update: no one wants the office an employee died in four years ago

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer working for a company where no one wanted the office an employee died in four years earlier? Here’s the update.

Before I get to the update, I wanted to follow up on some of the questions/comments the letter generated. Some folks suggested moving to entirely new office spaces and that wasn’t ever going to be an option because that would realistically have had a million dollar price tag, so that was never on the table. There were also some comments about the lack of ritual or memorial event. I think there were some employees who were really bothered by that and that is valid. Due to the nature of the death and the fact that the employee’s family asked that nothing about her death be disclosed and that we NOT do a memorial, it was a hard balance to hit. We did have a session for connecting folks with grief counselors and some open hours with a therapist but there was never a ceremony. We likely would have turned a blind eye to folks wanting to have their own rituals in the office except that some of the stronger personalities in the office made things contentious in a hurry (one person wanted to bring in a shaman and another wanted to bring in a psychic and then someone else wanted to bring in their pastor to cleanse the space from the “occult energy” a psychic would bring…) so leadership felt like the odds that we could grant all the requests in a way that wouldn’t result in someone being (rightfully) offended were too low so they drew a firm line about it.

Ultimately, our president talked with the exec team from the company we’ve now merged with and shared about the death and the space. It turns out that one of their senior managers is both deeply pragmatic and very rarely has meetings and was delighted to take an office that nobody else wanted. We decided to go with that approach since we felt like relocating a storage room or trying to create a lounge space or quiet working area wasn’t going to be welcoming for the staff who strongly want to never go into the space.

The manager moved into the office space this summer and there were a few weeks where people continued to call it “Jane’s office” but people seemed to get used to seeing the lights on and someone in the office fairly quickly. The manager has a quirky sense of humor and style and has decorated the office in a way that is very…specific… so it looks very different than it did before, so that might help.

I sincerely hope that none of the readers will have to experience a similar situation in their careers (and it definitely stung when a few folks in the comments suggested that there must have been some work related reasons she died in our offices). It still feels like a situation where there were A LOT of ways to get it wrong/cause harm and balancing the needs/wants of the family with the needs/wants of the staff was complicated.

{ 156 comments… read them below }

  1. LCH*

    while i’d like to say i would also be that pragmatic person who would take the office and not be bothered, so hard to say until faced with it. i’m glad you were able to find someone to do this so the office could move forward.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      I think it helps that (from what I can tell) this person didn’t ever know Jane (so they likely aren’t going to be concerned about redecorating) and seems high enough in the hierarchy that no one is going to scold them for taking Jane’s office (not to their face at least).

    2. Dinwar*

      It depends.

      If it was someone that had mentored me, yeah, I’d step in. It’s a horrible way to pass the torch, but that’s kind of what would be happening here. Probably put a picture or memento in a discrete area. (I had a coworker that was very influential in my early career die of brain cancer, so I’ve thought about this some.) Doesn’t sound like that was the case here, though.

      Otherwise, I’d avoid it as well. Not because I have a problem working in the office where someone died, but because I wouldn’t want to appear disrespectful. I don’t want to be the person who goes “Whelp, she ain’t gettin’ any deader!” (ala Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove”)

      If I were a new person coming in I’d be okay with it, and I’d be okay with a new person taking the office. They don’t know the person, and almost certainly weren’t waiting for the opportunity to take the office; it’s just a thing that happened. So yeah, new VP coming in and taking it was probably the best option.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, I agree. The VP as a new person who didn’t know Jane, especially one who doesn’t seem to have any 1:1 meetings in their office, and redecorating it, was what was needed here.

        Maybe I’m callous or something, but I honestly don’t understand why it would be disrespectful to work in the office where someone died, regardless of the cause of death.

        No matter how well-liked the employee was, those people needed some grief counseling if they were so traumatized by the suicide that they couldn’t even enter the space where it happened afterwards.

        I hope they were able to get some counseling, even if the employer didn’t provide any. Their behavior at work, including the wish for conflicting “cleansing” rituals was inappropriate and unprofessional and should have had some professional consequences for the lot of them. And no long-term shrine for a departed person would be appropriate, either, it’d just let people cling onto their grief. If someone wants to keep a reminder of Jane in their own workspace, that’s different. But if there’s a shrine, new employees coming in will get the whole horrible story told to them, and they don’t need that.

        But I suspect that this office won’t truly move past this until those who were closest to Jane and most insistent on keeping her old office as a memorial have moved on.

        1. Allonge*

          Totally agree with your last sentence – especially as this was still going on after four years, it’s unlikely that people move on until most of them quite literally move out/away.

        2. AF Vet*

          I disagree with your statement that the coworkers’ wish for some sort of cleansing or closing ritual was inappropriate and unprofessional. It was, and is, completely HUMAN. When humans don’t get closure, especially around death, it can leave a lingering ache. I can see your point about them being unprofessional later on, but I understand their reluctance to use that space. Even I can feel bad vibes in a negative space, and I’m fairly prosaic.

          OP said that grief counselors were provided in the immediate aftermath, as well. I agree that if they were still struggling, they should have sought further counseling, but I think the lack of closure exacerbated the situation. I am NOT blaming OP or their senior leadership. It is INCREDIBLY difficult to know how to honor the former coworker, and I undertake their hesitation.

          In my unit, we had an accidental death before I got there. In memoriam they named the conference room after him and also set a pretty bench under a tree with some additional landscaping and a small plaque to honor him. I can understand not wanting to name a room, but maybe there was a small outdoor space or indoor atrium that could have been named or created in her memory. They can still do this if it would make sense for their older crowd. It would provide that sense of closure they’re longing for. (And yes, we don’t always get closure on situations or relationships. That doesn’t mean that we should willfully deny the closure if it’s a simple and thoughtful gesture.)

