An article recently published by the BBC discussed how employers handle the death of a colleague – Abi Pattenden reflects here…
Freeman Brothers has been based in West Sussex since 1855. We see our role as funeral directors as being a resource to the communities we serve in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. We hope that we are not only available to offer a caring, compassionate and professional service at a time when someone has died, but that also we are able to provide assistance at other times, often by bringing our expertise to wider issues surrounding death, dying, and bereavement. The BBC News website recently featured an article called ‘What do you do when a Colleague Dies’, which you can read here, and Manager Abi Pattenden discusses her own experiences with this issue and offers a funeral director’s perspective on the issues it raises.
Unfortunately, I have had several experiences of the loss of a colleague during my professional career, and they have taken several different forms. In my previous job, before working at Freeman Brothers, two of my colleagues died. One of these deaths was completely unexpected, and very tragic, being of Paul*, a young man in his 20s who suffered a fall on a night out with friends, and who died after several days in hospital on a life support machine. Although I didn’t know him well, as he worked in another team, many of my friends and close colleagues knew him better due to having worked with him prior to a restructure which had separated his role from the team in which I worked, shortly before my arrival in the company. In the same role, one of the members of the team I managed, Brian, received a terminal diagnosis and ultimately left his role to undergo end-of-life care. I have also experienced the same situation while at Freeman Brothers when one of our funeral arrangers was diagnosed with cancer which ultimately led to her death in St Catherine’s Hospice.
In both of the first two cases, I was obviously working for the same company – a large multi-national who, at that point, employed thousands of staff in several large and small sites across the UK as well as overseas. Therefore I think it would have been very easy to feel as Carina describes in the article. However, both deaths were dealt with as well as possible, in my opinion. In both cases, staff were allowed time off to attend the funerals without question. In the case of Brian, we were also allowed to finish work early or take time out of the day to visit him in the hospice, if we wanted to. We had bake sales to raise money for the charity that Paul’s family had chosen in lieu of flowers, and the Hospice which had cared for Brian. When Brian had to leave work, his desk was left empty for a while and then senior management collaborated with his very close colleagues about how to manage the physical absence. Ultimately, we had a reshuffle of the office which seemed to be a good solution. Ironically, this company was not so good at dealing with bereavement over a longer-term basis: I remember one of my team was refused a day’s leave on the first anniversary of his father’s death, for example.
Freeman Brothers is a much smaller company – at the time that Lucy died there were about 22 staff in total – and, of course, all of her colleagues had much more experience of death and bereavement. However, this brought its own issues. Many of the funerals we arrange are for people who we don’t know, and knowing the person who has died is a very different matter. This is not a unique experience; because we are a small company with a longstanding presence in our local communities, we do often serve families more than once over time, and it is not unusual for those families to ask to see the same arranger, or have the same staff carrying out the funeral, where it can be managed. This is, of course, a massive compliment, but it can feel different to arrange a funeral for someone you have met. Most funeral directors would probably tell you that their job, to an extent, gets forgotten when they are bereaved themselves, but someone who you know but aren’t mourning is somewhere in the space in between.
Lucy was quite a private person; I found out much more about her early life from the eulogy at her funeral than I had known about it from the several years I worked with her. When a person is ill, they may still well want or need to work, and in her case, she carried on with her role (although sporadically) until she was really quite ill. This raises all kinds of questions over the information which is given to colleagues, both while the person is still at work and if they need to leave. In the scenario described in the news article, there is no way of knowing whether Miguel’s company was respecting his wishes in leaving his colleagues uninformed of his changing health status. That Carina wanted to know more than she was told is not evidence that she should have been told it. This might put the employer in a difficult position, knowing that the lack of information given to Miguel’s colleagues about his illness would inevitably complicate the communication that he had died, but having to respect his wishes above all others.
Of course, the article does outline some examples of poor practice, and these are all rooted in a lack of communication. As the article suggests, the ‘general reluctance to discuss death’ is unhelpful here (as it is in so many ways) but the impact of this is a lack of consultation which means inevitabilities such as replacing a colleague who has died are dealt with in ways which are seen as unsympathetic or tactless. There is a real sense in the article that the hierarchy should be taking responsibility for this process, but the hierarchy is also made up of people who may well share this reluctance to discuss these issues. In some businesses, they may either not know the person at all (as is described in Carina’s anecdote), but they also may know them very well, as was my experience with both Brian and Lucy. Their own grief may be a factor.
Colleagues inhabit a strange space in our lives. They are people who we often see frequently. The only person who I see more often than my colleagues is my partner – I see them far more often than any of my other family or friends – and I suspect other people would report similar – although of course, many parents see their children (particularly when they are young) frequently. Yet we do not always know them well. Therefore, the grief at their loss may well be different. Carina describes remembering Miguel with respect. This is possibly not a way we would describe the remembrance of our family or friend. Our colleagues might be our friends, but they also might not – we don’t necessarily have things in common with people outside of our shared employer. There will be a variety of relationships within a workplace and, as with many other issues relating to death and bereavement, clear communication on a personal level, and an understanding that all of us are different, is what really helps.
*names have been changed
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