When a Colleague Dies



Last Monday, as my US colleagues were coming to work, I received a message. “Did you hear Jim died yesterday? Suddenly. In his sleep.” Jim and I worked together on and off for years although less so since I moved to Central Europe. Still, the news came as a shock. All day, mutual friends messaged me, and we reminisced about our favorite Jim story.

Some deaths we experience are expected, the final scene of a block buster play – a life incredibly well lived. During those times, we gather and tell stories; a celebration of a person, their litany of accomplishments, and the memories they left. Others times we receive the news that someone young was taken way too soon. On these days, any celebration of life is forced. The stories are a facade built over an incredible void of nothing but gut wrenching pain.

My son’s friend, Meghan, died at the age of 28, my husband’s best friend, Steve, at the age of 40. Both succumbed to cancer. I cannot, and will never, accept what happened. I challenged the concept of a grand plan. Clearly, if one existed, it careened terribly off course.

When we lived in the United States, I was a crazy sports fan. Banished to the basement to watch the Broncos on Sunday afternoons, I howled like a coyote at interceptions and busted plays. But when the game ended, it ended. During the most exceptional, terrible and unexpected losses, I evoked Steve – and more recently Meghan. They remind me there is nothing, nothing more inconsequential than a lost game.

When a colleague dies, it’s different. There is enough emotional distance that I am able to consider this death in the context of my life. What if tomorrow, I am Jim? Would I regret how I spent my final days? Peers my age waffle on retirement, and I do also. “Are we ready? Do we have enough money? What will we do with all our free time?”

Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe we should be asking, “Is this how I want to spend my life? Was today worthwhile?” When a friend dies, the least we can do is acknowledge the wake up call and course correct if necessary.

I keep a diary of our time in Central Europe. Invariably, Saturday morning, I pull it out at the coffee house, stare into space reflectively, and then scribble, “Not much to report. Last week was just a normal work week.”

Maybe the Jims of the world were sent as a beacon, a warning; verify our course, smooth sailing is not guaranteed, peril to those who float. I need to look no further than my weekly diary to learn how far off course I have drifted.

We honor the Jims of our life when we heed the wake-up call, differentiate meaningful from inconsequential, grab life with both hands, and drive purpose into each and every single day.

And if we can do that, the Jims of our lives will live on in each of us.

Categories: Ruminations

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Beautiful, Julie. Absolutely beautiful.

  2. Yes, yes and YES!

  3. This is from Dan. I retired, Monday Dec. 15 was my last day. 32 years 11 months and 15 days with my last employer. It is a little earlier then we planned, but it had come down to the question you raised in this post, “was today a worthwhile day?”.
    For me the answer 3 or 4 days of each work week the answer was no. And it broke my heart. So when we moved up ours plans earlier this year, I had no regrets, but I could not express why I was so willing. But you answered it, for me it has to be worthwhile.
    Thank you so much for your insightful post.

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