        3. Elizabeth West*

          I mean, yeah, I live in an apartment where someone was allegedly murdered and it doesn’t bother me. I can’t make it un-happen, plus the apartment was renovated afterward (they’re doing it to all the units that open up, not because of the death). Not that I’m being callous about it, since it was very traumatic for my neighbor, who was friendly with the tenant and was unfortunately the one who found her.

          I imagine Jane’s office would be a similar situation. The space can’t just sit vacant and now it’s being used. Having someone else working there would give some closure, I imagine.

  2. Matt*

    That is a great update. The space did not define the company or Jane and it is great it is newly used. Having a traumatic death in the workplace is just horrible for all and rare enough so that people do not have norms around it.

  3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    Oof that was difficult. But just someone quietly moving in and making it “their” space was the best solution.

    At least no one tried to run the person who took over the office out of the job.

    1. Jessen*

      I suspect this is the benefit of specifically moving an executive in. They have established relationships and they’re high up enough that most employees won’t easily be able to bully them out of a job. Much less risk of them turning into “the person who took Jane’s office” the way it might if they had assigned someone new.

    2. lincva*

      I thought this update was going to be for that story! (the coworkers who refused to replace their dead coworker)

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Same. That group sounded toxic, and I felt bad for all the folks thinking they had secured a nice job only to be run away for taking “former coworker’s job.”

    3. Petty_Boop*

      Yeah, I feel like I remember another story where employees kept running off any new person who took the place of a deceased former employee.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        The letter you’re remembering is “after an employee died, her team has driven off anyone we hire to replace her” from March 1, 2017. Link in reply.

  4. Khatul Madame*

    Great resolution of a tough problem!
    Now I really want to know how the new person decorated the office.

      1. Frank Doyle*

        And I apologize if that seems too flippant! Just trying to see it through the eyes of a pragmatic person with specific taste. Maybe there are lots of plants! I get the impression that he’s done something so that whenever a new person enters the space, they pause and comment on it.

        1. Avery*

          For some reason the first thing that came to my mind was gothic/occult. Something subtle enough to be work-appropriate, but very different from “typical” office decor just the same.

          1. Rose*

            This would be funny in other circumstances but I can’t see “the occult” being a good pallet cleanser in this instance…

          2. TeaCoziesRUs*

            Same! My mind immediately went to Ask a Mortician / Dark Academia decor. But I’m a fan of Caitlin and far too many CosTubers with a Gothic bent (TheClosetHistorian in particular), so it’s no wonder. :)

            1. JustaTech*

              Hello friend of similar tastes!

              Personally I was thinking some kind of serious nerd decor, like Start Wars spaceship blueprints, or something else odd but not directly “questionable”. And very unlike Jane.

      2. Sandi*

        I once worked with someone who took their birthday as vacation and returned to an office with pink walls. It wasn’t his preferred choice of decor but he rarely had meetings and left it that color. It definitely made me pause and comment the first time I visited! It wasn’t subtle, very much a Barbie shade.

        I’d love an office with blue along the bottom and yellow higher up – who wouldn’t love a minion theme?

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      I really hope it’s chickens. Because as a quirky person with specific tastes, I’d love a chicken-themed office.

      1. Rebecca*

        My mom has an entire collection of tacky holiday decor with cows. It started with the world’s ugliest Halloween candle like 25 years ago and has morphed into a collection of some of the weirdest, ugliest cow-themed holiday items you can imagine. I’m picturing something wacky like that.

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        Or a framed collection of Demotivator posters that say things like “Teamwork: None of us is as dumb as all of us” and “Consistency: it’s only a virtue if you’re not a screw-up.”

        1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Wonan*

          That’s what I thought too! Back when I worked in office I had a few of those, and I always liked seeing people’s reactions when they actually read the poster.

        2. AnonORama*

          I love those, and am still in awe of whoever at my old job managed to replace the real “motivational” poster over the reception desk with the Demotivator poster of a salmon jumping out of the whitewater, about to be eaten by a huge bear. (It said something like “Ambition: the journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly.) That poster was there for YEARS. Hell, it might still be; I left the company a while back.

  5. Wintermute*

    I guess it’s as good as you can do in these highly specific, emotional circumstances.

    I do feel like pointing out though that just because the family wanted everyone kept in the dark and kept from commemorating their loved one does not mean you have to listen. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. A family doesn’t get to say “we are ashamed and embarrassed by this and because of that we want you to do everything in a way that results in maximum suffering for you, please respect our wishes.” At least they don’t get to do that and be listened to.

    If what they want is harmful to other people psychologically/emotionally you not only can disobey but I think you’re morally obligated to.

    1. Czhorat*

      No, but keeping it private is out of respect to the living, not the dead.

      Yes, the coworkers are affected. The family is moreso. In the case of competing desires of family and officemates I’d side with the family every time.

      1. Wintermute*

        I wouldn’t, not in the workplace. you don’t get to demand other people suffer damage, you just don’t. The family doesn’t even need to find out about it. If they do you can just be honest, “we were close and people were suffering, we had to commemorate their grief somehow it wasn’t fair to them not to.”

        Especially when you throw in the fact that the usual reason to hide all details and minimize the death is because of barbaric middle ages thinking about mental health and suicide and it makes things more fraught than they should be.

        1. slashgirl*

          While it says it was the family, what if it was the deceased person’s wish to not have a memorial/service? My step father didn’t want anything–funeral, irish wake, etc. Should we have gone against his wishes and had a get together? Sure we could have. But he didn’t want it, so why would we do so.

          It’s not the employee’s business whether the request came from the family or were in the deceased person’s wishes as communicated by their will. I’m sorry but the deceased person and their family’s wishes are more important than the coworkers. If a few coworkers discretely decided to get together for a meal and toasted their friend, that’s fine, but nothing official from TPTB should be done.

