What do you do when a new hire notifies you that she has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and will not be joining your company?

A few years back when I was serving as Chief People Officer for a software company, I had the opportunity to interview a talented data scientist for a very senior consulting position in our company. We chose to hire her.

Between the time I first spoke with her about the job opportunity and the time I wrote the letter below, Anna was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  The instant before her diagnosis, she could have reasonably thought she might live another 30 years. Instead, her lifespan reduced from an unknown duration to less than three months.

After an employee accepts our offer of employment, it was my custom to contact the new employee via email 30 days before his or her first day of employment to make travel arrangements and so forth. At the time, I was sending those emails to Anna — “Hello? Where are you? Please reply to this email!” — I did not yet know she was dying of cancer. Eventually, I left her a voicemail asking her to call me. Then, an astonishing thing happened. Anna returned my call after normal business hours and left a message that said, “I’m sorry I haven’t called, but I have pancreatic cancer. I won’t be joining you, but I wish you and the company well.”

That message spawned the letter you see below. If you ever, even for a moment, think that facing death, square-on is a bad idea, think again. There are countless Annas who never enjoy the solace of even their family journeying with them, much less professional colleagues who never got the chance to become friends.

I hope you are lucky enough to get to write many such letters in your life. Truly, it is only the most fortunate among us who get the gift of many such opportunities in the course of a lifetime. Think about it! Whether you are religious or not, it is your duty take up your keyboard or pen and reach out as often as the opportunity presents itself.

Dear Anna, 

We are speechless. We’d feared that something bad was up, but we could not have imagined how bad it would be when we did hear from you. I did not receive an email from you last week so we thank you doubly for going through the trouble to return my phone call today. It would have been completely understandable for you to not respond. 

There is little, if anything, we can do to lighten your now incredible burden and sadness. We grieve with you, for you, and for ourselves because of the colleague with whom we planned to do much great work and have great fun. 

We so looked forward to having you on the team. You may have been the most eagerly anticipated new employee ever… such is the breadth and depth of skill we knew you would bring to our company. Were you to compare your background to the other senior leaders here you would grok immediately the authenticity of those words. Even so, we realize the words “eagerly anticipated” ring excruciatingly hollow now that your life has been turned upside down with a much-too-early diagnosis of a serious cancer.

We don’t ask for a response to this letter and know that our paths may not cross again so we close with this: Our most ardent hope is that you live as fully as possible all your days — whether that is through to a profound healing and decades of life, or eventually through to a graceful and grace-filled end of this life … pushed as far into the future as you and your loved ones can and choose to engineer. We hope you are surrounded by your dearest loved ones and friends and that there are hugs, smiles, and laughs even while you determine how to proceed given this devastating news.  

We hold you in our thoughts as if you already were the close colleague and friend we had hoped you would become. 

There is always an open and warm seat for you at our conference room table. 

Sincerely,
Your Colleagues 

Then, an even more astonishing thing happened. Though Anna knew she was dying and had precious few days left in her life, still, she took the time to send me an email that said, “Thank you for your kind words. The letter from you, my almost-colleagues, is a great comfort to me and my daughter. Thank you and goodbye.”

Ken Florian

Ken Florian is the President of Corgenius, a professional training firm that teaches the skills needed to effectively walk others through the toughest times of their lives with compassion, respect, and intelligence. Florian is a contributing author of two books, “No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients through the Toughest Times of Life” and “A Friend Indeed: Help Someone You Love When They Grieve.” He holds a Master’s Degree in Bioethics from Weston Jesuit (Boston College) and is a Certified Thanatologist (the study of death, loss, grief, aging, and transition).

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