Leading Compassionately Amid Grief, Loss and Change
A Special In-Depth Interview with Grief Coach, Jinnie Lee Schmid
As leaders we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the rampant grief, loss and emotional wellbeing decline happening at work. A recent survey from CNN in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 90% of adults believe that there’s a mental health crisis in the US today. A large factor in this crisis is business is woefully unprepared to grapple with grief, change and loss. No laws provide for bereavement leave, and the current gap in leadership training leaves managers and owners clueless on how to navigate and provide the right support to anyone dealing with grief.
This subject is very much in the forefront for me at the moment, as members of my family are presently grieving the loss of a loved one. Some are handling it better than others. One individual’s behavior is volatile, prickly and feels like walking on eggshells around them. Others withdraw. Some lean into work. And still others are struggling to focus. These kinds of behaviors are a natural response to grief, and are impossible to hide at work, even when we try. It caused me to consider how I would advise leaders to respond if they are facing similar behaviors in their organization.
There are a lot of forms of grief, including grieving the loss of a relationship, past trauma, or losing a job. Not to mention how much has happened during Covid as well. Even so, it can be hard to identify when someone's behavior is grief-related, not to mention how it also is hard to know, as leaders, co-workers, and business owners, how we can best show up for a team member who is hurting.
I am admittedly not a grief expert, so I reached out to my friend, fellow coach, and go-to grief expert, Jinnie Lee Schmid, for a rich conversation about dealing with the emotions of grief in the workplace.
When it comes to our coworkers, our peers, employees who are grieving, how can we support them?
Excellent question. So many people talk about how difficult it is to know what to say to a grieving person. I tell people immediately what I consider to be good news: the thing most grievers want more than anything is for someone to listen to them. So there's probably very little you have to actually say to get that started. Just being a safe place for them, holding the space, and being human with them while they're expressing what they think and feel, is a tremendous gift.
Now, what can be challenging about the listener role, is two things: Number one, many of us aren’t sure how to do that. I like to provide a word picture of how to be a great listener. The image to keep in your mind is a heart with ears and tape over your mouth. Your role, literally, is not to talk. They're not looking for you to judge their experience, comment on their experience, hijack it with your own story, or give advice. All of those things are in opposition to being a heart with ears and tape over your mouth. So as the listener, I encourage the person who wants to support their loved one or their team member, get clear what stance you're planning to take on, and then play that role fully. Don't mistake what you are doing for a mini counseling session. You're just offering a listening session.
Number two, it's hard to sit with somebody else's emotions. It's hard to sit with our own emotions and maybe their emotions trigger ours. So you have to really decide if you're capable of, and willing to do, that.
Thirdly, as listeners we can be afraid of what we might hear. And the grievers may fear that once they get started, they'll never stop. So you might want to be strategic, letting them know ahead of time how much time you have for them, planning a graceful way to end the conversation. And part of that might be letting them know what else you can do for them, whether that's another listening session or something else.
That's a really good point that it's not a counseling session, because that would be blurring roles and lines in a business setting. Say a little bit more about that.
I would say yes and no to the blurred roles. I like that workplaces now have initiatives geared toward making work a more human place to be. There are many “balance of life” efforts, a lot of diversity inclusion efforts, and a lot of making work a place where it's comfortable for people to be themselves. That's part of the inclusivity. So, if both parties are very clear that you're just being a human and offering to listen to them, to whatever they want to share and not trying to elicit whatever they don't want to share, that’s optimal. You're not asking probing questions. You're just asking if there's anything they'd like to get off their chest. I think that can be done manager to employee, and it might really develop that relationship. The key would be refrain from the judgment, refrain from the advising, refrain from the counseling, and really just be a fellow human. That's sharing in their experience. That's the kind of support that's so hard to get anywhere. Can you imagine if a manager or a CEO was able to offer that to people?
Right, and if a leader has not been trained in leadership, therefore their emotional intelligence and their active listening have not been honed, it could be a very awkward place to start. They wouldn't feel approachable to the employee because they're not showing up that way regularly. And still, you can start where you are.
You can start where you are. And there are two other important things you can do as a leader. These apply even if the one-on-one engagement is not going be appropriate for you. Number one, leaders should model that it's okay to have emotions. It's okay to be human. Leaders must also model getting help when warranted. If you're as the leader showing up as a broken person every day, and allowing that to influence your behaviors on the job, you're obviously not modeling what it means to take good care of your mental, physical or financial wellness.
Oh. Wow. That brings up a past experience that I had when I was a very green CEO of my first company. I thought I had to be the strong one, always demonstrating that I knew exactly what was supposed to happen. There was no opportunity to admit mistakes. You name it, I was doing it wrong. Learning as I went. At that point, I was going through a divorce. And I was starting a new company. There was lots of upheaval, lots of stress, lots of grief. During all this, one of my employees who was very heart-centric and able to express emotions in a kind, but very direct way, said to me, “I know that you are grieving right now. Try to leave some survivors.” Ouch, ouch. And I could receive that because of the compassionate way that she delivered her message. Her words communicated, “I get it. You're going through something right now.”
