What Leaders Need to Know About Grief
We all know what it feels like to experience a loss.
None of us are immune to loss. Whether it is the death of a loved one, the loss of a marriage or close relationship, our good health to an illness, or a job—loss is accompanied by emotions of grief. Grief is a strong human emotional reaction to loss. While we can try to bury the feelings that emerge during loss, they still lie underneath the surface of our consciousness—provoking sadness, anger, sleeplessness, and physical symptoms.
This global pandemic we are experiencing is a collective, universal loss of massive proportions. We watch our hospitals being flooded around the world with people suddenly being attacked by an invisible enemy—a deadly virus with no known cure. We watch the reports of the increasing numbers of people dying around the world each day.
Maybe some of these people are people we know personally.
Maybe they are friends or family members.
Maybe our own health has been affected.
If our own health hasn’t been affected up until now, we still feel loss.
Loss of our independence, our community gatherings, our ability to take a walk without fear. Loss of human touch and hugs.
Loss of control.
Loss of the ability to plan tomorrow.
And while we may be totally optimistic and hopeful that this too shall pass at some point—we still have the grief we have experienced needing to be processed and dealt with.
As a leader of people during this time—it is important to understand what happens to people during the grief process. Understanding the stages of grief enables you to stand apart from it. It reminds you to show more support and empathy during these difficult times. Not only to the people who work for you—but to yourself and your own family—as none of us are immune to this human experience of loss and grief.
In 1969, A Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote a book in which she outlined five stages people go through when experiencing grief. These stages are not linear, and not everyone experiences all of them. She attempted to explain the emotional rollercoaster experienced during grief. Her model has been used to help people understand and normalize their experience, and perhaps also help them cope with it.
5 Stages of Grief:
Denial: When experiencing a loss and resulting grief—we often deny what is occurring. We tell ourselves that what is happening isn’t really happening, it isn’t happening to us, and that it isn’t that bad. During this COVID-19 crisis, we can see countries and societies experiencing a collective denial. It’s just the flu, its’ just for older people, it won’t affect me—and the like. We can certainly recognize the denial stage in ourselves and all around us.
Anger: Anger is our way of masking the strong emotions that are arising and directing them elsewhere. We become angry at someone or something that we blame for having this happen. In this crisis, we see the pointing of fingers at countries who “let this happen”. Perhaps people blame their organization for not protecting them and not letting them work at home. Whoever we direct our anger at is who we deem responsible for this loss and grief we are experiencing.
Bargaining: The other thing we do during loss is try and regain control. Perhaps if I do “X”, this will go away. Or if I only go to the supermarket, things will be fine. We try to regain some sort of control by making trade-off in our minds. If we make a deal, things will be fine. In this case—a good example of our internal bargaining is, “If I stay home for 15 days, all will go back to normal”.
Depression: When the reality of what is happening finally hits us, we can experience a flood of debilitating anxiety, sadness, and stress. In the case of what we are experiencing with this virus—it can look like coming to terms with the gravity of what is happening. We may lose our jobs. We may not be able to leave our houses for months. We may get sick. The ones we love may get sick. And so on. This can look different for different people—but it can cause insomnia, physical symptoms, and difficulty focusing.
Acceptance: This is when we finally realize that what has happened is real and that there is a new way of life now resulting from it. We don’t necessarily feel happy or less afraid, but we accept the new way and do what we can to make the best of it. From this place, we are able to feel hopeful about the future, even though we don’t control it. In the coronavirus reality—this stage may be the realization that a stay at home lifestyle may be a way of life for the next few months or even longer. We think of ways to normalize the new reality and follow the guidance and rules we are provided. We realize that we can do things in the present to help ourselves cope, regardless of the grief we feel.
These stages of grief can be experienced all at once or over and over again. Some people stay in one stage or two and don’t move through to different phases. Emotional impact and processing is different for different people and their own unique experience.
How does awareness of this model help you as a leader?
· First of all, realize that you are probably experiencing grief yourself. Be empathetic with yourself and allow yourself to acknowledge what you are feeling. Acknowledging your own feelings during this time and normalizing them can help you cope.
· As a leader, understanding that human emotions are high right now will allow you to be more empathetic with people during this time. People are all different and may be feeling more on edge, distracted, upset, and sad during this time. They may be worried about their health, their loved ones, their jobs, and their finances.
What’s needed from you here?
· Show understanding—ask people how they are feeling, and provide reassurance. It doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to become a counselor, but showing your human, empathetic side right now goes a long way in helping people cope with the losses they are experiencing.
· Ask people how they are doing, ask them what they need, spend more time connecting, and cut them some more slack than you normally would. Yes, you may still have a business to run—and you can still do that with a gentler tone and touch. Your actions and words have great impact right now—choose them carefully.
How you treat people right now in their vulnerable moments will remain with them long after this pandemic has ended.
And this crisis WILL end.
This is a leadership moment. Will you meet it?