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The Virtual 'Empty Desk': Marking death & bereavement at work when working remotely

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Over 10,000 people in Ireland of working age (18-65) die in Ireland each year. How can their deaths be appropriately marked in their workplaces? And how can that be done by workplaces when the death has happened during Covid? This post explores some of the issues relating to death and bereavement in the workplace, and suggests Online Memorial Services- simple, tailored, dignified services of thanksgiving and remembrance- 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 and also gives permission to make the changes that will inevitably be required in the aftermath of the death of a colleague? And how do you do all this 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 American comedy TV show streamed on Netflix and set in a fictional hyperstore touched on some of the challenges in the pre-Covid era on 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 that this death in a workplace throws up for staff at the store - how can they 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.

In the circumstance where a colleague dies, the ‘empty desk’ became another major challenge for an organisation to navigate. It becomes a physical manifestation of the person’s absence, and can often become 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 in time of Covid: Acknowledging loss and sharing memories online

After a year of Covid, organisations throughout Ireland are dealing with the loss of colleagues, or the return to work of colleagues, when the traditional ways in which those bereaved might have been acknowledged or validated- or indeed the deceased honoured- have become up-ended. Funeral attendance has been restricted, and remote working has meant that there may be no physical manifestation of the absence of a colleague. 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, nothing replaces the chance to be together physically, and to share stories, memories over a cup of tea. It is possible, however, to create a space online to remember a colleague who has died. Or to welcome back a colleague who has been bereaved.

Online Memorial Services – simple dignified services, tailored to fit what’s most appropriate for any given work setting, can gather people from wherever they are based to share memories, offer sympathy, and enable everyone to acknowledge the loss suffered together. While they are no substitute for what’s possible in -person when people gather at a funeral, they do allow for the opportunity to acknowledge the loss and validate the feelings of those affected. Patricia Higgins, a Onespirit Interfaith Minister, who is making these memorials available, explains that 'these memorials can be tailored to express whatever beliefs/ sentiments are most fitting for the deceased, the bereaved, and those seeking to offer their support.'

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.

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