Dealing With a Teammate’s Passing

It is 9:02 a.m. the day after one of our teammates lost their fight against cancer. Everyone handles the emotions around this kind of event differently, which is the first point of this post —leaders need to give people space to mourn in their own way —and for me, that means turning this morning to writing. What follows might not be coherent, but it flows as I type while occasionally sipping the dark, and admittedly comforting, coffee nestled in the YETI by my side.

I should have made more time with this person the last year. They did not directly report to me, nor did our job functions directly overlap, but I missed out. The next time someone is sick, I need to be more forthcoming with compassion. Maybe there was a word of encouragement that I could have offered that would have made one moment —just one —better. Maybe not. But leaders err on the side of action, always.

Scripture says to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Notice that it does not say to change the subject, talk about work, or something else. That’s why we (my sisters and I) are bringing in a grief counselor today and giving people space to mourn. If they need to go home, they can go home. We have to get these moments right.

This experience also reinforces my passion around 401K matching, life insurance, and every other security blanket we can offer our family members (and they are family members at Hoffer Plastics). This might make us more “costly,” and our “profit targets” harder to hit —at least that’s what consultants tell us. But, I don’t give a rip. I believe I will give an account to how I stewarded what was given to me, so I have “made my bed and am prepared to lie in it,” as the expression goes. And I thank God I have two sisters who are equally passionate on this stance! Unity on the DNA of our business makes running it together as peaceful as running a manufacturing company can be.

By the way, that last point is something the family dealing with this loss should NOT be concerned about today. As my Jewish friends have practiced for centuries, the practice of “sitting shiva” is (and should be) instructive to us in how to go about mourning with others. We should slowly process our grief together and resist the urge to move toward business matters, like benefits, until the appropriate time has passed. Going back to point number one, that time might look entirely different for different people. To be someone worth following, we have to be close enough to the mourner to know. Physical presence is required for this. We also have to give them space when space is what they want.

As insensitive as this may sound, the business has to go on, however. This may mean that the leader has to set aside their grief, for a time, and lean into certain functions of the business so that others have the margin to lean out and mourn. This may not be “fair” to the leader, but to be someone worth following, you have to be someone willing to persevere when others cannot go on. I have also seen this done in our company this week, which has made me proud of those leaders.

Finally, however, the leader must create a quiet space to mourn themselves. Without this space, the leader cannot maintain the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health they need to be someone worth following. Therefore, inward inspection is mandatory. I have at times like these gone home to take a nap and recharge when I physically am spent; I have spent time reading something that gives me perspective; or like today, even spent time writing a blog post. The point being that all these things offer me a release to gain perspective.

It is now 9:21 a.m., and probably time to do something work wise.

The unfortunate truth is that you will go through a moment like the one I am going through. My prayer is that you handle it with compassion and that you err on the side of giving people too much rather than too little. 

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