As I began writing this blog, I was contemplating the feelings of loss, lack of control, uncertainty, fear of illness and a host of other often intense feelings we have been experiencing since this pandemic began. I appreciated a Harvard Business Review article that said what we’re experiencing is grief. It was refreshing to give it a name and to validate it. And now, with the events of this past week in my hometown of Minneapolis, we are stricken with unparalleled grief. As a society, mostly we don’t talk about grief because it’s uncomfortable and forces us to confront our own feelings, yet we all grieve at some point in our lives. Right now, we can come together to support each other during this significant time of grief in our nation. Talking about our grief with compassion for each other helps us move through it, heal and create what my partner, Jennifer Wilson, is calling a “better normal” - rather than “getting back to the old normal,” which wasn’t working in many cases.
So, let’s begin talking about grief. Dictionary.com defines grief as a “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.” In the blog, The Best Grief Definition You Will Find, “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the tragic loss of George Floyd’s life and all the destruction due to the protests that have escalated to riots across our country, we are experiencing so many losses and changes in familiar patterns of behavior including:
- Loss of jobs, income, and financial well-being, both as individuals and in our organizations
- Loss of major milestone acknowledgments including graduations, weddings, funerals, and other social gatherings that allow us to celebrate and lift each other up
- Loss due to closing a business, retiring, divorce, or other status changes
- Loss of habits having to work from home, wear masks to protect ourselves and others, social distance when we are in public places, weekly worship and fellowship, and work away from our “normal” workplaces
- Loss of freedoms as we’ve had to honor stay-at-home orders, city curfews, and new rules and executive orders in our society
- Loss of our sense of safety and well-being, with the fear of serious illness or harm from violence
- And the greatest loss of all – the loss of so many lives, whether by COVID-19 or other illness and the loss of life at the hands of those who took an oath to protect and serve
Mostly we “save” grief for the loss of a loved one, and we don’t consider that we might be experiencing grief in other areas of life, even at work. But as you can see from this short, yet incomplete, list that we could be experiencing grief from a host of different events and changes in our life and work.
According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, authors of On Grief and Grieving, grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In his new book, Kessler adds a sixth: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He acknowledges that many people say that they experience more stages than these and that everyone’s experience of grief is different. We also do not necessarily move through these stages in a linear fashion. It’s important to note, too, that each of these stages – and the associated feelings - are normal, and we should do our best not to minimize or deny them in ourselves or others, and instead accept moving between them. By understanding these stages, we can be better equipped to handle them ourselves and support others, too:
- Denial – When we first experience a loss, we are in a state of shock and denial that allows us to process what happened. Our shock of having to move to a remote work environment on a dime was a shock for many. Some resisted and some weren’t prepared, causing an interruption in their work and productivity. Or we express shock and denial when a loved one dies suddenly, and even when there is time to prepare, by say things like, “I just can’t believe it.” This is the beginning of the healing process.
- Anger – Anger can be a difficult stage for some because society tells us that we should not get mad or express feelings of anger. But if we don’t allow ourselves to feel upset or we minimize it in others, anger takes longer to dissipate. It’s okay to feel angry that your situation changed, that things have been canceled that you were looking forward to, angry at the COVID-19 illness itself and even sometimes our leaders, God, and ourselves. We do need to ensure that our expression of our anger is not harmful and that we find constructive ways to convey it.
- Bargaining – I have always thought this was a strange phase of grief. But I can see now that we negotiate all the time with a host of “what if” and “if only” statements during a time of loss. “If we stay home for two weeks, everything will go back to normal.” “If we go see Doctor X, Y, and Z, you’ll get better.” “If those who murdered George Floyd are arrested, people won’t need to protest, and riots won’t break out.” These thoughts and statements are appropriate and expected, too, and help us move from the past (the loss or change that we’re grieving) to the present and into the fourth and fifth stages.
- Depression – As we move through denial, anger, and bargaining, we come face to face with our present emotions of depression and sadness. When you look at what happened, the loss you’ve gone through or the changes that have occurred – and in this pandemic the uncertainty and lack of clarity of when it will “end” – you can see that it’s normal to feel depressed or sad. Instead of covering up or pretending it’s not there, find ways to express it. Perhaps even say, “I am sad and need just some time to be sad.”
- Acceptance – When we allow ourselves to move through – and often between the first four stages -- then we can begin to arrive at acceptance. Acceptance is not necessarily being okay with what occurred but instead accepting it for what is. There, we can ask, “Now what?” That is where we start to find some power and control over our actions and how we’re going to move forward. For example, we can make accommodations for those who want to go back to the office and those who want to continue working from home, embracing a blended approach. We get creative and find new ways to celebrate graduations with a senior parade or Zoom birthday parties or making collages of loved ones we lost during this pandemic. We can find ways to help in our cities that are war-torn from riots and organize clean up efforts, make donations and help small business owners rebuild.
I still grieve the loss of my dad over two years ago and often ask the question, “Why? Why did my dad have to have cancer?” I am also grieving the tragic losses happening in Minneapolis and I’m asking, “Why does another black man have to die under the force of a police officer?” It sometimes feels futile to ask those questions, but what I have discovered is that when I start asking them, I’m working to find meaning in all this, Kessler’s sixth stage of grief. It’s probably part of bargaining and acceptance to say, “There has to be a reason this is happening” or “There must be something I’m supposed to learn (although I’d rather learn it under different circumstances.)”
One of the ways we’ve been looking for meaning from this COVID-19 crisis is to identify what we’ve been calling “silver linings” and Jen captured a few of the positive lasting changes we see in a recent article here. I find meaning and try to make sense of deep feelings of loss and grief by practicing gratitude. I am grateful for the relationship I had with my dad and the life he provided for me. I am thankful for the leadership in Minnesota, the National Guard in our communities, the outreach from our churches, and the willingness for good people to rally to protect and take care of each other. I am also grateful for the technology that gives us the ability to stay connected with our families, team, and clients during this time of social distancing.
Compassion and patience – for yourself, first – are helpful right now. Sometimes we want to stay busy and productive forcing results so that we do not have to feel the emotions of these stages of grief. It is important, however, to take the time to talk about our loss and allow the grieving process to take its course. Ultimately, doing so will lead to increased health, productivity, and stronger relationships. So, take the time to ask, “How are you?” with the true desire to really hear the answer. And, when someone asks, “How are you?”, take a moment to assess how you are and share truthfully. You might be surprised at how you both may be in similar places and can support each other.
What are you grieving right now and at what stage of grief are you? Do you know what those closest to you are grieving and which stage they are processing or where they may be stuck? We’re not meant to face loss or change alone. We also don’t have to be afraid to call the feelings we’re experiencing from all the loss and change in 2020 what it is: GRIEF. Reach out and share strategies that you have employed to navigate your own grief or support others. And, what have you created as you moved towards acceptance and finding meaning? We’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Many have experienced loss going to remote work (loss of access to technology, social isolation, and more) and now as firms explore reopening, we’ll experience new loss and changes in patterns of behavior. Going back to the office will not be what it was like pre-COVID-19. Join us next Tuesday, June 9th for our webinar, Strategic Considerations for Reopening Amidst COVID-19, as we explore new changes to expect as we move to the next phase of working during a pandemic with a blended work environment.