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Ritual procrastination as part of the grieving process


Half empty coffee mug

Spiro was in the prime of life – 22 years old, good looking, and a whiz on the computer. At work he occupied one segment of a four berth work station in the inner suburban office of a major insurer. Just two years with the firm, Spiro was already an office icon – popular, competent, going places.

He drove an old and treasured Nissan Skyline. Friends and family considered him a responsible driver. One evening the unthinkable happened. On his way home, just a few minutes from the office, Spiro lost control of the car and ran under the back of a stationary tray truck. He was killed instantly.

The train of events at his workplace is worth pondering. As his work colleagues drifted in next morning, the news was broken to the 20 or so staff in his immediate work area. It was met with a mixture of disbelief, shock, stoicism and tears.

Management was considerate. Work was put on hold. Coffee was brewed. Staff mingled. Several workmates went home. The rest stayed. 

In a surprisingly short time, people drifted back to their desks. At least this was their territory, and it gave some sort of comfort. They could stare at the computer screen, pick away at the keyboard or shed a tear in relative privacy. What became most painfully obvious in due course was Spiro’s desk – his empty place. What to do with his pinned up collection of postcards, pithy sayings and frequently used phone numbers?

What to do with yesterday’s half full coffee mug? Ah, now therein lay a dormant symbolism; and therein lay the seeds of a management mistake. Believing the cup to be upsetting to those nearby, Spiro’s immediate supervisor decided to tidy up. The mug was whisked away into the tea room, washed and put in a cupboard.

To Spiro’s colleagues at that moment, the mug represented a link with life, personality and yesterday.

To remove it was to prematurely shatter continuity with its owner. It was as though Spiro’s memory was disposable. Tensions rose. Staff murmured amongst themselves and a few minutes later the supervisor was pronounced ‘an insensitive bastard’ to his face by a woman normally admired for her discretion and tact. It seems that an act intended to be respectful of Spiro, and of others, was interpreted as a violation of his space and person.

The ritual of waiting needed to be observed; and not just that of waiting but of choosing the moment to act.

Personal grief, complicated by group dynamics, is a volatile mixture. But the story highlights the huge variety of needs and perceptions surrounding a death in the workplace. At such times there is a need to slow down the urge to do something. In an office or group setting, it is important for managers and executives to recognise their own grief and also to provide a framework in which staff can feel consulted and respected. If personal items are going to be moved, there needs to be shared discussion regarding when and by whom. Some obvious things are best left until after the funeral, but the timing of seemingly trivial matters needs careful handling as well.

One day someone else will occupy the spot of the much missed colleague and hopefully make it their own. They may do so entirely ignorant of the memories and dynamics around them. In fairness to a new staff member there is a role for sensitive briefing by management in such situations.

In our home contexts, similar issues are raised. When do we erase the voice of a deceased family member from the home message bank? When does one clear out the wardrobe and dispose of items inextricably linked to the personality and interests of a loved one?

The answer is – when we’re ready. The time to move on is nobody’s business but our own. Respectful inactivity, even ritual procrastination, is a natural part of grieving.

Such principles have been raised and worked through at national level in the aftermath of the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes. This was a death in the workplace, albeit in a professional sporting context, and many of the dynamics of the effect on team mates have been played out for all to see. 

Now that the funeral is over, colleagues and the wider community will still need space to reflect and to heal. The questions of how to move on, and when, are complex and interlinked.

There is a saying that ‘there is a time for every matter under heaven’. Maybe the time is not yet.

Jim Pilmer

Jim Pilmer is a Melbourne Anglican priest and chaplain to the Victoria Police Major Collision Unit and Homicide Squad.




Topic tags: Jim Pilmer, grief, Phillip Hughes, pastoral care, counselling, death, human relationships, workplace



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Existing comments

It was the suddenness and finality. For those of us with some knowledge of cricket, we felt we knew Phillip Hughes - his prodigious talent, his great love of his sport and his determination to make it back to the very top level of cricket. Our hearts broke for his family. Michael Clarke spoke, and cried, on behalf of his team mates. And we all grieve for our loss.