          Imagine how harmful ignoring their wishes would be psychologically & emotionally for the family? Their peace of mind is so much more important than mere coworkers (they are NOT family or near to it). Places of employment are just that. Places of employment and it’s not up to the family to manage coworkers emotions. That’s up to the coworkers.

          If I found out my employer went against the wishes of a deceased person/their family in something like this, I’d be disgusted by them. I mean, I was a bit ticked off that my supervisor made a comment of “That’s too bad” when I said my step father didn’t want a service, because she’d like to go!

          And nowhere was there mention of suicide, nor was it implied, so please, stop writing fan fiction. Some of us are very private people. If I was dying of cancer, I sure as hell wouldn’t be telling very many of my coworkers, it’s none of their business if I don’t want it to be.

            1. Heidi*

              Heavily implied in that the first sentence of the second paragraph says, “About four years ago, one of our employees died by suicide in her office.”

          1. Wintermute*

            The original letter said the person committed suicide in their office that’s why this is so emotional. I did not make anything up.

          2. toadystools*

            Quote from the original letter:
            “About four years ago, one of our employees died by suicide in her office”

            1. RabbitRabbit*

              And there’s a warning statement before the letter starts as well: “Warning: this letter includes a death by suicide.”

          3. Myrin*

            Per the original letter, the employee did commit suicide, and in a matter that required the office to be closed completely and deep-cleaned thoroughly. Your point still stands but Wintermute didn’t make that up out of whole cloth.

          4. Wow, That was Uncouth*

            “And nowhere was there mention of suicide, nor was it implied, so please, stop writing fan fiction”

            Tell us you didn’t bother reading without telling us. The letter explicitly says “About four years ago, one of our employees died by suicide in her office.” so you’re the one who needs to quit writing fan fiction.

        2. Former Red and Khaki*

          Not gonna lie, the idea that you should go against the wishes of someone’s FAMILY just to alleviate the discomfort of a coworker – who, no matter how much or how long you work together is a friendly acquaintance at best – is insane. It’s insane, whether or not the family knows about it. Yes, I agree that we should all talk about suicide and mental health a lot more – but to tell someone’s personal story is the privilege of the people who knew them best and no one else’s. It’s self-serving at best. Please always honor a family’s wishes, no matter how icky they might make you personally feel.

          1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

            >Please always honor a family’s wishes, no matter how icky they might make you personally feel.

            As a queer person I can’t push back against this more strongly.

            Even in general, no. If my friend dies, and the family’s wish is ‘don’t talk about it, don’t get together, don’t commemorate them’? No. They don’t get to dictate that as the Most Bereaved.

              1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

                Yes? That’s not contradictory. People can handle things and grieve in their own way and do their best to respect others’ grieving process, but they don’t get to dictate to them.

              1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

                If a colleague of mine died tragically – at our *workplace* – and the message I received was that this can’t be acknowledged, talked about, or formally mourned, because of the wishes of the family or not, I’d find it outrageous.

                1. A. Nonymous*

                  “If a colleague of mine died tragically – at our *workplace* – and the message I received was that this can’t be acknowledged, talked about, or formally mourned, because of the wishes of the family or not, I’d find it outrageous.”

                  Is that actually the message that was relayed, or is that you adding meaning that isn’t there?

                2. Happy meal with extra happy*

                  There’s a massive difference between not disclosing the cause of death and not having a formal memorial service (which is in the letter) versus not allowing her death to be acknowledged or talked about at all.

                3. JustAnotherCommenter*

                  It’s not that it couldn’t be acknowledged at all, the offered counselling etc. they just didn’t host a formal work memorial or allow for religious services to be performed in the office – which is totally reasonable (especially since the employees demonstrated that any sort of religious involvement was going to get complicated).
                  The coworkers had every ability to host their own memorial and discuss it among themselves and clearly it was acknowledged in some way since the office was left empty for four years.

            1. Czhorat*

              And that, double-doc, is an excellent counterpoint, and one which I’m embarrassed to have not thought of myself.

              I apologize for promoting a line of thinking that could be very harmful to people with different life experiences than mine.

              1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

                Thanks so much for your kind reply. I’m just … frustrated, I guess, seeing people in the comments doing what I feel is misapplying good principles (circles of grief, respecting family wishes) in ways that are clearly causing active harm in this instance.

            2. Spiders Everywhere*

              The specific individual’s wishes come first, then the wishes of the people closest to them (which is often the family, but in some cases very much not,) then people who were close but not as close, then more casual acquaintances. In a common case like this where the person didn’t have any specific known wishes and there’s no reason to believe the family was estranged, the family’s wishes easily trump a peripheral connection like coworker.

          2. Ally McBeal*

            I can’t say I agree. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a private memorial, as long as no one posts about it on the company’s social media profiles or tells the family. One of the reasons memorial services exist is to provide closure to the people the deceased has left behind, and the deceased’s family doesn’t get to unilaterally decide who mourns their loved one. OP’s office could’ve held something really discreetly and it would’ve been fine.

          3. Cmdrshprd*

            “someone’s FAMILY just to alleviate the discomfort of a coworker – who, no matter how much or how long you work together is a friendly acquaintance at best –”

            I think where this is different is this situation happened at work, that puts it in a different ball game. This wasn’t a situation where a coworker just happened to pass away outside of the office. It is not just slight discomfort of the coworkers, but it is a traumatic event, knowing someone died (not sure if word was out about the suicide) in the office in a way that required a deep clean. That gives coworkers/employees standing to want to do something.

            “Please always honor a family’s wishes, no matter how icky they might make you personally feel.”

            The families wishes are not the only thing that matter. If they don’t want a memorial sure don’t let them know about it/invite them. But the company would have been justified in having a small memorial for the employees to help them move on from the death. Honoring a families wishes is about ways that directly impact them. Like the family asking coworkers not to show up to a private service, or to donate to x cause instead of flowers etc…. But they can’t demand no memorial be held at the company to help people cope, especially if they are not invited or made aware of it.