So how can we spot these grief related behaviors and identify that is what they are. What should we be looking for?
Well, to be honest, unfortunately, I don't have a pat answer for you. The behaviors that go along with grief are many of the ones that go along with other mental wellness ailments and even other physical ailments. And by the way, when you told your story just now, and when we talked about the difficulty of being the person listening to a griever, let's not kid ourselves: This is work that we need to be brave if we're going step into it as leaders. We need to be brave in order to bring our whole self to work again, so that we're modeling the kind of safe space we're trying to create on the job. And if you're going step in and listen to a griever, you have to be brave for that. It's not easy. So I just want acknowledge that, A, it's okay to decide if you're not the person that can do that today, and solicit someone else on your team, maybe someone heart-centric or someone closer to the person, or, B, be aware what you're stepping into and choose to step up to the plate full of self-awareness.
You can keep it easy for yourself by just staying in the listening mode, as well as steeling yourself as to what your boundaries need to be and what you're there to offer. Then do it with love.
Meanwhile, as to those behaviors that might signal grief – some people might have aggressive behavior and outbursts—either verbally abusive or loud outbursts. Other people might have emotional outbursts, uncontrolled crying, or for me, when I used to carry around a lot of grief, it was leaking. I never really burst out in tears, but I'd be in the middle of a conversation with my manager and I'd start crying over last month's reports. That wasn't even about my grief, it was just welling up inside of me.
By the way, it’s important to note that pretty much everyone is carrying a really heavy backpack of unresolved grief. So sometimes it's the most recent loss that kind of tips us over into really being stuck and struggling with grief. It might not even be the most major loss of your life, but it might just be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
That's really great information. It's about self-awareness.
Yes. Or something that really triggers grief in someone on your team. Let's use an example of, a loss of a pet might be something that you would sail through without getting stuck, while it completely derails someone else. The point is, everyone gets triggered into grief differently, and everyone experiences it differently. So each situation is going be unique.
That’s why it is so important to bring your whole, caring self to observing the person, having empathy for whatever it is that they're going through, and knowing that they're going through their grief at a hundred percent. Even if it's not something that would have a similar impact on you.
Be aware that grief can come out in lots of ways. We addressed some of the external things you might notice about a person's behavior, but some other things you might not notice is how they're struggling to keep up with the level of work that they did before. Because a lot of people don't realize that grief has a very real mental impact, and has symptoms just like emotional disorders. Someone in the midst of grief may not be able to focus as well, or focus for as long of a time.
Grievers probably can't make very good decisions during that time. That's something that a lot of managers notice, and they start worry about their team members making important decisions. When we grieve, we may not be able to process things that take a lot of mental energy. We lose track of details, or deadlines, and things like that.
In addition to emotional and mental symptoms, there may be physical symptoms. Grief is a heavy load, particularly, when everyone's carrying 15, 20, 50 pounds of backlogged grief that we tend to keep bottled up most of the time. That’s exhausting. So people may just be getting tired more than they used to, and need more breaks, things like that.
In a work setting, and in a family setting too, grief behaviors can be damaging to the relationships or the ability to do our work effectively. So when should we ask the grieving person to check their behavior and get back on track? How can we do that compassionately?
I come from a background in talent management and performance management. I use a similar yardstick for any other behavior that's inappropriate on the job or in a relationship. You don't have to give a griever more leeway than you would someone who's using inappropriate language or behaving in a detrimental way.
You don't have to give them more time or more rope to hang themselves than you would otherwise. You should still step in at the point (ideally before) it's becoming a problem for the business and the individual. I encourage you to support a griever similarly to how you would support someone who had to start chemotherapy or had a broken ankle. What are some of the kind of accommodations you might make for a person with a physical challenge that needed to heal?
Why wouldn’t you then be creative about the kind of accommodations you could give to someone who has a broken heart? Because, as we've discussed, they're going have very similar symptoms: physical, mental, and emotional. Grief is a broken heart.
Some of the ways you might accommodate are just like you might give someone who needs to go to chemo treatments or who's walking around on crutches, maybe a little time, a little more time to come in later in the morning, flexible hours, more frequent breaks, something you guys can agree upon and measure and monitor and see how it's supporting them. It doesn't have to be anything different.
"The accommodations you offer DO NOT have to be drastic or wildly different than you would offer to someone struggling with a different issue. It does not have to be "here's three weeks off until you feel better" - it can be more like "would it be helpful for you to have a more flexible schedule right now? Ok, what would work for you?" and then negotiate until you find an approach that helps the employee while not disrupting the workplace too much." I also think it's appropriate in these negotiations to expect something in return - for instance "OK, I'm going to help you with a flexible schedule for a few weeks as we've agreed...but in return, I also expect you to invest in your own long term healing by starting this Grief Recovery program." Then you give them the information they need, and you follow up with them to make sure they're keeping up their end of the agreement. If your organization can pay for that program, or subsidize it, that would be a tremendous benefit that demonstrates your support for them as a whole person and does wonders for loyalty, engagement and retention as a bonus."
