to the agency.

“We wanted to do something that stayed in our community but went out broader than just one family,” Craig said. “The DVSAS donations were very well received.”

Craig said it was interesting how the event brought up different emotions and memories of past traumas for everyone as they dealt with the event.

“This ordeal triggered feeling and memories of things people have been through,” Craig said. “You have to recognize that people are going to process things differently.”

Craig said Employee Assistance Program and its grief counselors can give a business like the co-op helpful information on the steps of grief — and in the co-op’s case, they were skilled at spotting when someone might need additional help.

Dashiell said one of the most important things the Employee Assistance Program did was remind employees that grief is a process and not to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Instead, take the time to grieve in an emotionally healthy way.

“We remind people to touch base with their pastor or take that run or take a little family time.”


DOs and DON’Ts in times of grief and loss



  • Periods of exercise alternated with periods of relaxation
  • Supplement diet with Vitamins C, B2, B6, Calcium and Magnesium
  • Consume complex carbohydrates to rebuild the body’s resources
  • Structure your time — keep busy with things that make you feel good
  • Talk to people — talk is the most healing medicine
  • Keep a journal



  • Don’t make big life changes immediately
  • Don’t isolate yourself
  • Don’t label yourself weak or crazy
  • Don’t consume junk food, drugs and alcohol

Information courtesy of Employee Assistance Program

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