Dying in Harness

Recently, a colleague passed away.

She was younger than me. 49. 50, maybe.

I didn’t know her well.

She was transferred into our project team. I suspect because our team is viewed as being less stressful.

She had a heart condition. And at times seemed rather frail. And just after she was transferred in, she went on hospitalisation leave. And did not return.

And then she passed away.

I did not know her well. But I do know that she wanted to be seen as productive and contributing to the team. And she was worried that she was not. I wrote her an email to tell her to focus on her health and be present for her family. Work was unimportant compared to health and family. When she passed away, I was… relieved,  that my one personal email to her was to encourage her to focus on her health and her family. Not that I could ever imagine myself telling anyone that they need to work harder.

More than 10 years ago, another colleague passed away.

We shared a cubicle for several years. Shared conversations. Joked that we both were supporting the taxi industry – we both cabbed to work. I, because I lived with my parents then in Jurong and the bus ride was about an hour long, and I valued the time for sleep. He cabbed because he was grossly overweight and was embarrassed to take the bus as he would have trouble squeezing through the packed buses.

His obesity was a result of medication for his asthma – the steroids lead to increase appetite and weight gain, and that eventually led to diabetes. He had a lot of medical conditions. Like me.

I’ve seen pictures of him in his youth – he played soccer, and was in good shape. Life is cruel.

I estimated that I spent about $400 a month on cab fare (one way, in the mornings. In the evenings, I took the bus). He had no choice but to take cabs both ways. He lived a little closer (Yishun), but he easily spent $500 to $700 on cabs a month, I estimate.

One conversation I had with him veered into the subject of cloning. (Don’t ask me how we got there.) I asked him, “if you could clone one person, who would you clone, you or your wife? ”

He answered without hesitation, “I’d clone my daughter”.

I was then over 10 years away from being a father, but I was struck by his devotion and love for his daughter.

Today, as a father, I understand his sentiment even more so.

A few years after we went our separate ways – he was transferred to another dept – he passed away suddenly. It was a heart attack or a stroke or some such thing. He was only 49.

I missed him then.

A few years later, when I had my heart attack, I thought of him.

And every now and then I would think of him and miss him.

As I did when my “newer” colleague passed away recently. And when I read this article (below).

And I think of their children. My colleague’s daughter that he would clone if he could. She was in her mid-teens when he died. She would be almost 30 today. How did she do in the years just after her father passed away?

My recently deceased colleague had two children. Also in their teens, I believe. I hope they are doing well.

Some mornings, Z would try to wake me up to take her to school (childcare). If I don’t respond enthusiastically (from the drowsiness of sleep) she would start to cry. And I would have a flash forward to my death (or my vision or imagination of what would be my death), and hear Z crying to wake her (dead) father.

I am probably being melodramatic, but that is usually enough to rouse me from my stupor and respond to her, and she would stop crying.

Yes. I take my daughter to school in the morning to postpone my “death scene”.

Like my ex-colleague, I know who is important in my life.

Sure, there will be a few colleagues who would miss me, or think of me fondly, and of course friendships are important, and work is important and colleagues are substantial part of our lives.

But none of them will cry because I cannot wake up.


The write way to remember and honour dead colleagues

We spend as much time with colleagues as we do with our families, often more. Work takes up so much of our lives. It needs full remembrance when we die.

Michael Skapinker

June 29, 2017

Whenever a partner or retired partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore dies, the 198-year-old United States law firm offers the bereaved family a “Cravath walk”.

This involves the retired and active partners marching at the funeral, two-by-two, in age order — oldest lawyer to youngest. I heard about the “Cravath walk” last week.

Mr Mark Greene, head of the firm’s corporate department and of its international practice, told me that the most recent walk had taken place at a memorial service about a month ago for a lawyer who had died at the age of 43.

The “walk” sounds slightly macabre, but it makes sense.

Bereavement is a disorienting experience, often overwhelmingly so.

Having mourning and funeral rituals provides some relief. But these rituals are not often work-related, unless someone dies while they are still in their job.

Those who die performing their duties, such as firefighters or police officers, receive full honours from their colleagues.

Those still in other jobs, or recently retired, may have speakers from work, or even the chief executive, talking at the memorial service, recalling their careers.

But longer lives mean work is often far in the past by the time people die.

Unless family members take the trouble to tell an old workplace that someone has passed away, former colleagues may never know. And given the decline of life-long jobs and the rise of fragmented careers, there may not be a primary workplace to tell — or people there who remember the deceased.

Yet, work remains central to our lives, or to any account of our lives, long after we have stopped doing it.

It forms a large part of who we were in the minds of our family and friends.

London’s Freud Museum says that Sigmund Freud’s oft-quoted observation about love and work being all there is, is not actually in his writings, “although the sentiment is sometimes implied”.

But in his magnificent book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, did write of the centrality of “work done and of love loved”.

Family, friends and work are what we leave behind. If the workplace no longer remembers us, a crucial part of who we were is lost to our loved ones.

So if you do hear an old colleague has died, it is a good idea to write to the family to tell them what you remember.

It is not an easy exercise. When a retired Financial Times colleague died recently, our internal email was filled with reminiscences not only of his knowledge, professionalism and kindness, but also of his quirks and eccentricities.

They were all fondly recounted, until eventually someone emailed that they hoped these memories were being collected to send to his family, which they were.

It is not always easy to know how the bereaved will take humorous recollections.

When a much-valued and long-retired colleague died a few years ago, I wrote to his widow, mentioning, along with my high regard for his journalism and collegiality, the most useful piece of advice he had given me.

It came when I had put down the phone after trying to fend off a public relations consultant’s invitation to breakfast.

My late colleague told me: “Next time, just say that you only eat breakfast with the person you slept with the night before.”

I hope that reminiscence went down well, but I do not truly know.

This is why we so often put off writing to the families of colleagues who have died.

We are not sure how to strike the right note, particularly if we do not know the recipients.

But writing something is better than nothing, and being more expansive can work well.

When I wrote to the son of a former colleague, recalling his life both inside and outside journalism, his son wrote back to say that my message had moved him, helping him and his siblings fill in gaps in their father’s life that they had not known about.

It made me regret the times I never got around to writing — usually because I did not think I was important enough in the deceased’s life. But all colleagues are important. While we are working, we spend as much time with them as we do with our families, often more.

Work takes up so much of our lives. It needs full remembrance when we die.


Michael Skapinker is an associate editor and columnist at The Financial Times. He writes on business and society.

This entry was posted in Flash Forward, Gratitude, Life Lessons, Musing, Personal. Bookmark the permalink.

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