As you mentioned, it should be something that supports the business while giving the griever an opportunity to support themselves and continue performing. Trust me, they feel the pressure to continue performing. And if you have a good relationship with them, they want to continue performing. They don't want to disappoint. It's just looking at the reasonable accommodations that you can give.
Still, you don't have to just fling open the barn doors and hope it's all fine. You can still have of a performance program where you're checking in with them periodically and making sure everyone's keeping their agreements and adjusting as you need to.
So, are there people carrying around the proverbial 50-pound bag of grief, but unaware grief is what they're dealing with? And how would they know what’s going on? How can we raise awareness, if that's the case?
I would argue that applies to 95% of humans, if not more. That’s partly because our culture has taken on the stance that, number one, you don't admit to or show having any negative behaviors under any circumstance. So we're all carrying old, unhealed grief around very secretly. Number two, if you do express it, you're automatically labeled as anxious or depressed, or some other kind of medical diagnosis problem and sent right to a counselor and maybe given drugs too. Now, both of those tools are fine. I support someone who, if they need them to get through this time, does so.
A case in point: One of my clients working on a grief issue was very, very emotional. I suggested that she'd go to her doctor and think about getting prescription support either to help her sleep or to manage some of those symptoms. Those can be very helpful as an aid, but grief doesn't really require that as a cure. The cure for grief is dealing with your emotions related to loss, and healing your broken heart.
So if someone isn’t sure if they are dealing with grief, look at whether there has been a life event that was really challenging for you, that you haven't really processed. One of the myths about grief is that it never goes away. That doesn't have to be true. Another myths about grief is that it will go away on its own over time, and that is definitely not true.
And another clue, is if you try to experience happy memories of a person or a time and it quickly turns painful, that’s an indication that you haven't resolved grief over that thing.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE FROM STACEY: I've also personally found that if I'm walking around angry at someone or feeling like a victim of someone's behavior, that there's something unresolved in me.]
And in fact, another thing that's along those lines, but even more general is if you're just feeling stuck in life, if you sort of lost your mojo, don't have your motivation, you are not excited about anything – there’s probably some grief lurking there. Again, popular culture would tell you that that's depression. But a lot of times depression is rooted in unresolved grief. It's just emotions you haven't allowed yourself to experience, and you can't experience those in a safe way in order to get them up and out and give you some freedom from that.
And we'd be remiss if we didn't also talk about overuse of common tools we use to distract and soothe ourselves, which would be overuse of food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, isolation, sex, shopping, social media, gaming, whatever your kind of vice of choice is. If a person notices in themselves, or notices someone else, relying more and more on those short-term relievers, as opposed to longer-term healing, that might be a hint that they could benefit from getting rid of some grief.
Jinnie, thank you. This is really powerful insight we all need right now. If this resonates with some of our readers, but they feel they need more intensive or structured grief support, can you share some resources you would recommend from your own journey of healing grief?
Absolutely. As a grief coach, I believe in getting all the help you can anywhere you can, but the following links are some of the best out there.
Naturally, I encourage anyone who knows they need help to consider a grief coach like myself. Feel free to explore my website and consider joining me for my 13-week coaching program to help you complete your past, release your grief, and reclaim your freedom to thrive at ChangeNavigatorsLLC.com. And ChangeNavigatorsLLC.com/freedom-foundations is the landing page for my 3 month signature program.
Then there’s griefrecoverymethod.com which is The Grief Recovery Institute (where I got my certification.) On that site you can:
Find a Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist
Get certified yourself
Explore lots of free resources and information in the blog
Purchase books...maybe to keep on hand in your organization's library?
The Grief Recovery Method Handbook
The Grief Recovery Method Handbook for Pet Loss
When Children Grieve
Moving Beyond Loss
Moving On: Dump Your Relationship Baggage and Make Room for the Love of Your Life
If someone is in a larger organization, hopefully they have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which can usually provide grief counseling.
And lastly, if someone prefers traditional counseling/therapy over grief coaching or The Grief Recovery Method, I strongly encourage them to ensure the provider has education or experience specific to grief, since not all do.
Jinnie Lee Schmid is a Grief Coach for women leaders who have too much at stake to stay stuck! Statistics show that grief is negatively impacting our performance at work, as well as our emotional, physical, mental and relational health. Jinnie teaches her clients a solution that delivers three amazing benefits: nearly immediate relief, long-term healing, and lifetime mastery of a tool that can be used over and over again to stay resilient in the face of today’s relentless change and loss. Jinnie helps women leaders from all walks of life to complete their past, release their grief, and reclaim their freedom to thrive.
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