Goin’ Up Yonder: 5 Ways To Grow After Death

Death is physically inevitable.  Not a curse, but part of how life unfolds for each of us.  How can we best make sense of it in our work environment?

Last month, one of my client’s middle managers unexpectedly passed away.  She had been vital for her co-workers, friends, and family in many ways – loving, inspiring, always available.  My client’s comment:  “How can we go on without her?” which became “she will be impossible to replace.”  Of course, they have gone on and it’s not an issue of replacement.  It will simply be different.

The transition of death is an experience to be lived fully, with the opportunity to learn and grow within any organization.  Here are some ways for business leaders to deal with death in their workplace:

  1. Unless a critical emergency requiring immediate action is created, allow time for everyone to experience their own reaction.  Even in emergency circumstances everyone eventually requires time to emotionally integrate the experience, including you as the leader.  How you address the situation personally will set the tone for your fellow employees, who are asking for some time to adjust.
  2. Avoid judgment and let others express their range of reaction.  Several years ago a manager in another company died after a prolonged illness.  Unfortunately, he was not well-liked, but the CEO respectfully referred to him in his conversations and this healing kindness was well-appreciated by everyone.
  3. Memorialize the passing in a meaningful way for everyone who will participate.  It can be a few remarks or a major event, but the inclusiveness and the marking of the transition is useful for everyone, whether close to the person in life or not.
  4. Honestly look at any operational instability that exists and invite other employees to offer their input for the decision.  Another manager may actually be charged with making a choice, but the transition may open other opportunities for change.
  5. Sometime after the passing you may find that you have learned something you can share with others on your team.  It may or may not have anything to do with the deceased person directly, but it may be helpful for everyone.  It may be a thought.  It may be a question.

Each culture has a way to make sense of death, irrespective of cause and related events.  In the African-American church to which I belong, there is a beautiful song by Walter Hawkins, “Goin’ Up Yonder.”  It is sung with some question and sadness, but also with great hope and joy.  Death is not the end at work or otherwise, providing leaders with a wonderful opportunity to approach their future life with grace.