A Flower Called Heather: Grief in the Workplace

My parents have conflicting stories on where my name came from. My dad insists I’m named after a tiny purple flower that blankets the fields of Germany called “die Erika” or “das Heidekraut” (“Heather” in English). My mom, however, maintains that my dad named me after some chick who sold brats and wieners on the side of the autobahn.

I think I like the flower story better.

BTW if you want a hilarious definition of your name, throw it in Urban Dictionary. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

It’s funny how we grow into our names, how we ‘look’ like our names. (Unless you have ever met someone who does not look like their name at all and it is sooooooooooo weird!)

Anyway, none of the above really has anything to do with what I intended this blog to be about …except the tiny purple flower called Heather.

This blog is about profound loss. Loss that is so deep, so unfathomable it crushes your heart just to hear about it.

Now why on earth would I be writing about such unimaginable grief?

Because there is always a lesson, always a common ground amongst strangers, always a sliver of light that is worth sharing. Loss is something we will all experience and having empathy for others is crucial to the success of our business and personal lives.

Our jobs are enormous parts of our life and often define elements of who we are. A leader. An artist. A salesman. A teacher.

We spend a great deal of time with our coworkers. They become like family in many cases. For goodness sake, ‘work husbands’ are a REAL thing for crying out loud! More about that in another blog…

Grief shows up at the workplace every day. In the form of a lost pet, a lost parent or spouse, divorce, financial woes, addiction, accidents, tragedies. It’s very difficult to keep those things at home.

How we react as co-workers both on the grieving and comforting ends can make a material impact on the team, the company, and the individuals who need comforting the most.

We have all been faced or will be faced with moments that test us, drive us to the brink of every emotion imaginable, force us to reckon with our demons or be someone’s rock as they reckon with theirs.

Sometimes we fail in how we handle these moments. And sometimes, from an outsider’s perspective, we make all the right moves.

In the fall of 2018, a colleague of mine lost his adult daughter to cancer at the age of 29. She was his only child. And her name was Heather.

Can you even imagine? Unfortunately, some of you can. The grips of grief are no stranger to your heart.

Watching my colleague go through this was at once both excruciating and heartbreakingly inspiring. I have never been through cancer treatment nor watched someone succumb to it, and I can only imagine it is like a 1,000 deaths all rolled into one. Every failed treatment, every miserable side effect, every glimmer of hope dimmed by the next day’s setbacks, every moment spent watching the deterioration of a life.

Through all this, he showed me how to handle an unbearable situation with decorum and grace. He also comforted those around him. While I was weeping over my keyboard, his update emails reminded us that, sometimes, bad things happen to good people. That hating this tragedy wouldn’t make it go away. That anger and resentment had no place in our hearts.There was only room for love.

I think about how I might react if I was going through a similar situation. Would I be calm? Pragmatic? I doubt it. I’d be incensed. Enraged. Throwing shit. Breaking things. Screaming. Crumpling under the sheer unfairness of it all, the immense weight of my insufferable anguish over losing my child.

And maybe those things happened to my colleague as well, in the privacy of his home, in a quiet moment at the hospital, in his car on a lonely stretch of highway.

It has been almost a year since Heather passed away. To my colleague, I imagine it is still quite raw, and if time heals all wounds it would take an eternity to remedy his soul.

I continue to learn how best to be a support throughout this experience. These are some of my takeaways.

Let them hold their space. My yoga instructor girlfriend taught me this concept. Often our immediate reaction when someone is grieving is to try to make it better. We hug them, we tell them it will be OK, we say things like, “At least he is no longer suffering.” or “Things happen for a reason.” We do these things because witnessing someone’s pain is difficult. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts us. But we must resist this temptation to try to make it all better and instead, let our friends, our colleagues, those who are hurting…hurt. Let them sit with their suffering. Let them hold their space with the weight of their grief in their hands. Because this is part of the healing process for them, no matter how painful it is for us.

Step in at work. During a crisis, the last thing your colleague needs to think about is work. If you are in a senior position, reach out to his/her reports and see where you can help guide, answer questions, and report to higher ups who still need to keep the business running. Be a gate keeper, deflect requests to your colleague by encouraging teammates to come to you and others in the company who can give approvals, make decisions, and push projects along.

Listen. Sometimes that’s really all someone needs. Someone to listen to them talk about their situation without judging, without trying to solve it; just being an ear over a coffee or cocktail (thankfully I am always down to assist here!).

Speak. This is especially hard for me. I pretty much start crying anytime my colleague says something like, “Heather loved Boston.” The -ed of every verb pierces me like a knife. But it’s not about me, it’s about a memory that is good and wonderful and deserves to be spoken about. Talking about it normalizes the situation and feeling ‘normal’ is a comforting thing.

Help them get back to ‘normal’. Being able to focus on something other than the painful situation they are experiencing can be a huge relief. We may think someone needs more time to recover or we still want to take care of things for them so they can rest or be at home, but when someone is ready to get back into the swing of things, help them do that as seamlessly as you can. Get them up to speed on important announcements and changes, update them on big projects, even fill them in on the good gossip they may have missed (because it is SO good!). Assimilating them back into the office mix provides a needed distraction in a familiar routine.  

Mind your dates. Mark anniversaries of tragedies or scheduled treatment (if you know them) on your calendar to remind yourself and others to be extra cognizant of those days. Be mindful of holidays that may be especially painful (Mother’s Day is the freaking worst). Be aware that on a random Tuesday your coworker may be in a foul mood because it’s a birthday or anniversary of someone or something that is hard for them to be reminded of. Basically, as the saying goes, always be kind because you never know the battles someone is fighting.

Keep an open heart. Be compassionate. Show empathy.Share your kindness freelyand open your heart to others because one day you may need the open heart of someone else. 

Want to help someone with cancer? Considering donating to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre or the American Cancer Society. Visit This is Living with Cancer for patient and caregiver resources.