What Happens When One of Your Coworkers Dies

The first thing that happens is someone tells you.

It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.

This is my job. It’s a publisher, we make coffee table books about movies, architecture, political issues that lend themselves to stock photography. Most of us think of ourselves as writers, though that is not really what we do anymore.

Dominic is the one who tells me. He and Naomi are here already, sitting at opposite desks, leaning in like they’re playing Battleship. Dominic bikes here from some distant suburb I’ve never heard of, then showers and changes into the same thing every day: pressed white shirt, pastel v-neck, khakis, loafers. I’ve never been here early enough to see what he’s wearing when he arrives.

“Hey there Mike,” he says. His Dutch accent sharpens the th’s into d’s. Hey der. He turns off his monitor and swivels toward me.

Naomi looks up, holding a mug dangling two teabag strings. She moved here three months ago from Australia, she still has that new-hire enthusiasm, the “let’s make great books!” gusto we’re all waiting to wear off.

“Well hello, Mike!” she says as I de-layer at my desk—hat, scarf, gloves—and turn my computer on.

She’s about to say something else, but Dominic gives a little traffic-cop hand wave and she stops.

“Mike don’t open your e-mails,” he says.

That’s when I notice that our office has a candle in it too.

“You need to know,” he says, trails off, starts again, “that Colin has passed away.”

“Colin in marketing?”

“Correct.”

Colin Schwartz. The guy at the back of the external-relations office, a sliver between two big iMac screens.

“Oh fuck,” I say. “How?”

Last Monday, Dominic says, Colin didn’t show up to work and didn’t call or e-mail to explain where he was. On Tuesday his boss told HR. On Thursday the office manager went to his apartment to see if he was home. No one answered her knock. She called the police. They forced open the door and found his body.

“Oh fuck,” I say again. “Was it like a heart attack or something?”

“Well, as you may know, Colin was depressed,” Dominic says. “He had some emotional problems. So it looks like…”

“Oh fuck,” I say. “Are you saying he killed himself?”

“Nothing’s clear right now.”

“They had a meeting yesterday and the MD told us,” Naomi says. “Everyone in marketing went home.”

I stare at my keyboard for a second, type in my password, open Outlook. There’s the official announcement from our president, the meeting cancellations, the invite from comms to record memories of Colin.

“OK Mike,” Dominic says, and swivels back to his desk.

“So, um,” Naomi says, “how was your vacation?”

The next thing that happens is we are terrible.

“I don’t want to say I saw it coming or anything, but it’s not exactly out of the blue,” says Bill, who runs our Twitter feed.

The roof of our building is the size of a soccer field, but we’re bunched together by the door, hoods up, facing away from the wind. Bill is the only one smoking out here, the rest of us are just listening.

“They were working him too hard,” says Will, one of the copy editors. “Marketing’s way understaffed.”

I barely knew Colin. He sat two offices down from me, but we never worked on anything together, never laid eyes on each other after 5 p.m. Our relationship consisted, in its entirety, of work-related small talk in the break room, his lunch rotating behind us in the microwave. Ding, stir, have a good rest of your day.

After Dominic told me, I spent an hour thinking things like, Was it something I did? Could I have reached out to him? Then I spent at least twice that long thinking, Of course not, asshole.

“I was on a conference call with Colin two weeks ago. He stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and just started breathing really loud,” Bill says.

I’ve been having conversations like this all over the building. It’s Wednesday, it’s right after lunch, it’s been two days since they announced Colin died. And this is how we’ve spent it: Bunched up in corners, whispering things to see if they are true.

Sarah from finance wonders if Colin’s death has anything to do with the department restructuring. Mark in HR heard Colin didn’t take a vacation for the last two years. Tina from photos heard Colin moved here to study at the London School of Economics, but dropped out.

None of these people knew Colin any better than I did. We’re just magnifying what we know, zooming in on the crumbs as if it will reveal where they lead.

“You know they changed his job title without consulting him.” Bill says, and the rest of us nod solemnly.

I wish I could say I was the grown-up here, the one who pointed out that none of us really knew Colin, that his death was none of our business, that we should all get back to work. But I wasn’t.

“He was gay,” I say. I only found this out yesterday, when Dominic mentioned Colin’s boyfriend had been notified. “Do you think that has anything to do with it?”

