What can we do for a dying co-worker?
January 14, 2005 10:00 AM   Subscribe

What can/should you do for a co-worker in your department who only has a few weeks left to live, and is already at the hospital?

Even if you aren't particularly close, one has the feeling one should do something. But what?
posted by ShawnStruck to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, how sick are they- if you brought magazines, could they read them? Or if you brought CDs, could they listen to them? That's obviously going to make a big difference.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:03 AM on January 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Nothing. If you're not close, why would they want you to do anything.

Maybe your office could make a donation to a relevant charity, collectively.

All the above only applies as long as the co-worker has family and friends who are taking ccare of him.
posted by ascullion at 10:09 AM on January 14, 2005

Best answer: From having witnessed this (a co-worker dying; varying degrees of response from fellow co-workers), I think the important thing is to not just ignore it. From experience, that can be very painful, especially if work is a very important part of the person's life. Doing something may feel awkward or uncomfortable to you, but it may well be a very good deed in the greater scheme of things.

You might want to check with family (or there may be a closer friend of the co-worker who would know this sort of thing) to inquire about logisitics of visiting. Again, it'll all depend on the situation, but the person may really appreciate a brief visit. You don't need to stay very long, and take you cues on conversation topics from the person (they may want to hear about work, for example). Other than that, send a card (and maybe a small potted plant or floral arrangement), or drop off some home-baked goodies at the hospital or the person's home. CDs or books on tape are a good idea, TPS.

The bottom line is that it's really hard to do something wrong in this case--unless you do nothing at all (unless, of course, family contacts tell you not to visit or send cards, in which case you should respect their wishes). If you're sending a card or dropping by, you might want to let other co-workers know. They might decide to come with (though too big a crowd's not a good idea in a hospital room) or want to sign the card or pitch in money.

Similarly, attending the memorial service would be a very nice gesture--though it may not be the most comfortable thing for you to do.
posted by handful of rain at 10:19 AM on January 14, 2005

Response by poster: Well, she's not really in a conidtion to listen or read right now. But she was pretty nice to a newbie first starting out at the office.
posted by ShawnStruck at 10:19 AM on January 14, 2005

This is more related to comforting the family after the death than helping the actual coworker, but when one of our coworkers passed away a few years ago, a bunch of us who knew him fairly well compiled our fond anecdotal memories of him and sent them to his wife with a card. It tends to be comforting for the loved ones to hear something new about the person who died. Likewise, if you have any photos of him from a work party, or heck, even an old voice mail, the family might like to hear his voice again or see a photo they’d never seen before.
posted by boomchicka at 10:19 AM on January 14, 2005

Oh, oops, she. And the "she was nice to a newbie" story is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. Surely her husband or children would like to hear about how she reached out even to those who barely knew her.
posted by boomchicka at 10:22 AM on January 14, 2005

Send a card to the family, or to the patient. Tell them the things you fondly remember about working with them. Be sincere -- if you can't do it sincerely, don't do it. Err on the side of not sending anything if there's a question.

Be aware: many feelings like this ('Feeling like one should so something') are really more about one's own situation (fear of death) than about the situation of the patient. In some cases, they're keenly aware of this and end up feeling like they're wasting their very precious time counseling you about your feelings rather than the other way around.

A few don'ts:
Don't tell them how bad you feel/how sorry you feel -- note these are about your feelings, not theirs
Don't send flowers or gifts unless you clear it w/ the patient/family first
Don't tell them how fondly you'll remember them -- these promises ring hollow in most cases. Rather tell them what you remember about them right now. Write in the present tense, not past or future.

If you really want to invest some time/energy on a potentially thankless task: Ask the patient or the family if a) they have a moment to talk (so they can answer your questions) and b) there's anything you can do to help support them. Be prepared for a 'No'. Bear the 'Be Aware' stuff in the front of your mind -- no point in you being a nuisance. Be sure you're up to the task, follow through. Ensure they know you're sincerely offering support, rather than fishing for compliments later and don't expect any (you may have to find a more tactful way of expressing that one).

Take what I've said with a huge grain of salt. I'm by no means an expert or experienced at this. Ascullion's advice is probably better than mine.
posted by daver at 10:26 AM on January 14, 2005

I went through this with a co-worker who died of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). It was especially painful since it was excruciatingly slow and our company manufactured communication devices for ALS patients, so we knew exactly what was going on and about to happen.

