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‘Facing an empty desk… Returning to the office after a colleague has died’

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Approximately 15,000 people in Ireland of working age (18-65) have died in Ireland in 18 months since lockdown began in March last year. How can their deaths be appropriately marked in their workplaces as people begin to ‘return to office ’? And how can that be done by workplaces where there may not be a return to what was ‘normal’ in the pre Covid era, for some considerable time, if ever? This post updates an earlier post when we were still in lockdown, and looks at some of the issues relating to death and bereavement in the workplace as we begin to emerge from Covid related restrictions. It considers how Online Memorial Services- simple, tailored, dignified services of thanksgiving and remembrance which gather those in the workplace together, and also offer the option to participate online - may offer one helpful step on a journey beyond loss. What do you do when someone at work dies? How do respectfully mark what’s happened in a way that allows colleagues of the person who has died appropriate space to deal with how the death affects them? How can those same people permission to make the changes that will inevitably be required in the aftermath of the death of a colleague? And how do you do this if the person has died during Covid restrictions, and when all those who can have been working from home?

Workplace bereavement & death Pre Covid: Attending Funerals & Facing 'The Empty Desk'

Superstore, the hit US sitcom set in a fictional Hyperstore in St Louis, touched on some of the challenges a death presents in the workplace in the pre-Covid era on one of their early shows. The story is partly played for laughs with two staff fighting over a fancy couch that is reduced to half price after an old man dies on it. They do, however, also hit on some of the real challenges such a situation throws up. The episode addresses questions of how can the staff honour the customer appropriately when they know very little about him? How religious the service should be, if at all? And, of course, what should actually happen to the couch?

In a more serious engagement with the topic, then Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell’s 2015 report, Finite Lives, looked at how the Irish Civil Service dealt with death, dying and bereavement amongst its own members. This research was commissioned by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny as an initial step in developing a National Strategy on End-of-life- care. Among the report’s findings, were the fact that communication around death and bereavement was found as the biggest challenge respondents had to face.

Attendance at funerals was found to be a very significant means by which colleagues provided support to those bereaved- both to the family of a colleague who had died, or a colleague when they had lost a family member. While attendance at funerals was not often an explicit requirement, there was an understanding that people would make a real effort to attend, and a shared understanding that to do so, meant a lot, and carried the communication of support for the bereaved at that time.

The issue of what to do with a physical space a person occupied after they die was played for laughs in Superstore. However, as the Finite Lives report highlights, the challenge of the ‘empty desk’ after a colleague dies was a very real one in pre-Covid times. It became a physical manifestation of the person’s absence and often became a shrine, with flowers, photos, etc being placed on it. This shrine served as a shared reminder and tribute – a visible expression of regard for the deceased. At some point, however, the shrine had to be dismantled and a new normal established in the workplace. The research in Finite Lives found that there were many creative and compassionate responses to that moving-on phase.

Workplace bereavement & death as Covid restrictions lift: Creating space to acknowledge loss

After a year and a half of Covid related restrictions, many organisations throughout Ireland are planning a return to workplaces. For any organisations where staff have dies, or been bereaved, the traditional ways for colleagues to mark this have been up-ended. Funeral attendance, as the Finite Lives research highlights- has had a key role in Irish life in expressing support for the bereaved. This has been severely restricted, and remote working for many has meant that there may well have been no physical manifestation of the absence of a colleague who has died in many organisations. No empty desk to face, but equally no shared reminder of a loss that affects all those who worked with the person who has died.

So what can be done? Well, the chance to share stories, memories over a cup of tea, even though some time has passed since a colleague has died, may help. It may be possible to gather all those who wish to do this together physically as restrictions lift. With many organisations operating a hybrid work at office/ work at home model for short-to medium term it is good to know, perhaps, that there is also an option to hold the Memorial Service in such a way that those unable to attend in person, can still meaningfully be involved online. In addition to marking the death of a colleague, some small simple gatherings may also be helpful to welcome back a colleague who has been bereaved.

Patricia Higgins, an Interfaith Minister, has been making Memorial Services available Online during Covid restrictions. She explains that 'they can be tailored to express whatever beliefs/ sentiments are most fitting for the deceased, the bereaved, and those seeking to offer their support. Where it has not been possible for people to gather at a wake or funeral, these Memorials provide the opportunity to honour a colleague, or to acknowledge the loss and validate the feelings of a colleague who has been bereaved. They allow people the chance to share memories, offer sympathy, and enable everyone to acknowledge the loss suffered together.’

Commenting on a service held for a former colleague, Sylvester, CEO of a consulting firm said 'the service was a very dignified tribute for our colleague friend, a source of comfort to all and in particular to her family, who wished to attend. There was space to listen, reflect, and take comfort from our shared memories’

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