Handling Death

Written by B.J. Woodstein, PhD


We all know the famous idiom that tells us there are only two certain things in life – death and taxes – but even though taxes are very obviously related to our jobs, in that we owe the government some portion of everything we earn, we seldom think of how death is relevant. Recently, I was listening to an episode of a podcast as I walked my dog and it dawned on me just how important it was to talk more about death and the workplace. By this, I don’t mean workplace accidents, which are of course an unfortunate occurrence, but rather how we actually handle and discuss death and its influence on our lives, and thereby on our working selves.

When I was employed by a university, we’d occasionally be sent an email that was along the lines of the following: “Hi everyone, just to let you know that Jane’s mother has passed away, so Jane will be off work for the next week. Is there anyone who could teach Jane’s classes and/or mark Jane’s students’ essays? Thanks!” In other words, we were briefly given the news about a colleague’s personal loss and then told how the loss might affect us, which is to say by requiring us to work a little bit harder for the period that our colleague would be away from the workplace. There was seldom any real compassion, unless the deceased person was familiar to us (i.e. “You’ll all remember Nicholas’s dad from the holiday parties Nicholas used to throw. Jim’s anecdotes were the stuff of legend and he will definitely be missed.”). And there was never any deeper discussion about the death and what it truly meant, beyond the need for someone to fill in for Jane or Nicholas or whoever was going through the grieving period. 

In response to those emails, I’d usually send a brief message to the affected person saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. Thinking of you at this difficult time.” I never got a reply and I never expected one; in fact, I often added, “No need to reply to this message”, because I didn’t want someone grieving to feel there was yet another thing they had to do at a point when they probably didn’t have much energy at all. I didn’t think there was anything more to add to the conversation, in that we handled the situation both factually and with distance.

But now, I have started to realise that we do in fact need more of a conversation around death; while there are many directions this conversation can and should go in, in terms of the workplace, I think that the two key topics are what we say (or not) and what we do when it comes to death. 


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