            If they happen to get word eventually and get upset that is on them.

            If a family tells me oh you are not invited to friends memorial, but you are also not allowed to have your own memorial. The first request fine, the second is not okay.

        3. Juicebox Hero*

          Within the past five years I’ve had both a sibling and a coworker die suddenly – natural causes in both cases – and I know which one affected me worse. And I know which one affected my coworker’s family worse. If they had come around demanding that my brother have a full church funeral and burial because it would have made THEM feel better even though my brother wanted to be cremated and just a memorial service, there would have been hell to pay. And by the same token, if my family had gone after them and tried to make them to, I don’t know, have Frank mummified and build a temple in his honor, there would have been hell to pay.

          Grieving families deserve respect. I hate the stigma against mental illness and suicide, too, but the place to fight that battle is not on someone else’s tombstone.

          1. Wintermute*

            but that’s not remotely what anyone is talking about.

            Gathering at a local park or a place important to them for 15-30 minutes and sharing some happy memories or impactful stories is so unoffensive that if they family took exception to it it would be pretty outrageous. That sort of thing is so low-stakes and so normal it would be totally out of sync with any norm to have a problem with people just sharing some stories of how someone you loved touched their life.

            1. Dr Wizard, PhD*

              Exactly. This is such a reasonable take I’m genuinely shocked people are arguing against it, and wondering about their actual experience with these complexities.

        4. Dr Wizard, PhD*

          I’m with you on this one. While it’s important to honour people’s wishes, and especially those closer, you don’t get to unilaterally declare that nobody can honour and mourn the dead in their own way.

        5. Vio*

          I’m all for reducing the stigma on mental health issues but there is a time and a place. Interfering in the grieving process is NOT the time or place for that discussion. Yes it’s relevant, but there is absolutely no way the conversation would be a productive debate, it would be far too raw and to put the family through that would be cruel.

      2. a clockwork lemon*

        Fully agreed with this. It would be a massive overstep for the workplace to organize a memorial of any kind after the family has explicitly said not to do so. Best case scenario it’s a thoughtless and somewhat cruel thing to do. Worst case scenario, it’s actively offensive and disrespectful.

        1. Wintermute*

          Gathering at a local park or a place important to them for 15-30 minutes and sharing some happy memories or impactful stories is so unoffensive that if they family took exception to it it would be pretty outrageous. That sort of thing is so low-stakes and so normal it would be totally out of sync with any norm to have a problem with people just sharing some stories of how someone you loved touched their life.

          1. WellRed*

            I agree with you, Wintermute though ultimately I think the company handled this as well as they could.

          2. ConstantlyComic*

            They weren’t wanting to gather at a park for 15-30 minutes though. They were wanting to bring a shaman, a psychic, and/or a pastor into her office to do some kind of post-death cleansing ritual.

            1. The dark months*

              I think that came from individual employees looking for a way to process their own grief rather than from the company itself. All of those things were denied/shut down by the company.

          3. Jennifer Strange*

            There was nothing to stop any employees from gathering at a local park or place other than their office to do this. The office itself, though, is free to decide not to host such a gathering on their premises, especially if they know it has the potential to hurt an already grieving family.

    2. Anonym*

      I don’t see reason to assume feelings of shame on the part of the family in making that request. They’ve gone through terrible trauma in that loss, and wanting privacy around it is very understandable, even if it’s not everyone’s way of coping. And of course the colleagues are affected, but not to the degree that the family was presumably. I think it’s perfectly okay for those closest to the loss to have their needs respected above others who are less close to it. There’s a concept called circles of grief that relates to this, in that it models how everyone affected can give and get support while respecting the particular suffering of those closest to the loss.

    3. Seashell*

      I think this is a far greater loss for the family than the co-workers. The co-workers were legitimately upset by this occurring in the office and may have felt a personal loss from losing a friend/acquaintance, but they didn’t lose a loved one. I would defer to the family’s wishes if they didn’t want a memorial. However, the previous letter only mentions them not wanting the cause of death disclosed.

      1. Seashell*

        I missed the discussion of the lack of the memorial in this one. Either way, it’s not the workplace’s call to make.

      2. Lilac*

        Agreed. I think it’s best to respect the wishes of those who were closest to the deceased. And we don’t actually know why the family didn’t want a memorial – it’s not necessarily because they were ashamed about the cause of death.

    4. Myrin*

      I don’t see anything about shame and/or embarrassment in either the original letter or the update and I really don’t think it’s fair to speculate like that (and state it like it’s a fact, too!).

      1. Wintermute*

        that’s fair, I left discussion of that for the latter part of the post because it’s not a certainty, the way I read it the family did not want ANY memorial which is a bit of a tipoff (I’ve seen very religious families go so far as unmarked graves or just saying “not our problem state can bury them we’re not paying for a funeral or burial”) but even if that’s not the reason it still wouldn’t be grossly inappropriate for the work to have a small informal gathering.

        No one’s talking about a second funeral here, gathering at a spot and talking about them for a little while informally is emotionally helpful too.

    5. Ink*

      I don’t read shame in any of what we know about the family. It’s apparently common knowledge that it was suicide, but coworkers don’t need to know more than that. They have a right to private grief with minimal attention brought to the more lurid details, or with extras embroidered onto the truth. There’s a world of difference between hiding a suicide and wanting to keep its graphic details out of the gossip mill.

    6. Olive*

      Given the details of what people wanted from a ceremony, it’s probably a good thing that the office chose not to have one. With the contentiousness coming from “strong personalities”, it sounds like there was a high risk of additional emotional harm if employees had been allowed to be involved in a memorial.

      1. Wintermute*

        That is the other factor. If the family wants no memorial of any kind, someone wants a shamanic ceremony (!) someone else wants an informal “get together say something nice about them or share a memory” ceremony and someone else wants something closer to a traditional funeral or memorial, those things are mutually exclusive.