Pam | 03 December 2014  

An excellent pastoral piece on Spiro's death, John. It is always difficult in the workplace because of the prevailing "commercial" approach. With Phil Hughes my real sympathy is with the family - to some extent unfairly overshadowed by the Australian Cricket team and the man who was accidentally responsible for his death. The last obviously also needs help but that needs to be on a personal basis and the Hughes family need to be allowed to get on with their own personal tragedy. They do not need to "include" anyone else unless they want to. Pictures of a young man - who I presume did not know PH - crying at the SCG, quite frankly, tell me more about him and a lot of other things which have nothing to do with PH, who seemed a right good bloke. I am concerned we are becoming an intrusive culture which projects affection on those we don't know rather than those we do. It seems ironic and I am sure you will understand that the greatest sermonisers and drawers of moral points are not clerics. Sometimes their "sermons" and their timing are way, way off.

Edward Fido | 04 December 2014  

This is an excellent timely reminder of the need to give ourselves time to think - to retain sensitivity within ourselves and not be swept along with what we might perceive as the needs of others, without proper inclusive consultation to all concerned.

Rosalind Simmons | 04 December 2014  

"Personal grief, complicated by group dynamics, is a volatile mixture." The accidental death of Phillip Hughes while batting in his typically dashing way in an inter-state cricket match has stimulated discussion on death, dangers in sport, grief, and the role of the media. All good and proper. As a 78 year old grandfather I cried at various points during the funeral service. At one time I cried when the image of my teenage grandson bowling in an Under 18 district cricket match came into my consciousness. His parents were so proud of his success, as was I. But it was the memory of his mother's words after the match that brought a tear to my eye. "I'm so glad Gerard loves cricket, it's such a safe game compared to footie." We cannot wrap our children and grandchildren in cotton wool and we have to be prepared to accept the fact - accidents do happen.

Uncle Pat | 04 December 2014  

Oops, sorry Jim, called you John. My apologies.

Edward Fido | 04 December 2014  

I wonder if the underlying determinator of such submissive outpourings of communal grief (such as the Diana event, the annual candlelight pilgrimages to the site of the fatal snow fields landslide of some years ago and many others) represents a search for something beyond human autonomy in a society overfilled with emptiness.

john frawley | 04 December 2014  

When expunge the remembrance of deceased? In Catholic Tradition 'never' as we offer regular prayers and masses, for the repose of a soul. Here an eschatology that elicits prayers for those in purgatory, or prayers importuning guidance and help of deceased in Heaven! Such in no way trivialises the need for grieving, nay Faith in Resurrection provides a catalyst for reality based eternal solace. Such underpins transient, though important, cathartic collective sentiments.

Father John George | 04 December 2014  

Thank you Jim for this sensitive piece. We do tend to want to rush things, yes to clear away, to get back to 'normal' and yes we need to take the time needed. In the workplace this can be different for different people.

Jorie | 05 December 2014  

Jim : This is thoughtful piece and raises the difficult issues of what a workplace can and should do. For some years I worked for an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and these were issues that cropped a couple of times a week at least. The coffee cup is of course a "Maybe": because as you have said, it canvases a range of issues. In the same way, the surviving employees view is only partially about the cup. The critical moment was probably when the staff were informed and how they were supported following the news. There can be huge range of employer strategies for this and you have touched on some of the wide range of employee responses. I am sure the manager meant no harm, and having dealt with these matters for many of the big corporates for years, I am sure he was as surprised the employee response as I imagine the employee was herself. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

Ross Bell | 05 December 2014  

I think, John Frawley, you and I might find Sport is the nearest thing to God in many Australian's vocabulary and vision. Interesting the outpourings for Phillip Hughes - a young man cut off in his prime - with the more muted sentiments on the death of Murray Rose - who died a mature man with immense dignity after an outstanding career and whose family wanted a quiet funeral for family and friends without grandstanding or usurpation by any professional sports administrators or former sporting greats. I suspect, if Phil or Princess Diana had died in maturity the trumpets would have been more muted. "Impossible" beauty and sporting prowess are things we worship. We are subconsciously aware they fade away. As far as the transcendent goes...

Edward Fido | 07 December 2014  

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