- The Four intersections of Leadership & Grief
- Leading through Grief
Leading through Grief
Meeting the Challenges Ahead
On October 13 at 3:25pm I received a frantic phone call from a family member stating that my nephew had taken his life. The only words I remember are “Jonathan has taken his life and you need to get to Bill.” Bill is my brother-in-law, and my nephew’s father. I knew too well that we would soon share the same loss yet experience the grief differently. I also knew that I had an important upcoming meeting at 3:30pm. And I knew I was in shock.
Decades as a trained volunteer in grief for support programs for the bereaved, I was self-aware at that point in my life. After receiving the news of my nephew’s death, I immediately phoned my colleague at 3:28pm, a mere three minutes after receiving the news, knowing I needed to deal with this call. She instinctively asked, “Are you okay?” My first response was, ”No, I’m not okay. My nephew just took his life, and I will not be on the call.” From there I tried to call my husband but for the life of me I could not remember his number. When I think back on this moment it all feels like a blur. It seems like it was yesterday but also like it’s miles away.
My beloved nephew lost his battle with mental illness. The irony was that I, with a colleague of mine, Michelle Light, had spent the past year building a framework for leaders grappling with extraordinary loss in 2020, and now I was facing that exact situation. I had experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness before and that realization had a pile-on effect that generated deep emotions in me. I could not remember repetitive tasks. I could not do simple, mundane activities. It was like being in a bad Netflix crime series. It is something people should not have to go through yet there I was.
Nothing can prepare you for the initial shock that hits when you learn of the death of a loved one. The intensity of the grief coupled with an overwhelming, deep sense of loss can stop you in your tracks. Grief disrupts our lives in a way previously deemed unimaginable. And, for those who hold positions of authority within an organization, the ability to lead effectively through grief is more than a mere hurdle.
At some point during their lifetime, most leaders find themselves in a position of grief, trying to lead while simultaneously experiencing a sense of deep, overwhelming loss. Experiencing grief rocks you and throws you off balance. It has you, you do not have it. When you are trying to focus and lead in grief, some days it can feel like a major accomplishment just to remember to breathe.
In order to effectively lead and remain confident in their capabilities, leaders experiencing grief must identify their experience. There are four intersections of grief to consider and acknowledge as you tread the waters of grief. It helps to remember that you will be swimming around in these intersections throughout the grief process.
Where does it begin?
It all starts with identifying your loss and naming the vocabulary of your experience. You can call what you are feeling grief, or trauma, or just simply change. It is up to you to identify how you claim your emotions and from there you can claim your intersection.
Intersections serve as a reference point to the trajectory of your journey and growth. As a leader within an organization you probably find yourself juggling multiple priorities and shifting between virtual meetings and important projects. Similarly, when it comes to grief, you will often find yourself in more than one intersection juggling different feelings and knowledge. When you have experienced loss, the question you have to ask yourself is: where am I with my loss? Understanding where you are in your experience enables you to process your circumstances and take actions to heal yourself to move forward as a leader.
In: It has you, you do not have it.
You have to care for yourself in order to lead your team. You will not necessarily know what will give you relief, but you need to start small: eat, sleep, process, connect.
Among: The collectiveness of loss.
Be curious and sensitive. Identify your vocabulary of grief and begin building your knowledge. You are in a position to support others leading in grief.
Through: A time for reflection.
Reflect on all that has happened and how this might impact your life, your organization, and your team. This is an opportunity to build awareness and make a true transformation. This is growth.
With: Your travel companion.
Be aware that your grief is now in the passenger seat and not driving. You are now present with compassion. And when the deep emotions come, you will have the tools available to resource you.
Where do I stand now?
I am in three intersections. As I write this, I am “with” because I still have those moments of trigger. It can be just one question that hits too close. I take a minute, a couple of deep breaths, and I own it. I am also “among.” Because of the loss I have experienced and the knowledge I am building from this loss, I am able to support others. And as I reflect on the impact of this experience, I am in “through” and I am growing. Every time a loss occurs, my awareness either sharpens or builds something new in me. It enriches my understanding of the world around me. As someone leading both large and small meetings on a daily basis, there is a beauty in being able to serve others through this knowledge and a strength that is gained from it.
What is next? I am so glad you asked….
There are thousands of techniques, ideas, and opportunities to grow through grief. As a leader who is navigating loss and leading teams simultaneously, I can assure you the path is doable and necessary. Understanding your intersections is essential for your growth. Drawing from lessons learned from the recent loss of my nephew, I offer the following concepts to help you navigate this strange, unpredictable experience.
Self-Awareness – Understand how your grief is impacting you and what that means as people (your colleagues, team, supervisors) are watching you in the world. It is more than your experience; it is about curiosity. What is your impact on your organization and the teams you are leading? Take the time to mindfully understand where you are.
Opportunity – Every challenge is an opportunity. With loss, your perspectives dramatically shift, and it is now time to get in touch with the changes in your beliefs that are occurring based on your circumstance. What are you learning in this experience? What is it teaching you? Set yourself up for a hopeful reality – it is not an either/or, it is both. You own the reality of your situation and there is still hope. Now is the time to positively influence others with your knowledge and experience. How will you share your knowledge with your team? Your organization? What positive impact will you make?
Connection – Take stock of where you can get the best support. There are times when you need support and times when you give support. You do not have to do this alone. I repeat – you do not have to do this alone. Know that you are in pain and share it out. Look for support and connect in a way that makes sense. There is no manual for this so trust your instincts and recognize that you need to share your experience to heal.
All of this advice seems easy and straightforward, but it is not. The experience of loss is different for everyone. There is no magic formula, no immediate 1+1=2 scenario to make sense of it all. But as a leader you probably already know this to be true on many levels. The process of growth in a leadership role is something that will evolve with you and you will survive. This I can promise. Trust that you are doing exactly what you have to do to be okay and trust that your version of “okay” is not the same as everyone else’s version.
Be okay with not being okay.
My word for this year is unmoored. In a way, I am just being with things right now. It is neither good nor bad. To me, the word is associated with transition and makes sense. Perhaps it is part of my vocabulary of grief.
While I connect with the idea of unmoored, I recognize that one of my strengths is the ability to be resilient. For me, resilience is when you can go through something difficult and still find joy. We can survive or we can be resilient and find the sunshine at the end of a storm. For me, I choose to find joy.
Resilience is where I am going to find happiness and is an area where leaders must be compassionate with themselves. Like everything in life, it is a balance.
Take a pause and inspire outwards.
More than ever, what leaders do in times of grief matters. Grief shoves you into a storm of overwhelming emotions. Embrace this. Your team and your colleagues are counting on you. Take a pause and be clear and confident in where you are. Understand self-awareness. Find those unique opportunities. Connect with the right people at the right time. Hold your hope and reality with a deep understanding of the complexities of your experience and anchor yourself in purpose. Grief is not a linear process; It is a hot mess of emotions and you will be uncomfortable. Understand that your experience is whatever you care to label it.
You own the opportunity to inspire your team, your organization, and your work. You will experience both leadership and life in a thousand different ways, and when you take the opportunity to be open to taboo emotions and embrace your loss, you will grow.
Recently a close colleague asked, “How’s all that absorbing going?” What a perfect way to think about the experience of grief. When I’m in a dark place and missing my nephew or sad for what happened, I ask myself: What am I feeling? What do I need? If I am being honest, at times, I’m not feeling so well. So I consider what I need. Maybe it is sleep or maybe it is meditation. I might need to distance myself for a couple of days. Nothing is consistent but I am okay with that. I am growing.