by Natalie Abou-Alwan

It was July. Cerulean blue skies, puffs of white clouds and the leaves of the plane trees outside my office window were glistening in the warmth of the summer sun. But there was a weight like thick drapery hanging over me.

My landline rang. I heard the timbre of her voice and I knew. He was gone.

Even writing these words causes my chest to swell a little, tears gently filling my eyes. We had lost him at 28. The Oxford blue (several times over), the smartest guy who managed approximately 1 hour of work his entire 4 years at university and still topped the highest exam grade that year in one of his finals papers on Logic. He was too busy smashing sports records on the rackets and real tennis courts, beating every single opponent and still finding time to make me laugh so hysterically as he pretended to chat up the cold marble female busts along the corridor of the library, where I was trying desperately to prepare for my next essay. Where it was so cold one night that he ran over to his room to get his gloves; one for each of us so that whilst we were writing, our other hand could be warm. He was left-handed, I was right-handed. Logic. The guy who at six foot would spontaneously lift me upside down so that I could get a different perspective on things. Who would sit up through the night with me on several occasions to tell me that one boy or another who had hurt my feelings was not worth my tears and then with only a couple of hours to get home and sleep, would be off to play a cricket match miles away. My friend, Alex.

He was young and healthy, with so much to give. Hit by a car whose driver was over the alcohol limit and sped off leaving my friend to fight for his life.

Natalie Abou-Alwan

I am sure we have all lost someone dear to us. It hurts. It really hurts. Hearing the shocking news in the office, in an environment when long hours and machoism were key to success, when my boss at the time on hearing the news suggested that I sit in a data room filled with stale lever arch folders and carry out some corporate due diligence for a large power project, to take my mind off things. This was his idea of support. I couldn’t quite believe this display of so-called leadership.

So how can we support colleagues in their tougher times, in particular, when dealing with grief or any other loss? As with most things, the answer lies in empathy. Work is important, but life in its fullest sense is what we are here to experience. From my own perspective, the offer of space, time away from the office, e mails and meetings is important to be able to start to process in a healthy way, without the distractions of work and other unnecessary pressures. However, this offer of space needs to be genuine and by that I mean offered in such a way, that it does not leave the employee feeling that they owe the company something nor that they are being clock-watched as to how long they will need. Especially when business is busy and people are already feeling stretched.

I have spoken with colleagues who worry what others might be thinking, wondering whether they are being regarded as “soft” or “weak”. These concerns can easily be shifted off minds that are already dealing with raw emotions, by employers managing each circumstance with sensitivity, respect and care. This all sounds remarkably obvious I know, but how many of us have been disappointed by the actions and reactions of those who should know better, being in a position of power and supposedly, trust?

Employees are owed this time to take care of themselves and those around them, to deal with the unpleasant duties, forms and processes and to have a chance to focus on what they need in times of deep pain. In return, the employer will often find they are able to welcome back a colleague who has been given this space to work through what they need to, or at least to begin the process, with a slightly clearer head and hopefully with a little more energy and motivation.

Grief takes time. The pain of losing someone never diminishes, our inner strength just grows around it and we teach ourselves how to cope. Memories stay alive, sometimes to make us contemplative and sometimes to remind us how lucky we were to have that person in our lives.

Alex, we miss you. Thank you for being my friend.