“The weird thing is, Colin never struck me as the unhappiest person here,” says Jessica, the receptionist. “I would have put Colin way down the list. Like, look at Chris in Online. That guy puts in earbuds when he walks to the bathroom.”

“I saw Lucy talking to the external relations director yesterday,” Will says. “I think she’s applying for his job.”

“Oh shit I hope it’s not her,” Bill says. “Remember that presentation she gave at the annual meeting last year?” I smirk along with everyone else. Bill lights another cigarette, giving us all permission to stay out here at least five more minutes.

The next thing that happens is we mourn.

It’s Thursday, it’s 10 a.m., it’s our weekly staff meeting. Colin’s picture is projected on the wall. The senior management team is sitting in suits at the big conference table, each with their own box of tissues.

I’m leaning against the wall. There’s only room in here for about 50 chairs, most of us are standing. Naomi is sitting down next to me, she’s already crying.

The managing director starts talking, the only voice in the room. He tells us how this is going to work. For the last two days, comms has been recording employees talking about Colin, how they want to remember him. Today we’re going to watch the video.

“The speculation has to stop,” he says. “Colin died of natural causes.”

He nods over to the comms director, who hits play. The video begins with Colin’s work—excerpts of promos he made, books he launched, conference presentations he gave—then the rest is testimonials from his colleagues. They’re edited together in reverse hierarchical order.

Interns, then assistants, then peers, describe working with Colin. The time they bumped into him at the printer, the time his soup exploded in the microwave, the time they sat together on a bus from the airport to a conference, each with their headphones on.

Story after story, they’re all like this, proximity aspiring to intimacy, and it’s clear that no one here knew him, not the people in his department, not his managers, not the people he had lunch with and traveled with. They talk about his cluttered desk, his e-mail forwards, his cocktails at the Christmas party. They try to pull a person out of the time he spent here and they can’t.

“I always said hi to Colin when I passed him in the hall,” says someone on the video.

Naomi stops crying. She makes a little sound like she’s surprised, like she’s discovered the exact borders of her compassion. She takes a shallow breath, puts her purse on her lap, starts looking through it for tissues.

Colin’s boss is on vacation this week. He recorded a message by webcam. He’s lying on his side on a hotel bed. He talks about the clarity of Colin’s press releases as palm trees shudder in the wind behind him.

“I wish I had gotten to know him better,” he says. “He seemed nice.”

That comment, those three words, and I jerk my head away from the screen. I look out the window and there is a huge piece of bird shit on the windowsill. People on the screen keep talking, managers and directors now, but their memories of him are all the same hellos and bump-intos and chit-chats, and I realize this is it, this is what he left behind, his lunch and his e-mails and the clever thing he wrote on his boss’s birthday card. I close my eyes and the video goes on and on and then I open them and everyone around me is crying.

The last clip is the MD, chest heaving. He’s telling the camera, us, how Colin prepped him for his first TV interview.

“Don’t gesture so much,” Colin told him, “Gesturing looks awkward on TV. Emphasize with your words, not your hands.”

The MD did his interview, a whole hour, with his hands in his lap, as instructed. And afterwards he asked Colin, “how did I do?” and Colin said “You were like a statue up there! Why didn’t you use your hands?!”

And we all laugh, and the camera stays pointed at the MD, and his smile fades, his eyes go wet, he lets out a sob and the camera turns off and the screen shows Colin’s picture again.

The next thing that happens is it makes us close.

After the staff meeting, we shut the door to our office and Naomi asks me if I knew anyone else who died. I tell her about my godmother who got brain cancer when I was 12.

“Did you know her well?” she asks.

“In whatever way kids know adults, I guess. We spent a lot of time together when I was little. I mostly remember her mac and cheese.”

Then I ask Naomi and she tells me about the principal of her Catholic school who died in a car accident when she was seven. It was her first funeral, and she raised his hand in the middle of the eulogy to ask a question. As she’s telling it she lets herself smile a little, and I realize I never knew she went to Catholic school.

It’s like this the rest of the week. Maybe it’s because the MD asked us to stop speculating, or maybe everyone else saw the video like I did, felt the same urgency to populate this place, but we stop talking about Colin and we start talking about us.

On the roof, Bill tells me that his parents died when he was 22. He had just finished his first triathlon, and was so tired he fell asleep on the note his roommate had left on his bed. He woke up, pulled it out from under the covers and read it, still in his little running shorts.

