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Obituaries in the workplace – Goodbye to a colleague

People die. People whom you see every day and with whom you spend the greater part of your day, every day. People with whom you joke, and fight and celebrate successes. People whose guts you hate or who you admire. So, what is the modern employee supposed to do when they walk into their office or log on to their network one day and find a message from someone to say that so-and-so has died? How would you handle the business of writing an obituary (obit) of that person? If at all? In this post is my obit of my colleague, Wayne Stoyko, who died last week. But writing an obit is no simple thing.

(Go directly to the piece about Wayne – click on the link.)

The old days of calling in HR who will pitch with a hankie, sympathy, counselling, obits, and even funeral arrangements are long over. HR people these days deal with legal issues, appointments, retrenchments, benefits, taxes, stats and systems. Usually one HR person has so many people to “look after” they have never even seen most of those face to face. Their email note might make mention of “a valued colleague” or “a great team member” – but those platitudes hardly serve to honour the dead, comfort their family or act as a moral or even professional lesson (which are actually the purposes of obits.)

When-We still knew each other

I remember (oh yes, a “When-We” is coming!) when we were working for big mining companies way back, that the departmental heads, team leaders and HR Officers not only knew all their people personally – in other words they knew the names of the spouses or partners, and children, of all their employees – the HR Officer knew where and when to go looking for people when they didn’t pitch up for work. And occasionally they had to arrange complicated funerals. I remember one that involved a cow slaughtered in the suburban back yard of the departmental head. Another involved an entire rural village’s residents pitching up to take the body of one of their own back home to Lesotho. Another time there was a stable of hunting dogs to take care of. And of course, there was the running joke about some people having many more than one father, mother, aunt, uncle, etc. – who kept dying at convenient times. Sometimes they really did. A couple of times it was murder. Sometimes suicide.

There was ritual, and mourning, and acknowledgement of the role of the person in the lives of all involved. If it was death from an underground accident, then there was worry and concern, sometimes prosecution, liability pointed out, and lessons learned. To see one wreath, one name, one photo, and one obit stand for the life of one man on whose income a large family depended was truly depressing. But everyone knew who had died, and from what.

We lived, at it were, with death at our side all the time. And somehow the regular visits to graveyard, church, temple, sangoma or whatever, kept us all connected and made sure we all took care of each other. It reminded us that life is short and that you can’t be nice to someone once they’re dead.

Getting to know you, really and rarely

Today, your-home-is-my-home friendships between colleagues are rare. People hardly know each other. Yet, obits still get published. And in obits, ironically, the plain fact is reaffirmed that in life, humans have both work and family. You can ignore a person’s private life at work, and fail to connect with them, but in obits, their whole life is always described.

The New York Times, for one, does good business from publishing obits. My mother regularly sends me clippings of obituaries of people she knew and who she thinks I might have known. Creepy, but informative. And there is always a specific format to these things.

The New York Times’s deadpool

Columnist Margaret Sullivan explains that famous newspapers like the New York Times prepare hundreds of obits of high-profile people (called the deadpool) whose death will be news, and keep them on file for you-know-when, being careful not to get the facts wrong or, worse, publish them before the person has actually died. When that happens, people are likely to misquote by saying: “the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

The note from Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) with the famous line that is so often misquoted.

In fact, Mark Twain wrote in May 1897:

“James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.”

The humour in that is of course, that death can hardly be exaggerated. It is the ultimate news.

“The nature of obituary writing, it is a very intimate act. At the beginning of a day you are meeting a stranger whose work you may not know and whom you may not have heard of when your editor comes over with a sheaf of clips from the morgue and an assignment…You really have to take in through inhalation every facet of this stranger’s life. By the time deadline rolls around and you have spent four or five hours in intense communion with this person, if you are lucky and the planets are in the right alignment, you can make an exhalation onto the page, which is not only swift and accurate but also has some of those resonant phrases.” (Margalit Fox, New York Times obituary writer)

A final look at life at work and at home

So, obits are a reflection, in a very specific format, of a person’s life in total, their private and their work life. And therein lies the problem. Obits reflect this dissociation between people at work and people at home. Only when they need to be written, do we realize we only knew a person in part. Usually, the work part for colleagues – or the home part for family members.

Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic that obits and by implication our take on death need updating. “In our current moment, balancing professional and personal realities is increasingly seen as a goal to be strived for — for men as well as for women. And…balancing work and family life, and generally #havingitall — is not something that we have carved space for celebrating, publicly. We haven’t yet fully formalized its value. An obituary that can’t easily marry the professional and the personal is symptomatic of a society that has trouble marrying them, too.” (Megan Garber, What’s an Obituary For?, The Atlantic, Apr. 1, 2013.)

There are horrible tales of people dying at work and their bodies not being noticed until long afterwards. Or dying alone at home and not being found until the smell alerts neighbours. That is truly a symptom of a society where people live at arms’ length from each other and carefully keep their distance. Things have to change.

