How to Do Better Next Time When Your Colleague’s Cat Passes

This may be a strange thing to share on LinkedIn, which is exactly why I am sharing this information here: the strange habit of not expecting human employees to be humans at work needs to stop.

You may have noticed that I referred to the furrier members of our household as “family.” Well, that’s what they are. They are not “pets” or “lifestyle accessories.” They are members of my family. Indeed, those of us who steward the life of a cat or dog or other non-human individual would not be worthy of the unconditional love these beautiful beings bless upon us if we did not view them as members of our family, for they very much view us as their family.
Which brings me to the single worst experience of my professional life: when, a few years ago, I rescheduled a midweek meeting because our beloved cat Pantalaimon had passed suddenly the night before due to a congenital heart defect. 

A colleague publicly questioned why I felt it was appropriate to take a mental health day to grieve this loss. “It was just a cat, not exactly family,” he shared in a post to a company Slack group. He made light of it again when that absolutely-not-urgent (if altogether unnecessary) meeting took place the next day and he questioned my professionalism to all in the room.

I felt awful, angry and abused. I was still exhausted and sad from dealing with Pantalaimon’s sudden passing, and I just wanted to get through the day, keep up with work and get home to recover more. Now this asshole was mocking my grief, questioning my professionalism and threatening my job.

And even though a couple of hours later the head of company randomly told me I was the strongest performer among my peers in a check-in meeting, I had made up my mind to move on. 

The grieving period should be viewed no differently than if an employee takes sick days to recover from the flu. Grief often feels worse than illness, the toll is significant, and it is not something that can be ignored or repressed or delayed.

I recall how a friend used vacation days to grieve for the loss of her cat, and that’s just not right. She wasn’t enjoying a vacation (and as humans we need vacations), she was just not feeling herself (the same as anyone under the weather) and needed some time to stay home and get better.

Interfering with or belittling or diminishing the necessity of the grieving process will destroy an employee and destroy their trust in their employer.

It is a relief that this recent passing of our cat, Merlin, due to leukemia, will not play out this way. Rena and I are presently going through Amos Schwartzfarb‘s Techstars Austin program, and rather than ignore or dismiss the possibility that our loss could merit actual grief, the Techstars leadership, other teams in the program and our own teammates surprised us with sympathy and support. We didn’t bring up the loss or want to make “a thing” of the siutation, yet those around us actually knew this very much is “a thing” for us and it f’ing sucks.

Clearly, we are in the right place, and this experience on the receiving end of sympathy and support sets an important precedent for us going forward: if we are to achieve our goal of leading a successful team, we need to respect the emotional well-being of our team members, always.

Good team members are good people. 

Good people often care for cats and dogs and other non-humans in their homes and consider those non-humans actual family.

Let them heal.

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