In the break room, Jessica is hanging up a picture of Colin. She tells me that when she was 10 years old she accidentally took a big handful of children’s Tylenol because it was flavored and she thought it was candy.

“For years, my parents thought it was a suicide attempt,” she says, yanking out a strip of scotch tape.

On Friday Dominic and I walk to the train station together and he tells me about the cat he buried in his backyard when he was seven.

“I dug him up two years ago,” he says, “and he was just a box of bones.” He makes two fists, huge in his mittens, to show me his size.

The next thing that happens is it’s all over.

Monday morning, in the corridor past reception, I walk past marketing and hear someone say. “Did you see Jessica crying at the staff meeting? She barely even knew him.”

Dominic is already here, and I wonder if his khakis, his pianist posture, are the things I would say about him if he died.

“Did Naomi send the invite last week for the meeting with research?” he says.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “With everything happening last week, she must have forgotten.”

“Well if people are going to be here,” he says, “they might as well be working.”

It’s not that we forget, it’s just that we’re done remembering together. As the memorial fades from memory, as the tasks pile up and dwindle, as we all settle back into our boxes on the org chart, our dead colleague becomes just another thing we think about but don’t say.

The last time we talk about Colin at work is in a budget meeting. It’s March, it’s six weeks since Colin died, it’s me and Dominic in a conference room with Marketing, getting an overview of our spending before the quarterly board meeting.

“What’s this 40,000 that appeared in the budget in February?” Dominic asks.

“That’s Colin,” says Bill. Dead people don’t get salaries, so Colin’s appears as a surplus.

“OK,” Dominic says. “And why has this travel spending figure been adjusted?”

And that’s it, we just move through the rest of the budget. I think about looking up, making eye contact across the table, sharing an acknowledgement of the moment that just passed. Instead, I just keep my eyes on the Excel sheet, keep following the numbers with my pencil.

The last thing that happens is Naomi quits.

“I’m going back to my old job in Adelaide,” she says. It’s April, it’s Friday, it’s two months since Colin died. We’re sitting on the stoop of a church near work, holding paper coffee cups with two hands, watching rain drip from the awning.

“Why?” I ask.

“Do you remember Colin?” she says.

I tell her I barely knew him.

“Neither did I,” she says. “But do you remember the week after he died?”

We talk about the memorial, everyone crying, how we were with each other afterwards, how we’re not anymore.

“I keep making these pledges to get to know people here,” she says, “and then in the very next second I know that I’m not going to, that it’s too hard. At least back in Australia I have family waiting for me at the end of the day.”

I feel like we should hug now but we don’t. I stand up, take the empty coffee cup out of Naomi’s hand, throw it in the trash.

It’s later, it’s after Naomi left, it’s me and Dominic in the break room, his lunch rotating in the microwave. He’s looking at the picture of Colin posted on the wall.

“It’s too close to the microwave,” he says. “The steam is going to make it come down.”

As if agreeing, the microwave dings.

“Here,” he says.

He leans in, grabs it from the wall, moves it higher, sticks it back to the wall. “That’s better.”

He grabs his soup from the microwave, stirs it.

“OK Mike,” he says. “Have a good rest of your day.”

 

More: Stories by Michael Hobbes.

Michael Hobbes lives in Berlin. He blogs at rottenindenmark.wordpress.com. Photo: Phil Sexton

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22 Comments / Post A Comment

bgprincipessa (#699)

This was a fantastic read, thank you. It really speaks to how you can see someone so often and yet know so little about them. I’ll try and make some extra effort on that.

At the moment there are family members in the office across from mine starting to clear it out – my coworker passed away this week. He was 88, and it was not unexpected, but nevertheless.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@bgprincipessa Oh my gosh, 88 and still working!

Dancercise (#94)

Beautiful and touching story. Thanks for sharing it.

EDaily (#4,396)

This was beautifully written, and I hope I never have to go through this. Thank you.

Great piece.

annpan (#3,219)

Honest and compassionate – beautifully written. Thank you.

I’m going to take the contrary view and point out that if I die, I want my office to completely ignore the event. Just sweep off my desk into a box, give my computer to someone else, and line-item me off your spreadsheets. I cannot fathom anything more profoundly depressing than one’s coworkers being all “we only knew him in a professional context and really didn’t know him at all, but he was always there, with the job and the being there every day so we have to say something and OUR GRIEF IS WHAT’S IMPORTANT LET US GRIIIIEEEEVE.”