      2. mcm*

        very much agree, and I think that’s the most salient point. It seems like all of the requests from employees were religious or spiritual in some way, which the office absolutely needed to shut down.

      3. Ladida*

        This is what I wanted to write too. Without meaning to sound harsh, based on their suggested ceremonies looks like the coworkers were not so much grieving as they were worried their deceased coworker would come back and haunt them. I think the company was right not to go over the family’s wishes on this. Overall they handled this whole situation really well, I am happy things worked out in the end.

        1. Wintermute*

          oooh this is a good point here. They may have had their own not-so-cool stuff going on. Or just a strong trauma response. Trauma’s not rational.

          1. Ccbac*

            it is very interesting that you are willing to admit that trauma is not rational when it comes to the coworkers but not when it comes to the family and instead have chosen to harp on how irrational and unreasonable a grieving family was. *shrug*

      4. Happy meal with extra happy*

        Agreed. In principle, I don’t disagree with coworkers having something little and unofficial, but here it’s sounds like the potential for drama and general over-the-top-ness is too high.

    7. learnedthehardway*

      Agreeing – a work get together (eg in a board room) for 1/2 an hour or so employees could remember their co-worker – that doesn’t even need to be communicated to the family. Gives everyone the ability to acknowledge their grief, say goodbye, and bond a bit. No speeches other than a brief statement from management that DeceasedCoworker was a valued member of the team and we’re all feeling their loss.

      1. Wintermute*

        exactly, no one’s talking about a second funeral, but an informal get together hurts no one, the family doesn’t even need to know, and people need to process these things, it’s how human beings work.

    8. Dust Bunny*

      I wouldn’t assume they were ashamed, and I wouldn’t buck the family’s wishes on something like this. You could just as well say that people can be curious all day long but that doesn’t give them the right to answers in sensitive situations. The employees know the generals about what happened; I’m not sure what more they could be told without getting really personal.

    9. Artemesia*

      I agree. Having a brief memorial in the office where people share memories of Jane and their sadness at losing her need not involve the family and might have helped people over the bump here. but an office full of contentious people who want to bring in shamans or priests or sage the place — I pity the manager who has to deal with this.

      1. Boof*

        At most maybe the next staff meeting could have a moment of silence- but honestly i’d put family requests first and not try to read into their motives unless there is some sort of preexisting knowledge that the coworker had a contentious relationship and absolutely would have wanted something else. The office closed for a week, too, so that was in a way it’s own memorial. That’s a very unlikely set of circumstances that i hope would have been in the letter if so.

  6. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    All that other background info about the family’s wishes and the ‘stronger personalities’ in the office just made it a more impossible situation. Wow. Glad that there was a way to finally get past that dilemma.

    1. Fellow Canadian*

      Yes, this is all just really terrible.

      unfortunately I have experienced the death of a friend whose family was just really terrible (had a funeral in their home city, not the city the deceased lived in, didn’t inform or invite any friends). The friends ended up hosting our own memorial service and took a bit of a “nuts to you” approach to the family. However this is much harder to do for a workplace, who have different reputational concerns to think about. Perhaps having a memorial ceremony would have helped many coworkers, but between the family’s wishes and the suggestions from the “stronger personalities” I can see why the company would just say “no” to any of it. I’m sure it made it harder to move past, though.

      1. Jessen*

        I think there’s also just a different note between coworkers overriding the wishes of family in general, and close friends overriding the wishes of family that’s known to have a strained relationship with the deceased. I presume in this case that if there had been some specific reason to believe the family was being toxic or disrespectful it would have been mentioned. For most people, family is going to be much closer to them and coworkers are generally on the level of friendly acquaintances. It’s not going to be great to let them override the wishes of the family that in most cases knows the deceased much better.

        1. JustAnotherCommenter*

          “I think there’s also just a different note between coworkers overriding the wishes of family in general, and close friends overriding the wishes of family that’s known to have a strained relationship with the deceased. ”

          Exactly this! I think it’s very easy for readers here to make assumptions and speculate about why the family didn’t want a memorial but the fact is that even if the family did have a contentious relationship with the deceased, it would *still* be kind of odd for their workplace to be the ones to say “to hell with their family’s wishes, we’re arranging a memorial service anyway!”
          People who are genuinely close to the deceased are in a position to make a judgment call and reject family wishes, but it’s really not the place of their boss and coworkers.

          Not to mention, with 150 employees, ‘strong personalities,’ and requests for shamans and priests it’s not hard to imagine even a casual/informal memorial event spiralling and the family being negatively impacted.

          The company offered grief counselling and respected the employees’ desire to leave the office unused these past four years – that seems like a perfectly reasonable and respectful response to me.

          1. March*

            Honestly, I have to wonder if the lack of memorial or group session is the reason the “strong personalities” turned their responses up to 100. Someone else pointed out that grief is irrational, and yes, the family is absolutely traumatized by the sudden suicide of their loved one. They’re suffering and grieving. But the person was found dead in their office by a coworker, and I think it’s reasonable to infer it was… messy, in the office, if it necessitated the office closing for a week and a deep cleaning crew to restore it. Finding a coworker dead is also INCREDIBLY traumatizing, and that’s before the suicide part comes into play and the state of the room. That’s a horrible, terrible discovery for anyone to make.

            Everyone here is in pain, and everyone’s grief made them at least a little irrational. That’s understandable. We’re allowed to be irrational. Some people absolutely took it too far, and OP/OP’s company navigated a terrible situation very well. There was never going to be a happy ending here, just an okay one.

            If the company had had a short (say, half an hour to an hour) little thing with a carafe of coffee and a tray of store-bought cookies, and let people just *talk* about it for that time… that’s not a memorial, but it is a way for them to have gained some level of closure. It may have been enough to prevent requests for the shamans and the priests and the psychics. People need closure. Especially in a deeply traumatic situation like this.

