As human beings, we share feelings of loss and grief. We share them in the sense that all of us experience significant losses in our lives and often need to grieve for a period of time to accept and adapt to the loss, both mentally and emotionally.
However, within the world of business, we seldom share feelings of loss and grief in the sense of becoming emotionally engaged with one another in the grieving process.
In generations past, everyone in the community gathered to mourn the death of one of its members. The town bell was rung. Wood was gathered for the casket. The community came to pay its respects, and nearly everyone arrived with a story about the deceased. Afterward, community members provided what was needed for the grieving family. They cooked meals, performed chores, and even provided financial assistance to help the family regain its footing. They didn’t ask what they could do to help; they just did it. There was no mystery of how to help a person after a loss.
In my experience, we now live in a culture that doesn’t know how to grieve as a community, or even how to share feelings of loss and grief with close friends or colleagues. Even worse, many people dismiss the grieving process as unnecessary, at best, or even as a waste of valuable time.
Case in point: Only one state — Oregon — requires employers to provide employees bereavement leave or leave to attend funerals. None of the other 49 states have requirements on their books to provide employees with either unpaid or paid bereavement leave. I find this shameful and shortsighted.
Many of us feel, or are led to believe, that we must grieve alone and only for a “reasonable” period of time — typically one to three days, depending on the loss. Some corporations, absent of state or federal laws, allow only three to five days for bereavement, and many go so far as to only allow time off for one death per year! Very few supervisors tell their employees, “Take as much time as you need, this is a very difficult time.” That’s because sharing, or even expressing, our sorrow is looked upon as weakness — and we are expected to return to work as soon as possible without skipping a beat. And it doesn’t help that management has never been trained to support their employees during times of mourning.
Paying the Price for Not Grieving Sufficiently
Grieving over a loss has a valuable purpose. We don’t grieve merely to elicit sympathy from others or as an opportunity to reunite with extended family. The grieving process is essential for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. If we fail to grieve sufficiently over a loss, we suffer the consequences of repressed emotions, which may include the following:
- Physical pain and illness
- Irritability or anger
- Obsession over the loss
- Hypersensitivity or fear of future loss
- Emotional overreactions
- Addiction or self-harming behaviors
- Low-grade depression or apathy
- Lack of focus or reduced productivity at work
For optimum physical, mental, and emotional health, it is important to grieve any major loss, including the following:
- Death of a loved one, partner, classmate, or colleague
- The loss of a job or career
- Divorce or separation
- Having a child with special needs
- Moving away from friends or family members
- Experiencing a financial loss
- Being diagnosed with a chronic or debilitating illness
- Loss of faith or trust in a loved one, a belief, or an institution
- Loss of status, respect, or reputation
- Loss of purpose in life (for example, retirement or having children move out)
All of these losses are real. Any one of these can make us cry, feel insignificant, question the meaning of life, or wonder whether we will ever be the same again — or even able to survive.
If we do not take the time to truly grieve, we cannot find a future in which loss is remembered and honored without pain.
Business Leaders Need to Grieve, Too
In my experience, business leaders in particular have been trained to ignore or minimize the pain of loss. They often mistakenly believe that they need to show strength in the face of loss and hide their emotions and vulnerability. They need to support their team, watch the bottom line, continue to run their organizations, and remain connected with employees and with families and friends.
However, it is critically important for the leader to process the loss and gain support from others. Although most leaders expect to feel “lonely at the top,” they should not have to carry the burden of human sorrow alone. Healthy grieving involves others in the process. We do our best healing in community — not in isolation.
Involving Others in Our Grieving Process
When any of my clients suffers a significant loss, I encourage them to share their grief with those they trust and feel close to. If you suffer a major loss, make a list of “safe” people and categorize them. The safe list includes those with whom they can be honest, those who are trustworthy, and those who respect confidentiality. This list may include close friends, family members, and colleagues. I encourage my clients to think about people in their life with whom they can expose their vulnerabilities and share them without fear. I refer to such relationships as having deep elements of “reciprocal trust” — meaning that when we share our losses with others, they will feel more comfortable sharing their losses with us.
This is likely to be a short list of people who will “be there” for you to bear the burden alongside you. They are the people who will show up for my clients physically and emotionally when a loss occurs.
When one of my clients suffers a loss, I also strongly advise them to join a grief group. Many churches and non-religious community organizations sponsor grief or bereavement groups that are staffed by volunteers and others skilled at encouraging members to share their feelings and support one another.
When we heal in community, we don’t feel so alone with the pain, and being there for others who are grieving alleviates our own pain. The well-meaning words spoken by loved ones who care are certainly soothing, but words don’t help nearly as much as support from those who can be the most empathic. These are the people who are “in the well” with you. Metaphorically, you can hold each other’s hands as you climb out together.
I firmly believe that being vulnerable and being open in sharing grief is strength, not weakness.
Viewing Grief as a Growing Pain
The experience of loss does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It is not what happens to us that matters but what happens in us. — Jerry Sittser, Ph.D.
Before I close out this week’s post, I’d like to refer to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (aka the Kübler-Ross model):
This is groundbreaking work, to say the least. That said, I propose a sixth stage: 6. Renewed meaning
As we progress through the commonly accepted five stages of grief, we learn how to live with our loss, and we develop a deeper understanding of life. We discover new paths to a meaningful existence — paths that we may never have imagined existed prior to our loss. This is more than just acceptance. It’s renewed meaning.
Consider the pain you feel in response to a major loss as a growing pain. When your soul aches, you are on a journey that will stretch you beyond your imagination, helping you better understand the meaning of life, faith, and even knowledge of your higher being.
Loss and grief are transformational. They make you a different person, and as long as you don’t allow the loss or sorrow to define you, they have the potential to make you a better person — more capable of love, understanding, and empathy. Even if we never completely get over the loss, our lives are often enriched through the grieving process. Which means there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever why businesses — through the enactment of generous corporate bereavement policies — cannot take that into consideration.
About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.