So on that note, here is the obit of my colleague, Wayne Stoyko, who came close to being what I would regard as a friend. And in case you’re wondering, it is completely in the wrong format for an obit – but it’s what I want to say.

Goodbye Wayne  – Iceman out

17 Sept. 2015

That grumpy ol’ face could break into a grin that could light up anyone’s day.
Harvey Wayne Stoyko, Project Controls Manager at Tetra Tech’s Canadian Mining Practice office in Vancouver: That grumpy ol’ face could break into a grin that could light up anyone’s day.

Often, at work, you only know people partially. You see them day by day but you only talk about work. At the end of the day they go off to their private lives and whatever drives them. Their personal pains, loves, dramas, etc., stay private. That is the modern rule of doing business that I have always believed in, because I just didn’t want to know how my colleagues were at home. What if they were awful and had weird lives? Or lived like pigs? Or had problems so bad I couldn’t stomach them? Being a woman, inclined to show more emotion than a man, it was hard for me, but I never socialized with my colleagues.

Then, a few weeks back, our colleague Iggy Bradaric died. We looked at each other at the meeting about that, and realized we never knew that much about his personal life. Did he have a wife? Did he have children? What was his nationality again? I, who had spent many hours polishing photos of him and the details of his CV for proposals, realized that I had only ever looked at the surface of the person.

Today (17 Sept. 2015) I heard that Wayne Stoyko had died. And this time it is different. Wayne kind of imposed himself on my consciousness without me wanting it. You just had to get to know the man personally since, whenever you spoke to him, he always wore his heart on his sleeve. It was appealing in some ways, awkward in others. But he had a sweetness and good humour about him which made up for the sadness I also sensed in him. The first time we spoke, I was in the photocopy room and he mentioned a fairly serious family problem and I was amazed at his candour.

And so it began: Getting To Know Wayne Stoyko. We had the same sense of humour, or at least, I thought so. He was the only one in the office who had the nerve to call me a dumb blonde and make terrible jokes about it, knowing it would make me furious. And knowing I wouldn’t mind. We had the worst, loudest, rudest laughs in the office about stuff – music, and squirrels!!  – those easily distracted, squirrel-chasing dogs from the Pixar movie “Up” – and all kinds of un-business-like things. The last long session we worked on together to make a deadline was late at night, finalizing a cost estimate for a proposal via skype, with Wayne sporting a 5 o’clock shadow/beard, looking like a rumpled cushion, so tired he would lose concentration and stray off the topic, hum a snatch of song or go on about some random philosophical point. When a job was done, he’d sign off with “Iceman out.” Very proud of that code name he was. So he signed out that night with “Iceman out.”

Wayne was brilliant. Numbers talked to him. He could do magic with them and manipulate them every which way. He would sit there and try to explain to me what new formulae he was developing, though it was obvious his arguments were going way over my head. He kindly, but firmly, rapped me over the knuckles when I gave people the wrong template to use, and they mutilated his lovingly-prepared formulas and he had to glue the spreadsheets back together again. He sure loved his spreadsheets. But he also loved ships and his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. And that was another thing about Wayne that I liked. Despite the hard times, Wayne was a natural marketer. He understood where the niches are, what people would still buy into. He would get all excited at new technology or a new opportunity.

I was always sure Wayne would be able to fix whatever was wrong with the numbers in cost estimates. He was just so darn good at it. Professionally, he was a go-to person and one of a kind. But it is the times when we would both, by accident, hum a tune or laugh our heads off at something, that I will miss. I gave him so little of my time and my attention, he gave me so much of his. Always plopping himself down across from my desk and wanting to have a chat and forgiving my reticence.

Despite his failings, about which he was candid, he was a really special and clever person. He was always kind to me, even when he didn’t have to be. He was, as we say, a real Mensch.

Lately, he had been looking exhausted. Privately I was worried. He would say that he had not slept for days, and then slept non-stop for even more days. He told me about the light and the noise in his bedroom that kept him awake. He would sit at the meeting table and look really ill, with huge bags under his eyes and shaking hands, holding his nth cup of coffee. He was as tense as a wire. He would stumble over his words, dragging himself back to the argument with an effort. I saw he was not well, but said nothing. Did nothing. What could I do? What should I have done?

He died of a heart attack, in his apartment. They say it took a while to find him. If that isn’t awful, I don’t know what is.

These thoughts are useless, but there is a lesson in it for me, for all of us. We’ve got to look out for each other. We’ve got to speak up when we see someone is having a bad time. We’ve got to show appreciation for people while they’re alive, because once they’re dead, it doesn’t matter anymore. Grieving, and obituaries like these, are for the comfort of the living, not the dead.

Typical obit layout

Want to see a typical obit layout, with all its rules and regulations? Check it out here.


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