What I discovered was that while the desire to help the co-worker and family was strong, my co-workers needed support too. Even though you may not have been close, another co-worker almost certainly was and may need some emotional support.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 10:31 AM on January 14, 2005

My father is dying of cancer and what I appreciate most are honest stories about how he's made a difference in peoples' lives. It's been a real treat to see folks come out of the woodwork to express their thanks and affection for a life well-lived.

Since dad is still doing fairly ok (his diagnosis is 3-6 months), my family encourages anyone who wants to talk to him to just call. Once he really starts to slide, I will probably act as a buffer, relaying any well wishes as long as my father wants my company. Everyone deals with pain and dying differently and there are times when my father wants company and other times when NO ONE is to be in the room with him, even his wife. Your co-worker may or may not be of this mind.

I would suggest you contact the family and send at least a thoughtful, hand-written letter with memories of your co-worker. Stay away from platitudes about "God's plan" or how "things will get better." If you have any mementos, include those. I'd say the office donation idea is fantastic.

Lots of co-workers have offered their "help" to me, but I tend to receive that as just a show of emotional support. Kind of like how you greet someone with "How are you?" but you don't really care or expect to hear the answer. The only offers I've considered seriously are those who brought up a *specific* way to help - watching my cats or buying me lunch, for example.

Be aware that everyone grieves differently. Don't press the "how are you doing?" question. If they want to talk, for God's sake, listen. And please don't think that any talk of the realities of death and dying by either the family and/or the co-worker is sign of callousness. In my family, talking about *all* the unpleasantness of my father's dying is actually a means of achieving peace of mind. I'm actually having to censor *myself* because my talk of wills and cremation makes some folks uncomfortable - daver's comments about our own private feelings on death are spot-on.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:02 PM on January 14, 2005

I agree with sending a note that relates a fond anecdote. A coworker of mine died last summer after battling cancer for several years, and towards the end I contacted her husband to see if it would be okay to send a note telling her how much fun I had working with her on a particular project. He was more than happy and said he'd read it to her (she'd lost her sight by that time as the cancer had advanced), especially because in her final days she loved to hear about things related to her work (she was a curator at the art museum where I'm an editor). I closed simply by saying that I loved her and that her extraordinary attitude/energy/humor had been a positive force in my life (which was true, not just something I wrote for the sake of it).
posted by scody at 12:20 PM on January 14, 2005

This is pretty dependent on the individuals involved. A lot of times close family members really don't want to be bothered by acquaintances when the most important people in their lives are dying. Definitely try to check with the family first about what they want. Also remember that if things aren't going to get better and you weren't really close to the person, it's entirely possible there's nothing you can do which will be meaningful.

I would try to find out if there is someone 'handling' the logistical elements and ask what the patient and the family want. Make it clear that you wish to express care & gratitude but not to intrude or distract, and find out what route they would prefer.
posted by mdn at 12:24 PM on January 14, 2005

You might want to check with family (or there may be a closer friend of the co-worker who would know this sort of thing) to inquire about logisitics of visiting.
Then gather several co-workers to go for a visit.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:36 PM on January 14, 2005

The previous posters have really covered everything - just to offer my own advice. I don't know what your "department" is like. I worked in a blue-collar job for 7 years.

There is a real esprit de corps in some blue-collar jobs. When there were situations similar to yours we always visited the family, brought bottles of water and some snacks for the family, candy or flowers for the nurses, and offered to drive the family members anywhere in case they didn't have a car/too tired to drive.

It was not dependent on if we socialized outside of the job (or even liked) the co-worker.

The little things matter. When you are spending 14+ hours day at the hospital sometimes you do not drink enough water, forget to eat, et .cet.
posted by mlis at 3:21 PM on January 14, 2005

Please consider what this person would want, not what you would want in this situation. Speaking for myself, if I'm dying, the last thing I want is to entertain my former co-workers.
posted by SPrintF at 6:32 PM on January 14, 2005

Hey! Candy for the nurses, and nothing for the doctors?

In 11 years, I can count the number of thoughtful things from patients and their affiliates on the fingers of one hand. Be careful, though - one girl brought me a donut for taking care of her brother in intensive care, and I wound up dating her for 3 years.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:20 PM on January 14, 2005

« Older Our vet diagnosed feline asthma. Could it be...   |   What is the origin of saying shocked twice to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.