            1. allathian*

              Yes, this.

              We don’t even know why the family reacted the way it did. But for some people and some religious denominations, suicide is the ultimate sin and suicides don’t deserve to be buried in consecrated ground, and even if they are because there’s no other place to put them, they’re just buried without any of the religious ceremonies associated with other burials. To this way of thinking, a death by suicide brings shame on the whole family and shouldn’t be acknowledged in any way.

              It’s also very common for families to feel shame when someone’s died by suicide even in faiths and philosophies that allow people who’ve died by suicide the same rituals as everyone else.

              That said, some acknowledgment of the death by the company might have helped some of the employees to move on faster than they have. Just leaving the office empty for four years is a lot.

            2. UKDancer*

              Yes. It can be very difficult moving on without something for closure. My parents do a social group activity and a member of the group took his own life. His family didn’t want anything organised, had only a family funeral and no recognition or commemoration. It must have been really hard for them. But it was also hard for the social group, many of whom had known the chap for 20 years (in a small town) not to have some way of closure and a collective remembrance for him.

              The social group were not as close to him as his family but there was a strong sense of loss and a degree of guilt that nobody had noticed he was struggling. Having some way to commemorate helps I think so many of the group met informally for a coffee to share memories and grieve together.

            3. Allonge*

              It can be difficult to move on without closure, but four years is long enough to arrange your own closure instead of waiting for the company to do so. The company provided grief counseling and connected people with therapists, so I don’t think we can say they did nothing.

              No, there is no deadline for grief. No, four years is not enough to ‘get over’ things – a lifetime can be too short.

              But I would like to think that if I needed a ceremony, I would also not wait four years for a company that declined to organize it to change their minds, I would bring the coffee and cookies and invite like-minded souls and we do it somewhere outside the building if at all possible.

        2. sparkle emoji*

          Agreed. I had a family member who died earlier this year and his boss chose to give a speech at the wake(he was not asked to do so). The fact he chose to give the speech and the contents of the speech bothered his widow and children. In the best-case scenario, it’s nice to let coworkers attend, but it is also important to realize that a coworker should probably take a back seat to friends and family unless otherwise requested.

          1. allathian*

            I’m so sorry, the coworker should definitely have respected the wishes of the family here.

            That said, it seems to me like the problem wasn’t that the coworkers weren’t invited to the memorial service of the family, but that the family didn’t have a memorial service at all, and also demanded that the employer wouldn’t acknowledge the death in any way. The lack of a memorial service by the family is fine, there’s obligation to commemorate the death of a family member if you don’t want to, memorial services are for the living. But banning the company from commemorating the death on their own is, IMO, a bit much.

        3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          And there’s also a difference between a ceremony for people who happened to work with the deceased, and a ceremony for people who not only worked with her but went through the trauma of finding her, apparently in a gory state since the office required a week of deep cleaning, and all those who were traumatised to learn of the death right next to where they work, even if they didn’t know exactly what went down.
          There were some iffy suggestions with the shaman etc. but they could have just had a short non-religious moment to share memories and grieve together respectfully.

    2. Kerosena*

      OP, what a lovely and creative solution. I’m glad to hear you’re on the other side of that issue now. Thank you for the update.

      While I enjoyed imagining the rock-paper-scissors dynamic between Team Shaman-Team Psychic-Team Pastor, providing grief counselors but not a formal memorial was a good choice. Otherwise, Cheryl from payroll, known grief usurper, would post pics of the event to her private social media and tag the deceased coworker. The family might not appreciate the snaps taken at the scene of the tragedy and the resultant waves of grief and anger at Cheryl’s thoughtlessness.

  7. Keeley Jones, The Independent Wonan*

    I think you handled this tragic situation in the best it could be and glad someone decided to take the office and is making it his own.

  8. Santiago*

    Wow screw any of the commenters who implied rude about this tragedy and the work. Totally inappropriate.

    I’m glad it worked out. <3

    1. MigraineMonth*

      Seconding this. That was completely out of bounds and I would have reported it for moderation if I’d seen it; I’m sorry you had to read it.

      It sounds like you and your company did the best you could to respect those involved in a terrible tragedy. I notice that the eventual solution (an exec taking the office) is one that you got pushback on, but ultimately worked out for the best, so well done.

  9. Czhorat*

    This is heartbreaking all around, especially for those who wanted a ceremony but didn’t get one.

    And yes, if the surviving family didn’t want one then they are within their rights and should be respected, but that doesn’t make it less hard for everyone else. I can’t imagine navigating the competing desires of grieving colleagues. It’s a lot, but one of the few cases in which that’s REALLY understandable.

    Hopefully as time goes on people will continue to see the office as Jane’s. I’m glad you found an answer.

    1. allibys*

      Really? ESPECIALLY the people who wanted a ceremony? The people who were desperate to bring religion into the workplace and trample boundaries? Those people?

  10. Emily*

    Thank you for sharing the update, LW. It sounds like this was the best possible resolution given the circumstances. I also think the decision to draw a hard line and not allow any rituals was 100% correct. I am sorry that you received some insensitive comments to your original letter. I don’t know why it’s so hard for some people to be kind.

  11. Juicebox Hero*

    The grief counselors and therapist were a great idea. I’m glad you didn’t allow the “strong personalities” to go around getting their psychic peanut butter all up in someone else’s spiritual chocolate; that would just have led to resentment and one-upmanship rather than respecting Jane’s memory. Plus it would have upset her family when they heard about it, because at least one of them would have blabbed where they could see or hear about it.

    I’m also glad the quirky and practical executive was able to take over the office with little fuss. In time, it will be just another office, especially as the people who knew Jane move on or retire.

