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November 10, 2023

Talking about death at work

Ellie Romer-Lee
Head of People

Earlier this week, we (Emily Mears & I) sat down to have a hard conversation. It was about death. And we are colleagues.

Having spent half an hour speaking candidly about both of our experiences, we thought it might be helpful to capture something of their essence - hopefully to support other people in similar situations.

We both concluded the conversation with feelings of relief and connection, having had a space to talk about something that often isn’t spoken about freely.


Emily: My Mum was diagnosed with a terminal illness when I was 16, she had a rare and deadly form of bowel cancer. She went from an active and life-loving woman to someone with a debilitating condition which affected every waking minute of her life. She went through years of painful treatment and surgery, and a few months of good quality of life interspersed.

She unfortunately died on Boxing Day in 2017, when I was in my final year of University. This obviously had a large impact on mine and my siblings' lives.

Ellie: In 2021, my gorgeous younger daughter Emily was born. She has a very serious and life-limiting genetic disorder called Vici Syndrome.

Her arrival catapulted us into a world of children’s hospices, complex medical care, medicines and monitoring equipment.

Our reality today is one where a common cold can easily result in a hospital admission - and where the children that we have got to know and care for through our networks sometimes die extremely young. We’ve also had to get used to the idea that Emily is unlikely to live into adulthood.

Isometric Culture

We work for a startup called Isometric - which is building the world’s most scientifically rigorous registry for carbon dioxide removal credits. To borrow a phrase from one of our key investors, it’s our ultimate mission to ‘unfuck the planet by sucking carbon out of the air’.

Beside being united by this mission, we’re a group of people also united by the belief that we are our whole selves wherever we go - at home, at work, at play. It is self-evident to us that, whilst at work, we must be able to speak about the hard things we experience.

And it’s that belief that brought us together earlier this week, when Emily’s Nan died.

Our Advice

What If-ism

Our first piece of advice is - don’t play the ‘what if’ game. What would she say if she were still here? What would he want for you? What would they feel about x, y, z? Think how proud s/he would be of you!

There are many variants on the theme - but the basic reality is that a person you love profoundly is no longer here.

That’s very painful - and it’s also true. Trying to imagine a different reality is not that helpful and doesn’t hold much comfort.

The key, in our view, is to give someone the space and acknowledgement they need to just feel the pain they are experiencing in the moment. Nothing will change it, and there’s no need to pretend anything will. Just hold space for what is happening, accept they are sad and in pain, and show them that you are there to support them.


Ellie: There’s a truism amongst parents of children with terminal and life-limiting illness that, when a doctor thinks your child is going to die, they will tell you that the child is ‘very poorly’. This ridiculously vague and unhelpful language makes a very difficult situation much harder -  because families truly don’t know what to expect. And it has given rise to a personal belief for me that direct language is always preferable.

So - to translate this into the workplace. Rather than ‘sorry for your loss’, try ‘I’m so sad for you that x has died. I am here for you.’

Rather than ‘let me know if I can do anything’, try ‘it’s normal to need some time off or some extra space when dealing with grief. When you’re able, let’s talk about what I can take off your plate.’

Finally, if somebody is visibly sad in the office, don’t look the other way. Reach out to them! They may not want to talk and that’s fine. But they probably won’t want to be invisible either.

‘I don’t know what to say’

Both of us have had the experience of people staying away because they ‘don’t know what to say’.

And both of us have learnt the same surprising lesson which is - that’s fine!

After Em was diagnosed, and after Emily’s Mum died, we just wanted people to get in touch and say ‘I have nothing useful to say, but I am here. And I will listen to you talk, or sit in silence, or go away - whichever you would find most useful.’

At work, that looks like sending a Slack message, scheduling a 1:1 or asking someone to go for a walk round the block or for coffee. You don’t have to be ‘good at this stuff’, you just have to be present.