How Death and HR Built A Business
WE MET IN A CAVE, AND THEN I MARRIED HIM
Honestly! I was working for a company that took high school students on adventure trips. He was a teacher. The weekend his school came, I was working on the spelunking activity. Spelunking is another word for crawling into caves on purpose.
At 6'6" tall, crawling into a cave was not his idea of fun. But we had such a great time with the students that he came back again the next day! At the end of the trip, he convinced me that I needed to meet his puppy and see pictures of when he went backpacking in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it snowed.
Three years later, we were married.
We spent the early part of our marriage living in different states as he worked up the school administration ladder. We lived in three different states and had three kids, then we moved to Los Angeles.
And when he wanted to move to California, I said "OK but no more kids!"
Art was active. When I met him, he had been a cyclist, getting up pre-dawn to ride in bike races. It's a thrilling skill to have!
We were a typical couple and trying to appreciate each other, our family, and our fast-paced life.
Family photo June 2006, six weeks before his first diagnosis.
AND THEN THE DOCTOR SAID, “YOU HAVE CANCER."
Then one day, my friend came over and asked, "Is Art OK? He doesn't look good."
I didn't think anything of her comment, and I didn't share it with him.
A week later, Art went for a six-mile run but came home after running only a single mile, saying, "I feel like I can't breathe." He admitted that he wasn't feeling great and thought he should see a doctor. Our PCP suggested that Art see an infectious disease doctor.
Something about that suggestion made us both nervous. I said, "Can I come with you?" just before Art had a chance to ask me to go with him.
We learned Art had cancer in the office of the infections disease doctor.
The doctor couldn't tell what kind of cancer it was, but he showed us an x-ray of Art's chest, and these white specks were all over it. They were the reason he was having trouble breathing.
We made three calls sitting in that office. One to his parents. One to my parents and one call to Art's boss.
The doctor felt that waiting till Monday to stage Art's cancer would not be a good idea. The doctor made a call and Art and I were sitting in the office of another doctor in less than an hour.
By Monday, Art was having severe problems breathing. Through connections, we landed an appointment with Dr. Wolin. On Monday, Dr. Wolin told us the cancer was serious and that Art needed to have surgery and be on chemo as soon as possible. The doctor we saw on Friday had not comprehended the seriousness of Art's situation.
Art was hospitalized and had surgery to remove a tumor. They biopsied the tumor and, he was diagnosed with
Stage IV Large B-Cell Lymphoma.
It was advanced enough that waiting for Art to heal from surgery was deemed a dangerous option.
I remember when the nurses brought in the first bag of chemo. They had on PPE with special gloves to protect themselves from a drug that would damage their skin, but that was going into Art's body. Art and I looked at each other and started to cry.
"If you need anything, let me know."
THE ONE PHRASE PEOPLE KEPT SAYING THAT SEEMED HELPFUL BUT WAS NOT
At first, every time someone said it, I felt grateful. The phrase reminded me how lucky we were to have a support community.
But then... I noticed how unhelpful the phrase was.
What I realized when people said, "If you need anything, let me know was!":
I didn't know what we needed. And I felt like it was my responsibility to know. This led to guilt and anxiety, wondering if I was “doing” this cancer caregiver thing right.
Our friends were waiting for us to tell them what we needed and that was a problem because of the first issue!
There were occasions when I realized what I needed but, it seemed ludicrous to ask for help in those moments.
There was the time I realized we were out of pasta as I reached for the pasta to add to the boiling water.
There was the time I remembered I had to pick up a child at school when I was already halfway to pick up Art from the cancer treatment center.
And there was that time when my youngest had to use paper towel to wipe himself because I had forgotten to put toilet paper on the grocery list.
In those moments, I felt silly calling someone who had said, "call me if you need anything," and asking, "Can you please get me some pasta right now?" It was harder and way more stressful to load the kids into the car and run to get pasta, but it was less embarrassing to get the pasta myself.
One of my sisters found Lots of Helping Hands, a website that allows a community to sign up and support a friend in need. Friends and coworkers were able to sign up to have meals delivered.
Friends and coworkers:
paid for a housekeeper,
packed the kids' lunches,
and picked up and dropped off Art for cancer treatments
visited Art when he had treatments
delivered meals came in containers we didn't need to return.
Everything that everyone did mattered and made a difference.
I want you to know what you do
(or don’t do) matters.
This tower of Tupperware represents the meals we received during the first two weeks after he was first diagnosed. For scale, Art was 6’6”!
When an employee, co-worker, or friend has cancer, the person dealing with cancer knows who steps in to help, however awkwardly, and who hasn't.
Then he was cancer-free.
Seven months after his first diagnosis, Art was pronounced cancer-free. There was a cautious delight. The side effects of chemo still ruled our lives. He had to rebuild his body, and we had to rebuild our relationship.
