Death Strikes the Office

coworkerRight now, my husband is dealing with a difficult situation.

His boss was diagnosed with cancer shortly after Thanksgiving, after not feeling well.

Last week, the staff got called to the hospital to say good bye, as her family didn’t think she would live through the night.

When I got home after work that evening, my husband was still visibly upset from the experience of seeing a formerly vibrant, strong leader completely incoherent and transparent as her body was making its last struggles. 

Not just a boss, this person has also been a great mentor and excellent manager.  The staff, including my husband, has a lot of affection, respect, and loyalty for her.  Even the president of the company came to the hospital room to pay his respects.  

Sadly yesterday, my husband got a text message that his supervisor had passed away this weekend. 

But anyone who has been in the workforce for a longer period of time has undoubtedly suffered an in-office loss.

But each time it happens, it still feels like a punch in the gut that takes the legs out from underneath you.

Personally, my first experience in death striking the office was when I was in my early 20s… a lovely woman who was our office manager and routinely thought of as our nurturing “mother hen” got cancer.  Her passing was shocking and marked the first time I dealt with death first-hand.

The next one was even more shocking as a co-worker at another office got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around Christmas time, and was dead within 3 weeks.

And the last time it happened, it was a dear friend / co-worker who also got cancer. After bravely fighting it for 6 months, she too passed away.

When death strikes the office, it has countless impacts in many different aspects of the office mates’ life.

The person is a colleague, and often a friend.

They are part of team; their absence is a missing link in that vital framework.

The daily workflow is completely disrupted – tasks that might have flowed through that person’s desk now start backing up in a circuitous eddy.

Uncertainty abounds- who is going to take over that person’s tasks? Now what?

But grief is an important part of this office process, and needs to happen.  It can manifest itself in many ways as most people have different approaches to handling the death. Numbness is common.   It’s not unusual for staff to suffer from a loss of productivity or absenteeism, as they are often distracted with their thoughts.

Then there are the weird things that need to be done.

Who gets the disturbing task of having to go through the co-worker’s personal effects and office/desk?

But there are ways to cope.  Organizing a memorial service can help provide closure and enable co-workers to share fond memories of the person.

Another thing that can be done is to set up a memorial at work- some kind of remembrance for the person including a donation in their name to charity, tree planting, or some other way to keep the memory of that person alive.

Reaching out to the deceased’s family with cards or flowers can also extend everyone in the office’s condolences.

Finally, larger offices often have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) which include counseling coverage, to help office workers process their feelings about the death.

The pain of the loss, like any death, is something that needs to be worked out individually, but by comforting each other and sharing feelings, this can help co-workers get through what is undoubtedly one of the most stressful times anyone could experience.