27 April 2020

What we are feeling is grief: how to acknowledge loss and support each other

Insights

Author: Sacha Kirk, Co-Founder & CMO at Lawcadia

As a leader in your business, organisation and community it is important, now more than ever, to draw on your own inner strength and internal resources when you are turned to for support and advice. For this to happen effectively you need to be aware of what you are experiencing and why. Only then can you appreciate how to acknowledge appropriately and respond to others in your team and even in your family. Please note, for this article I have drawn on my own experience as a qualified grief counsellor.

While many of us have been feeling understandably anxious, upset and a sense of strong discomfort in recent weeks, what you may not have recognised is that part of what we’re feeling is grief.

Over the past 8 weeks we have witnessed many different emotions in the media, our community, our team, families and even in ourselves. Fear. Anger. Anxiety. Depression. Resignation. Denial. Avoidance. Much of what we as a community are experiencing is associated with loss and the resulting grief response – and I am not talking about the death of a loved one. There are many losses experienced that are not openly acknowledged yet can have a dramatic impact on our wellbeing, behaviours and how we are perceived.

  • Loss of freedom as our movement is restricted whilst we #stayathome.
  • Loss of dreams as our holidays are canceled, savings or retirement plans decimated.
  • Loss of livelihood as jobs are taken away temporarily or permanently.
  • Loss of certainty and the comfort of knowing what to expect each day.
  • Loss of connection with our loved ones, team mates, community, sporting activities.
  • There is also anticipatory grief where a person vividly imagines the future death of loved ones.

All of these losses are real and how we deal with them ourselves and how we engage with our team in daily conversations can have a dramatic impact on how individuals respond, suffer, emerge or get stronger as a result.

According to Professor Fisher at Monash University in an interview with the ABC, “What everyone is experiencing is grief associated with not being able to do the things they would usually do. Losses to our autonomy and personal freedom can have substantial psychological impacts. Things like not being able to participate in meaningful work, engage socially with friends and family, and move about freely … These are very serious losses” Professor Fisher said.

David Kessler, a leading author and expert on grief recently spoke with the Harvard Business Review on the emotional response to the pandemic, highlighting why it’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in it. According to Kessler, “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”

The first step in coping with and responding to grief is to acknowledge it. So instead of thinking “I should stop feeling so sad because so many people in Italy/US/UK/France etc have it so bad right now” try to allow it and think “I am feeling sad and that’s OK”.

According to Kessler “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”

Translating this to the work environment what this can mean is that you are likely to see a full range of emotions arising from your colleagues – anger, denial, depression, anxiety, and this can be expressed in many different ways. Understanding that much of this uncharacteristic behaviour can be a result of loss and feelings of grief can help you to support your team, acknowledge it arising in yourself and also to help you find a way to work through these emotions.

As Kessler says, “It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.”

I personally find that normalising this grief reaction to be particularly helpful with children too as it helps to explain the bursting into tears at the dinner table, uncharacteristic anger outbursts and heightened energy spikes. This is an understandable reaction to all of the changes taking place in their world as they try to find a new ‘normal’. Naming the emotion, and acknowledging that this emotion is ‘normal’ in these circumstances will help them to fully feel the emotion and find constructive ways to manage, cope and keep going.

Kubler-Ross and Kessler‘s work on the stages of grief is excellent however it is important to note that the stages are not linear – a common misconception! Grief can also be complex especially when mental illness or prior trauma is present, and if you are concerned for a colleague, friend or team member always ask them to speak to their GP for specialist support and referral.

Background to the author: As well as being a marketing specialist and legaltech co-founder, Sacha is a qualified counsellor in the field of grief and loss with experience as a volunteer supporting youth, adults and elders in a community hospice setting. Whilst she no longer actively works in the field this continues to be a passion and interest.

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