death: empty office desk and chair

Marion Freund wants Assistants to be better prepared if the unthinkable should happen


It was Jan 22, just before 7:00 a.m. PST when my cell phone rang. The display showed my executive’s name: “Chris.” I jumped. It must be important for him to call me before 7:00 a.m. I loved talking with him. He was an amazing person, so I joyfully answered the phone: “Good morning!” I was cut short. On the other side, I heard heartbreaking weeping. Then the voice said: “He’s dead, Marion! Chris just died!” It was his wife. Not knowing what to do, she turned to the only person who always knew what to do – me, his Executive Assistant.

I did not have any training to handle my executive’s death. I figured it out. That is the reason I am writing this article, because I know that Executive Assistants can be better prepared.

Months later, I found myself still curious about the “right way” to manage things. One day, while surfing YouTube, I found the Ask a Mortician channel by Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, which spawned the death positive movement. I started watching her short videos and reading her books. Caitlin inspired me to look at death from a professional point of view and think about how we, as Assistants, can prepare.

Addressing the Issue

I reached out to The Order of the Good Death and spoke with Project Coordinator Ericka Cameron, who is working on outreach and providing resource information. She suggested addressing the issue with your executive in the same way you would with a family member. She permitted me to quote their six steps:

  1. You need to believe in the importance of talking about death yourself.
  2. Address the topic early. Talk about it when the situation is least likely to occur to take away the gruesome facts of the subject.
  3. Be ready to be rejected. Most likely, your executive will not want to discuss this subject – at first. You will, with humor or a subtle change of topic, and that’s OK. You’ve opened the conversation. Come back a week later and ask if they gave it any thought. Suggest setting some time aside to talk about this important issue.
  4. Be empathetic; try to keep it light. Talking about death is a sensitive topic. Nobody is eager to face their mortality.
  5. Have some facts. Executives live and breathe data and statistics. Depending on their situation (young, old, family, single, healthy, chronic disease, etc.), show why it is essential to address the topic.
  6. Know which questions to bring up. 
    • What would be the immediate impact on the business? 
    • How can we prepare for the worst-case scenario? 
    • How could I help? 
    • What could we do at a funeral or memorial service to make you feel honored? 
    • Where do you keep your passwords, system access? 
    • Are there any important documents that need to be taken care of? 
    • Is there anybody you would like to take over your projects? 
    • Is there anybody you would like to take care of your documents/workspace?
    • Are your beneficiaries up to date?
    • Are your personal matters in order?
    • Is there anything we should/can prepare?
    • Do you have a will/a lawyer, and where is the will kept?

Creating and Updating Processes

I work for a big international company that has processes for everything. Once a death is communicated to HR, the process kicks in. But what if you don’t have the support of a big corporation?

  1. Be sure to have facts. Make sure the information is about the correct person. There are many Smiths, and names can sound the same. 
  2. Inform HR and the Communications Team leader. 
  3. Inform emergency contact/family if needed. 
  4. Leadership/Manager, HR and Communications to determine appropriate communication: 
    • Leadership Team notification – via email or quick call depending on the circumstances (including HR)
    • Is there is a global team which needs to be informed and coordinated?
    • Inform Management/Direct team/HR (i.e., a small circle of employees). Avoid having people that worked closely on the same team with the colleague find out via diverse sources. Offer Employee Assistance Program (EAP) contact information.
    • Broader team call – consider key departments and people that should be included.
    • Email announcement recognizing service to the company, family, memorable positive characteristics. Specific details on how/where should be left out for privacy. Note: “As we learn more about services, memorial, or family wishes, we will communicate with you.”
  5.  HR to reach out to family: firstly with condolences and contact information for when they are ready to talk. Get a preferred email address for family contact. The family will need follow-ups in writing on process reminders, timing, etc. 
  6. HR needs the official date of passing for benefits processing; then contact the family with specific benefit contact/process information, final pay slips, and action steps. 

Things to Consider

  • Does the employee have a family member who works with the company? If yes – ask if they would like to review the announcement before sending it. Notify that family member’s manager and team for support to colleagues. 
  • If the death occurred while on business travel, contact the company security leader for assistance in logistics. The local country company leadership/HR/security can be approached for assistance (e.g., if the person is out of the country, it is very logistically challenging).
  • Is an All-Employee announcement/communication needed, or is a smaller distribution more appropriate?
  • Respecting the privacy of the circumstances is essential. Sometimes it’s best to say: “It was very unexpected, sad and a terrible loss. I don’t have further details I can share at this time.”
  • Consider customer relationships the colleague had, where the customer should be informed by management.
  • Not immediately – but if the colleague has an on-site office, have someone pack up personal belongings. Usually done during downtime so as not to upset on-site colleagues. Reach out to the family first and ask if you can deliver personally, take a team card/picture, or a gift basket. 
  • Talk to HR about system notifications (e.g., we have a daily update report on employee status changes that go out to an audience). Be thoughtful in the timing; other employees noticing how the lost employee’s passing was “processed too quickly” can find it upsetting.
  • Support to the team – be aware that it is a loss to colleagues. Management visibility, teammates, checking in on each other, EAP information follow-up after the shock has subsided, finding ways to remember the colleague and honor their teamwork/service/leadership. 
  • There can be situations where multiple colleagues pass away in a short period of time. A meeting with management acknowledging the difficulty to the team and recognizing the employees and how management cares about the employees’ feelings is important. Have EAP counselors on-site to talk to employees after the meeting and for the rest of the day.

Further Ideas

  • Acknowledgment / Recognition / Moment of Remembrance at an All Employee or End of Year team meeting to positively remember all colleagues who have passed away (remember anyone else that may have passed away and try to be consistent).
  • A personal phone call or letter from leadership to the family is appropriate.
  • A “Wishes to the Family” book, including pictures and favorite memories. 
  • Sometimes teams host a small “memorial” for the colleague – planting a tree on the company campus, having a tree/bench installed with their name, going out to a small team lunch in their honor. Family can be invited.
  • Making a team donation to a cause they were passionate about.
  • Participating as a team in volunteering events (e.g., “Walk for…”) in their honor.
  • “Leadership Award” in their colleague’s name that year to honor their most positive leadership capabilities.

It doesn’t matter what age anyone is. Our executives travel the world, some have daredevil hobbies, and COVID-19 continues to grip everyday life. For these reasons, Assistants need to think ahead, plan, and run the what ifs. Research and conversations are needed. No one knows what tomorrow will bring.

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Marion Freund is a multi-cultural Strategic Business Partner with over 20 years of international experience. She is passionate about collaborating with leaders to successfully achieve their goals. Marion is a lifelong learner, known for helping and ... (Read More)

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