Over the next 1 ½, we started to think the cancer was behind us. In September of 2008, Art did his first triathlon.
One night, our oldest son who was ten knocked on our bedroom door. "I want to know something," he said. "Will the cancer come back?" Art said, "We hope not, kiddo. But we don't know." Our oldest, satisfied with that answer, said, "Ok. Good night" and trotted off to bed.
Then at Christmas 2008, he gave me a camera. I would use it to document his last days with us.
He was lethargic throughout Christmas. He said he couldn't breathe the day after New Year's. "Do you want to go to the hospital?" I asked. He said, “yes.”
Art was stoic and had a very high pain threshold. If he wanted to go to the hospital, it was not good. When we arrived, Art's o2 level was so low that we didn't get to sit in the waiting room. They admitted him immediately.
After chest x-rays, they discovered a blood clot and little white spots. Two days later, Dr. Wolin, the doctor who had treated Art the first time, delivered the news that the cancer was back, and it was at Stage IV again.
With the camera Art gifted me, I photographed as much as possible. I didn't know I'd be documenting the last months of his life. Here are some of my favorite photos.
Top left: Our 6-year-old helps to cut his father's hair off. Bottom Left: Art the day of his 44th birthday. Three weeks before he died. Photos on the right: ER exam before we knew the cancer had returned.
In April, two days after being transferred to the hospital from the cancer treatment center because he was running a fever, I got a call asking me for permission for the doctor to draw fluid from his spine. When I asked why they didn't ask Art, they said he was confused and couldn't answer basic questions correctly.
Again, I dropped the kids off at friends' houses. But this time, instead of going up alone, I asked a friend to come with me.
Art wasn't coherent. I'd ask him a question, and he'd respond, "Hi, how are you?" Later I learned he was having brain seizures. That was Sunday.
On Monday, our doctor told me that Art would die in a few days.
"Because he is young, it will probably happen on Wednesday or Thursday."
There was no time to bring him home.
All I remember saying was, "OK."
I called friends and had them bring the kids to the hospital to say goodbye to their dad. He was unconscious by then.
I was with Art when he died. I sat at his feet and watched him take his last breath.
Being there still feels like his last great gift to me.
He was 44 years old.
DEATH FOLLOWED ME TO HR
Two years after he died, I needed to go back to work.
After a few years, I returned to HR, my first love.
In my first job, after I returned to HR, the president's wife had cancer and was dying. After she died, I watched:
As the organization sent flowers and too much food when she died months later.
The organization tried to help him in what was the least helpful way.
As his employees tip-toed around him, not understanding his mood swings.
I tried to help. I shared with the team what to expect and how to care for their boss but still get the guidance they needed to complete projects. I had conversations with the company's CEO, helping him understand what he could expect from my boss in the early months of grieving. All of it helped, but it wasn't enough.
The employees were unsupported by the organization. The company had no system to guide its manager or his direct reports on how to work with a grieving employee. Two years later, only one employee remained. The boss who suffered the loss lost his job.
The organization missed an opportunity to care for my boss and all the employees in our company. They missed the opportunity to empower their employees to care AND to be productive at the same time. They missed an opportunity to build employee engagement and to keep valuable, hard-working employees.
Most companies are like the one I worked for; they do very little because they don't consider the lingering affects of grief.
I repeatedly heard stories from managers about their frustration with working after the loss of an employee. I heard stories of disappointed team members, unable to get guidance from their manager or HR. Through their tears, I have spoken to managers who shared how out of their depth they felt when an employee died and how they wanted to do more.
I have also heard stories of unbelievable organizational support that built trust and raised employee engagement by taking steps, over months, to check in with the team as they grieve. I've spoken to amazing managers who knew what to do and say based on their personal experiences and used a team's grief to build incredible collaboration and support.
But that was rare.
In 2020, McKenzie released a report on death and grief. In it they said,
Research suggests it [grief] costs companies billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and performance.
I know firsthand how vital support from co-workers, organizations, and friends is when it comes to grief. Studies bear out the same. What you do or don't do matters a great deal and affects company culture, morale, employee engagement, loyalty, and revenue.
I have developed training tools and strategies that work. They are based on my experience as an HR professional, a coach to executives and managers, my experience as an employee, and my role as a wife, mother, caregiver, and widow.
Back to my story.
The kids are fine young people. But every now and then, I get a phone call from one of them and I can hear the grief in their voice. It is a hollow, longing sound that makes my throat constrict with hurt.
Grief does not go away. In my experience, it stays with you. And that is a gift.
It makes you sad, yes. But it makes you grateful and whole. It was an honor to be loved by my husband. It is an honor to be able to serve employees and companies so they can experience the impactful lessons grief has to offer every one of us.
Family Photo 2019