Yesterday I turned 44. 4 tens and 4 ones. As you age, it seems increasingly difficult to see those number rise and understand your value and worth against your impressions of the age and the awareness of your mortality. This year’s birthday came with a gratitude and peace that gave me a different perspective.
Today I attended the funeral of a 20 year old man. Joel was an employee of ours at Red Gum BBQ who died, tragically, driving home from our workplace, a week and a half ago. Joel was a kind and gentle soul who seemed to always have a smile on his face. He did a number of jobs at Red Gum – from dishes, to supporting the kitchen, helping clean pits and handle deliveries. No job was too big, no ask was too hard and no length too far to travel. Joel was the warm, friendly face greeting you wherever you were. Polite, cheeky, easy. These are some of the ways I remember him and some of the ways he was described today at his funeral. His funeral.
First thing Sunday morning we got the call from his brother, who also works with us, to tell us the awful news. Joel left work and just minutes from us, hit a tree on the side of the road, losing his life instantly. There is no greater explanation, no reason or rhyme to this great tragedy. No sense to be made from the destruction of a family, the loss of this young man and the heartache of all who knew him.
I spent the next couple of hours in a spin wondering how I would communicate this news to our Red Gum family. To all of the people who worked most closely with him, to all who knew him in our building and to all who called him friend. How could I tell the Chef who worked alongside him that evening, the friend in the kitchen who knew him since childhood, the waitress who walked out the door with him and followed behind him in her car by just a minute? I knew this would be information that would deeply affect some, if not all who heard it. I googled ‘what to do when an employee dies’ – FYI: Google doesn’t know everything. I felt an intense pressure to ensure we were doing what was right. But what is right?
As the morning went on, and news of Joel’s death was being reported in the media we knew our time to share it carefully and collectively was dwindling. We had a few hundred booked in for the day and I wore my business owner hat too – I didn’t know what any of this would mean. We just needed to honour Joel’s news as best as possible and put one foot in front of the other. I spoke privately to some and felt their intense grief. We gathered the rest, moving through the building asking everyone to stop and come to the kitchen. It was 12pm and the restaurant was full. The response was as you could imagine. This was an impossible piece of news to share and more awful to hear.
What happened next over the coming hours was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Our people cried. And hugged. And hearts were breaking across our space and beyond. But they waited tables, they seated, they smoked and smiled, they served and supported each other. They huddled in corners hugging. They took long trips to the bathroom. They wiped their tears on their sleeves and soldiered on. Now I know we’re not in a hero’s field. We’re not saving lives and we’re not protecting the common good. But if standing, unflinching in grief and smiling for your friends and a sense of duty is noble, these are our Kings and Queens. Nobody wanted to leave. We asked, even encouraged some to go. But they stayed on and extended love and support to everyone around them. Martin and I watched on in awe. Our leaders extended hands of strength and support, as Captains do. People half my age supported me with a strength and resilience and wisdom I couldn’t have imagined. They shared in their sadness, gave smiles to our guests and stood strong in news that would shake any 44 year old, let alone an 18 year old, being touched by loss for the first time.
The next days and week have been similar. Hearts continued to break and loss continues to be felt. We still can make no more sense of this. Each of us is processing in our own way. Some pain is palpable and some hidden away. We have sentimental, hearts on their sleeve folk, and stoic, pragmatic types. I don’t know what each of them needs or how to fix it. I also understand, logically, that’s not my job. But it’s hard to not feel that these are my family, my responsibility and the joys and pains we experience there, mine to navigate. For someone who likes to think her way out of confusion, this one is proving difficult. It’s hard to see and understand when you’re in the middle of the thing.
But I wanted to share our heartbreak. To honour Joel in some small way. To tell our community about our loss and of the beautiful young man who was taken from this world far too early. I’m not sure what lessons there are to be learned here – I suppose time will reveal those.
What I know is that 44 seems quite the privilege. This is one of those reminders, that comes at far too great a price, that life is much more than the silly things that distract us every day and age and health and love are gifts and essential practices. I’ll hope for peace for Joel’s family and for the people I know struggling with his loss. I’ll hope that we can be what they need from us but I’ve seen their strength and their wisdom and I am in awe of it. Joel, you are missed and you are loved.