    1. sparkle emoji*

      Yes, I think the grief counselors were the appropriate choice for a workplace. Allowing everyone who worked with Jane to have conflicting religious ceremonies against the family and possibly Jane’s wishes wouldn’t have been.

  12. BellyButton*

    I am glad there was someone willing to move into the office. I am sure having it reclaimed and used helped people stop being reminded constantly of what happened there.

    I am not superstitious (“I am a little stitious”) and I don’t believe in ghosts, but I think I would have a hard time occupying that space for 8-10 hours a day.

    1. Olive*

      If it were the office of someone I’d known and cared about, it would be hard to be constantly reminded of their absence, no supernatural elements needed.

      1. Juicebox Hero*

        It’s a really odd thing. When my brother died suddenly, my sister couldn’t stand being in his house for a second longer than she had to. I didn’t mind at all. It was sort of comforting to feel his presence around me and remember the good times. However, once his house was cleared out and his “essence” was gone, she didn’t mind being there at all but it freaked me out; I felt like an intruder.

        In this situation, I really don’t know how I’d react.

  13. higheredadmin*

    I think this manager has found an especially unique way to avoid unnecessary (or any) meetings. Fergus: I think we need a meeting to go over the teapot designs for the sixth time. Manager: Sure, let’s meet in my office. Fergus: never mind, teapot designs are a go! (Said in jest – what a mess OP, and glad to hear that you are at the end of it.)

  14. Bookworm*

    I am very sorry you had to go through that, OP, and thank you for the update. Glad it seems the new employee to the space might help people move forward and I hope that is so.

  15. Ccbac*

    I lost a parent to suicide a few years ago. I was in my early 20s. (admittedly, the death did not occur not in the work place)

    The way some people up thread are discussing the family of the deceased coworker is pretty gross. And there are so many assumptions being made. No one knows how they will react to the unexpected loss of a loved one. There is so so much numbness. So much uncertainty that you are doing everything correctly. A funeral to plan. People to inform. People who will be equally devastated. So many Things and Decisions that need to be made and made relatively quickly. So much regret, so many tears, and so so so much unimaginable grief and deep deep sadness. My father’s co-workers did not cross my mind and their only involvement was to say how deeply deeply sorry they were and to please let them know if they would do anything to help (along with a sympathy card stuffed full of cash).

    None of us know what was discussed re: a work memorial service ect. or when this was discussed. In the immediate aftermath of my father’s death, had his workplace reached out with queries about what to say or a potential memorial, we would have said whatever required the least amount of thought and further action on our part– likely a no thank you, please just say he died and is dearly missed and please leave us alone thanks.

    1. boof*

      I am so sorry to hear that – and want to affirm as a physician who tries to help people navigate terrible situations; yes. Strangers really shouldn’t speculate on the motives of family who suddenly and probably unexpectedly lost someone, or even criticize what emotions they might be struggling through, really. A lot of shock, horror, anger, etc would be very normal, and there was nothing in the letter that indicated the coworker has a bad relationship with their family.

    2. Alpaca Bag*

      Hugs to you, if you like that sort of thing… Otherwise, just a gentle acknowledgement of respect for your feelings and caring about what you went through.

    3. Josame*

      Cebac, this was beautifully said. I’m sorry you had to go through this. I appreciate your thoughts.

    4. Lenore*

      I’m sorry for your loss.

      I lost a close family member to suicide when I was a child. I rarely talk about how they died – not due to shame, but due to grief. They would want to be remembered for how they lived, not how they died.

      LW was confronted with an impossible situation and handled it as well as they could.

      1. Sandi*

        Well said. I feel like the more vocal people in the workplace were focused on the death and not Jane’s life, and for that reason I think the best decisions were made.

        I’m so sorry for your loss Ccbac and Lenore.

    5. sparkle emoji*

      I’m so sorry Ccbac.
      I think you’re right about all of this. The claim from other commenters in other threads that not wanting a work memorial must mean the family is ashamed or covering things up is really bothering me. Sometimes it just isn’t wanted to have coworkers at those types of events. My uncle died recently and his boss decided to take the mic and start eulogizing him unasked. My cousin then turned to me and told me how much his father disliked him, and how annoyed he would be to know this was happening. Barring special circumstances, a memorial/funeral/remembrance ceremony is not meant to be led by coworkers.

      1. allathian*

        Sure, the family had every right to say that coworkers weren’t welcome at the family memorial service, if there was one.

        But I do think that it would be outrageous of the family to tell the employer that they weren’t allowed to commemorate a dear coworker on their own, without involving the family.

        1. Insert Clever Name Here*

          There’s a huge spectrum along which that conversation could go, though. The family could have simply responded to an inquiry about a memorial service with “No, thank you. Family Member did not want anything done; we are respecting their wish and ask you to do the same.” There’s absolutely nothing outrageous about that.

          And sure, there could have been some huge dramatic scene about it…but probably it was simply communicated by someone overcome with shock and grief who didn’t care what their deceased family member’s coworkers wanted (because it’s not remotely the family’s priority to make sure the coworkers grief is taken care of).

        2. Ccbac*

          “outrageous” is frankly a bit much. Grief is complicated and, in the immediate aftermath of a sudden lose, you are faced with decision after decision, it is certainly not outrageous to say “nope not interested”.

          we do not know what the office said and/or if it was clear to the family that they didn’t have to be involved. I agree that the office didn’t necessarily have to ask the family for “permission” to hold space, but once you do ask, it is much harder and more more disrespectful to go back on that.

          my point was largely that none of know how the communication was handled/what was said and all the up thread comments about the family being ashamed/trying to control the grief of others are pretty disgusting and a lot of the coworkers seem to have pretty big main character syndrome about this.

