One responsibility of a leader, 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 or stiff drink. Just pretend all is well. Move on. Quickly.
That’s cowardice, and we know it.
Intellectually, I understand death can be the 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 at work. My education never referenced workplace tragedy. 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.
Three years ago I lost another person. Number five. No, not number five; his name is Fred. I will remember him as I have remembered all the others. I see their precious faces. They live in my contacts. Each year, their death anniversary pops into my reality and I think of them. Pause.
I see you, Dale S., Zarema, Dale D., Stacy. I see you, too, Fred.
Valuable, beautiful, precious faces.
August 1, Dale W. You were my first. Who knew as you drove your bike into work that fateful morning your life would be stolen. 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 for you. 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.” Those words remain alive years later in Dallas, NYC and now Cleveland.
July 1, 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 literally lives on in your kids and in your programs that still run today.
Fellow leaders, odds are you’ll have to deal with death in the workplace. Here are practical steps I learned the hard way 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 unashamedly
If possible, hold your own workplace memorial service. Often, staff is unable to attend the official memorial service due to timing and location. Engage pastoral care staff and create your own. Allow people to share their feelings online and in person. This honors life and promotes healing.
Create a memorial wall for your office. In Dallas, our lobby displayed pictures of all who’ve left us surrounded by forever-lit candles. The memorial is visible as visitors and employees enter and exit the office. A few months after landing a prized recruit, I asked him why he chose us over competing offers. “When I arrived for my interview, the lobby elevators opened and I saw my dad. A company who remembers my Dad years after his death, is a company I want to work for.” Unknown to me, his Dad had served with us prior to my arrival and was our first co-worker honored in death. A bond was formed that day unlike any other.
See their faces.
Leaders bear the burden of visibility. Your presence is needed more than your presents. Make every attempt to attend funerals and all memorial traditions. As a representative of your organization, take the lead and reach out to the family. Don’t hide behind your insecurities. Think of the family’s needs. Dependent on circumstances, speak to those gathered and make family and friends aware of the workplace contributions by the deceased.
We spend over a third of our lives at work. When you die, you would want loved ones to know that all the hours you worked were meaningful. Create this opportunity. Your words are comforting salve to family, friends and co-workers.
Leaders never forget the faces.