Navigating Grief

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| 5 min. read |

Grief is a universal human experience, but we don't often talk about it. Talk of death is taboo in modern-day society, where the sick are hurried off to hospice, the dead to funeral homes and upon completion of the funeral, the memory and thoughts of the reality with which we were just confronted are hidden away in the deepest darkest parts of our brain where much like our loved ones, family and friends who have just passed come to die many times over in our thoughts and dreams.

Grief and death are topics we refuse to talk about at home, with friends during unions, and especially in the workplace. At its most basic, our experience of grief stems from our natural resistance to change. That's why some definitions of grief usefully describe it as “the conflicting emotions brought by the change of a familiar pattern.” In our work, we frame the discussion in terms of basic human needs for identity, purpose, attachment, and control, among other things.

Grief comes in many forms - Grief can arise from the loss of one or more deep-seated human needs ”” such as safety, belonging, and love ”” which is often met through relationships with others. For example, when we lose a loved one or suffer a major setback, we grieve because we miss their presence in our lives. We also grieve when something precious has been taken away from us unexpectedly ”” when someone we love dies suddenly or when an important job opportunity doesn't work out.

In Western societies, grief has traditionally been viewed as an individual experience: You grieve, you move on. That's why so many people avoid talking about their feelings after a loss - they're afraid of being judged or pitied by others.

Understanding Grief

There are many reasons why it makes sense for professional organizations to understand how grief operates in their ranks and why it should matter to them:

Grief can badly affect performance. Organizations are filled with people who have suffered losses but haven't dealt with them well enough; it leads many executives into a state of chronic stress and anxiety that undermines their effectiveness at work. They can still function, but they don't perform as well as they could - and in some cases, they don't go on performing. They either quit or worse, they are let go from their positions and professional careers because leadership decides that these workers no longer meet the organization's performance standards. 

But when a person is experiencing unresolved grief, they may feel emotionally unavailable and unable to connect with others. If this happens in a work environment, it may affect the team and the business.

This emotional unavailability stemming from unresolved grief often makes executives less effective leaders and negatively impacts their careers.

People who are grieving may have trouble looking at their strengths and weaknesses objectively. This can result in poor decision-making, which can lead to unnecessary mistakes or missed opportunities for growth.

People who are grieving often prefer to play it safe. This can be true even when the loss involved isn't the death of a loved one. They may avoid risk by not trying something new or making big career moves that might bring them more responsibility or higher pay. And in some instances even result in termination. 

The cost of grief

Take the example of a cashier at a small local grocery store in a rural town in central America where she and her mother worked for several years together. Her mother was the manager of the grocery store before falling ill with cancer and dying just a few short months later. Her daughter was next in line for the store's manager position seeing as that her mom was set to retire instead of dying. She took a few weeks off work to mourn the loss of her mother which turned into a few months as she navigated the dark corners of the path of grief. When finally allowing herself to heal and taking the time she returned to work to find not only a new shop manager but also her position at the store terminated despite herself and her mother spending over 5 years collectively in the employment of this chain grocery store their efforts and contributions were quickly forgotten as they were both quickly forgotten and replaced. - The silver lining is that the young lady in question soon found a better-paying leadership position shortly after elsewhere. 

Meet Bill, an executive in his forties who, on paper, should have been a rising star in his organization. Bill wasn't reaching his potential. He felt something was holding him back. Over time, as we became closer through working with him, Bill admitted that he was still grieving the tragic loss of his child, Karen, some 20 years before. Bill's memories of the event remained vivid and painful: seeing her riding her bicycle down the sidewalk as he worked nearby in the garden, recognizing in a flash that she was losing control and swerving into the street, seeing the approaching car. Even two decades on, Bill's sense of loss was gut-wrenching, as was the intensity of his self-blame. “I never should have taught her to ride the bicycle,” he told us. “I'm responsible for her death”.

The effect on Bill's work life was visible in hindsight; grief affects the way leaders see the world. When we are locked in grief, our focus shifts away from possibility and positives and dwells instead on negativity and failures. Bill's sense of helplessness was slow-burning and destructive””a cloud hanging over him. It was also subtle. At work, he was aloof and emotionally disconnected from his team; he was liked and respected, but slow to take initiative. Over the years, he had stopped applying for promotions and roles that people thought he was well-suited for.*

Source: The Hidden Perils of unresolved grief. 

National Grief Awareness Day on August 30 is dedicated to raising awareness of the myriad ways in which individuals cope with loss. It offers resources to those going through personal losses and reminds us to support people we know who are grieving.

What you can do for a friend that is grieving?

  1. In the aftermath of a death, people often do not know what to do for the bereaved. They feel awkward, uncertain, and uncomfortable. They want to be supportive but are unsure how.
  2. The most effective way to support someone who has experienced loss is simply to be present with them in their grief and let them know that they are not alone.

  3. Grief has a life of its own and it can manifest itself in many ways, so it's important to allow people to express their feelings in their way. The most important thing you can do is listen and be present with them.

You may have noticed that some people seem more affected by death than others; this has nothing to do with how close they were to the deceased or how much they cared about him or her. Grief affects everyone differently and everyone who has experienced it will tell you that there was no way they could ever have prepared themselves for the shock, sorrow, anger, guilt, and other emotions that come along with losing someone close to them (whether it was through death or another unexpected event).

What you can do for a loved one or colleague that is grieving?

When someone dies, it's natural to feel sad. But if you're grieving, the sadness can turn into depression. Over time, this can affect your mental and physical health.

You may not be able to control how you feel when someone dies, but there are things you can do to help yourself cope with grief.

It's hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. A simple “I'm sorry for your loss” may seem like a good idea, but it doesn't help because it doesn't say anything about how they feel ”” and that might be what they need most right now.

Here are some things you could try saying instead:

I don't know what to say. That must be so hard for you right now. How are you doing?

Do you need any help with anything? Can I take care of anything for you? What have people been doing for you?

When a colleague or coworker is grieving, it can be hard to know what to do. We want to be helpful and supportive, but we don't always know what to say or how to help.

So what should you do when someone at work or in your circle is grieving? 

1. Be mindful of your reactions. If you're in the middle of a crisis, you may feel helpless and frustrated with the situation. You might even feel jealous of your colleague's loss (especially if he or she is getting more attention than you). These feelings are normal, but they can make it difficult for you to be compassionate towards others. Try not to take things personally ”” remember that grief affects everyone differently and not everyone will react in the same way.

2. Don't assume that people want your sympathy or advice. While it's okay to ask if there's anything you can do for someone in grief, don't jump in with unsolicited advice or suggestions without being asked first ”” especially if you've never been through a similar situation yourself. Remember that people cope with grief differently and there is no one right way of doing things (e.g., some people want to talk about their loss while others prefer not to).

3. Don't try and compare your grief with theirs - While it may be helpful for you to recall your struggles with grief it is not helpful to tell the person grieving your experience. The problem is, that you cannot compare grief and loss in the same way you might equate measurable facts like weight and height. Grief isn't objective or quantifiable, and one doesn't undergo specific amounts of suffering, depending on the type of loss one experiences. Comparing your grief to someone else's is just another way of trying to measure your pain against theirs ”” and that only results in more pain. Instead of comparing yourself, focus on your healing process as it relates to your specific loss.

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