Just leave the memorializing up to my family and, y’know, real friends, and spare everyone your guilty, forced routine.

In sum, if my coworkers memorialize me, I will come back and haunt that office in the worst way.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose I have this strong feeling that if this happens, the people you work with will already do exactly what you want.

@Gef the Talking Mongoose
Totally agree. I want my passing to be with as few ripples as possible. At best it’d be, “hey, has anyone seen Christopher?”

“yeah, he’s dead”

“Oh, ok good. I mean, OK…
…Never mind.”

sherlock (#3,599)

This was a wonderful piece. I relate very much – one of my coworkers made a suicide attempt last year around this time, and actually emailed a suicide note to a large number of people at my office. Figuring out how to react was so bizarre, and I relate to a lot of what you said above. There was a wide range of reactions – from people crying to those immediately trying to stay busy trying to help, to just standing around not knowing what to do. He ended up being fine (though I obviously don’t know a lot of the details of how things worked out, once we heard he was safe everyone went back to ignoring it pretty quickly.)

This is so strange. I work in a small organization (have my whole career), and while we’re not all friends, we are all very familiar. I know my coworkers pretty well, and have gone to several of their houses for holidays and birthdays. This kind of distanced and passive grief is like horror story to me.
I’ve gotten an offer to work in an much larger organization, but this sort of throws in to focus what a big change that would be.

Surin Tamna (#5,609)

Rachel, I work for a large organization and one of my colleagues just passed away suddenly last month. I can honestly say that my experience was nothing like that of Michael’s (though I think it’s an authentic response in some workplaces). Maybe because my group of about 50 in the organization is close, or maybe because this person was so friendly and involved — both in and out of work — I felt genuine grief for the loss of her as a person (always kind and compassionate), as a mother of children who would now be motherless, and as a friend. Our grieving process was a lot different from that in the article. Each person’s grief and each workplace is unique…

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Echoing the first six comments, this was well-written and well-…unfolded? I like Michael’s way of sharing stories.

I have been thinking about this (not exactly this, but sort of along these lines) lately, because I left a job that wasn’t great for me but with people that I loved for a great job with coworkers that are less than chat-at-the-water-cooler open with each other. Trade-offs! I can relate to wanting to get to know someone, even just one person, well.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Caitlin with a C I’ve made a few of the best friends in my life at a corporate job with 200 people in the building. You can do it. Keep an open mind! I know everyone says that but it’s really difficult to DO.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@aetataureate I did that at my last job with 3000 people, but… this office is just older and less collegial and social. People don’t really seem to want to be friends outside of work (except some guys who have been working together for about 10 years now). Maybe it’ll happen organically?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Caitlin with a C I hope so! This is a sad thing but I feel like I work with a lot of kind of defeated suburban marrieds, like, people who commute SO FAR every day and are just worn out by their lives all the time. They don’t have leftover energy to make new friends. I feel like an asshole sometimes when I’m like, “I’m so tired, my friend had a party on a weeknight!”

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@aetataureate This a thousand times. I work in DC. I have coworkers in their 50s who commute in from places like WV and PA. My chances of happy hour (or even convincing them to get lunch to chat instead of leaving half an hour earlier) are slim to none.

muush (#521)

Great piece.

ghostler (#5,641)

I really enjoyed reading this actual life commentary, because it was reflective of what people actually go through. I felt as though I was really there. Also, I thought the management did an excellent job of clearing the mystery and easing the pain or discomfort in the unfortunate passing of a coworker. They demonstrated the human side of themselves. It is an excellent article, well done.

This is very well written and moving. Many years ago a young woman died in the office I worked at. She actually collapsed in her cubicle. A passing maintenance man found her. It was around 10:00 AM. She was better connected with our co-workers than poor Colin (some were personal friends) but it seems we still handled it in a similar way. One thing I can say is that the whole atmosphere of that office changed afterward. I left about a year later. I do sometimes think of her and wonder about her family (she left a husband and toddler). Happily, I can remember a silly joke she and I shared.

Beautifully written, captures the emotional sterility of the environment, and what is under the surface.

I lost three coworkers… In law enforcement. One of the hardest things in life. Thank you for sharing your story.

That said, it Sounds like a horrible place to work.

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