The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
I See Your Faces – Death at Work
One responsibility of a leader, and perhaps our greatest privilege, is to comfort the souls of those we lead through times of sorrow. Dealing with grief can be torturous. I’d rather hide. Take refuge behind a good movie. Just pretend all is well and move on.
That’s cowardice, and we all know it.
Intellectually, I understand death to be the more merciful ending. Spiritually, I recognize it as a new beginning. But the physical experience punches through my stomach, fingers up into my chest, and crushes my heart.
Nobody trained me to handle death, and my education never referenced it in the workplace. Even as a combat medic and engineer officer, we had no checklist telling us how to walk our troops through the valley. Hell, I can’t even write this post without stopping to dry my tears.
I lost another person today. Number five. No, not number five; his name was Fred. I will remember him as I have remembered all the others. I see their precious faces. They live in my Contacts, and each year, their date of death anniversary pops into my reality.
I see you, Dale S., Zarema, Dale D., Stacy. I will see you, too, Fred.
August 1, Dale W. You were my first. Who knew as you drove your bike into work that fateful morning that your life would be taken. You were way too young, and your best years were yet to come.
May 10, Zarema. I disliked you at first, but you grew on me. You cared about me, and I learned to care. Your pursuit of perfection challenged me to chase new heights. In 2005, you no longer felt pain. Your gain; our loss.
November 15, Stacy. You died a few weeks after I arrived. Only 27 years old. You infected people at work with enthusiasm. I remember your smile.
June 5, Dale D. We attended chapel together. Who would have known your drive home that evening would be your last? I recall the last thing you said about IT. “We save lives.” True words, my friend.
July 16, 2013, Fred. The testimonials at your funeral and memorial service said it all. You were humility coupled with old-school work ethic. Excellence and friendship defined your contribution. Your code lives in your kids and in your programs.
Leaders. Odds are you’ll have to deal with death in the workplace. Here are practical steps for when that time comes. Pain teaches much when we let it.
Care for surviving family
- Offer all support possible for an extended period
- Remain visible for an extended period
- Connect with Human Resources
Care for your staff
- Talk with staff openly
- Consider grievance counselors
- Leverage your employee assistance program
- Model and encourage the expression of condolences
Care for yourself
- Don’t hold back; talk about it
- Stay tight with your Human Resources
- Engage pastoral care staff
- Cry as needed
If possible, hold your own workplace memorial service. Often, staff is unable to attend the official memorial service due to timing and location. Engage your pastoral care staff and create your own. Allow people to share their feelings online and in person. This promotes healing.
Create a memorial wall for your office. The one in our lobby displays pictures of all who’ve left us. We recently added a forever-lit candle. Our memorial is accessible and visible any time we enter and exit the office.
See their faces.
Leaders bear the burden of visibility. Your presence is needed more than your presents. Make every attempt under the sun to attend funerals and all other memorial traditions. As a representative of your organization, take the lead and reach out to the family. Don’t hide behind your own insecurities, but instead, think of the family’s needs. Dependent on the circumstances, you might need to speak to those gathered and make family and friends aware of the workplace contributions by the deceased.
If you died, would you not want assurance that all the hours you put into your job meant something, especially at your funeral? Make it so for your deceased employee. Your words may very well spread like a comforting salve to the survivors.
Leaders do not forget the faces.
Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.