  16. Sara without an H*

    Hello, LW — This was very, very hard for all concerned. Glad you found a solution. (I’d kind of like to meet the executive who took over that office…)

  17. H.Regalis*

    It definitely stung when a few folks in the comments suggested that there must have been some work related reasons she died in our offices

    That’s a really awful thing to say. OP is a stranger to everyone commenting. There is no way anyone here could possibly know if this were true. It’s such a nasty, cruel thing to say in response to someone writing in seeking help with a situation.

    1. Beebis*

      An awful thing and even if it were true, it’s entirely irrelevant to the problem LW needed to solve

  18. Still Waiting*

    Slashgirl’s calling commenters liars and content “Fan fiction” still stands. Please advise.

  19. K8T*

    I think this was the best way it could’ve gone. I was genuinely taken aback by how many people wanted to ignore the family’s wishes from the original letter.

    1. allathian*

      I think it’s equally outrageous of the family to tell the employer of their dead family member how they can and can’t commemorate the former coworker, as long as they do it without involving the family. It’s one thing to ban them from attending the family’s private memorial service, quite another to attempt to ban them from holding some kind of memorial of their own, especially if it’s done during the workday and on company premises. Quite honestly, I can’t see how such a ban could even be enforced, even if going against the explicit wishes of the family would probably make most coworkers at least a bit uncomfortable. But the family doesn’t have a monopoly on grief.

      At a memorial service organized by family, even when coworkers are invited to attend, the family members are the chief mourners and any attempt to upstage them would be out of line. That said, one of the most moving eulogies I’ve ever heard was read by my uncle’s manager at his funeral (he died when he was 45). His widow certainly appreciated it.

      One of our directors died in the middle of a workday two weeks ago, although he was WFH at the time. His death was both sudden and unexpected, but as far as anyone knows, he died of natural causes. People have more sense than to speculate about it, many employees who knew him well are grieving.

      My employer always respects the wishes of the family, but in this case his widow has invited his coworkers to attend the funeral. I didn’t know him at all (I doubt he knew my name) so I’m not going, but many of his current and former subordinates are going, as are many from the C-suite. Grief counseling is available from our EAP for any employee who needs it. His former office has already been reassigned to the interim director who took over his job for the time being, without any drama as far as I can tell. A very moving obituary was published on our intranet last week.

      1. K8T*

        You’re right – they couldn’t police any office memorial. It is just incredibly weird and rude *to me* that people would choose to go against someone’s family’s wishes. Clearly others don’t have that problem.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          I think that the family doesn’t have much say over how the office handles things on their end. It’s not their purview. In this case, with the strong personalities threatening to run roughshod over office norms, it was probably a good idea to not hold one.

          But without those tramplers, I think it’s okay for an office to hold an optional, low-key memorial without involving the family.

  20. Ex-prof*

    I’m glad to hear a solution of sorts was found. It sounds very painful for everyone.

    I have been through something similar and we did have a shaman in to perform a healing ritual, at the request of Native American staff, and we had a Catholic priest in to sprinkle holy water also, and a Protestant minister for a blessing.

    This did seem to help people move forward. But with the family requesting that it not be done I can see that wasn’t an option.

    1. allathian*

      Yes and no.

      The family could certainly announce that coworkers aren’t welcome at a private memorial service for the family, if there had been such a thing. But I think it’s out of line for the family to decide on behalf of the coworkers how they can and can’t commemorate the passing of a dear coworker.

      I might feel differently if the coworker who killed herself in her office had left a note blaming her employer or her coworkers for her suicide, but there’s nothing in the letters that even hints at anything like that.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        The co-workers were welcome to go to a bar or gather at someone’s house and remember their co-worker. Their place of business, though, is completely in the right to decide not to host it.

  21. kiki*

    “I sincerely hope that none of the readers will have to experience a similar situation in their careers (and it definitely stung when a few folks in the comments suggested that there must have been some work related reasons she died in our offices). It still feels like a situation where there were A LOT of ways to get it wrong/cause harm and balancing the needs/wants of the family with the needs/wants of the staff was complicated.”

    I think this is a needed reminder why it’s important not to get too fan-fiction-y in the comments. These are real situations with real people involved. Jumping too quickly with extreme assertions can be really hurtful. And it’s easy to armchair quarterback from the comments and point out everything that was done “wrong.” It’s a lot harder to know in the moment what the best path to take is.

  22. Me1980*

    Thanks for the update! Of all the posts I’ve read on this site, the “haunted office” is the one I’ve thought about most. I have an appreciation for how difficult this must have been to experience—it would bother me, too! I also see fodder for an SNL skit. I mean, I can just see a line of shamans, psychics, energy healers, priests, faith healers, exorcists, priestesses, acupuncturists, spiritual guides, medicine men, at the door of this office doing their thing one after another,

  23. Bo Peep*

    Considering the “Strong personalities” involved, it seems like it was better not to have a memorial. Which is worse, no memorial service, or one filled with drama that spills over into everything else that happens afterwards, like now Sarah’s mad at Molly for bringing a psychic and Jimmy’s mad at Sarah for bringing a priest and now not only will no one go near the office where the death occurred, they won’t even speak to each other? I think the SNL reference above is pretty apt. I can just imagine the parade of grief and the circus of outside professionals coming through as everyone tries to get what they want. I highly doubt Jane would want the office to implode over this or a spectacle made of her death. Imagine how hard that would be for the less “strong” personalities, having to pick sides and navigate the highly charged atmosphere. It was better to just have grief counselors.

  24. Queen of Comms*

    A few years ago, a woman on my team died unexpectedly on the sidewalk outside our office building, on her way home in the evening. She was young, well-liked, and generally healthy, so it came as an absolute shock. I would like to say that time heals losses, but no one prepares themselves emotionally for this kind of loss at work. I still can’t pass the curb where she passed without thinking about her.

    Wishing you all the best as you continue your healing journey as a team.

  25. glowyrm*

    For some people, abiding by the deceased person’s and/or their family’s wishes carries its own sense of comfort and healing.

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