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As Grief Redefines Work, How You Lead Matters

COVID-19 is changing how we grieve. Leaders can help navigate these changes.

On April 5, the Surgeon General said the coming week would be our Pearl Harbor. It was a grave and, as it turned out, accurate prediction.

Over the past week, people across the United States have experienced massive losses. Many people have lost loved ones or know people who have. Worse yet, these personal losses have come amid other losses, including our ability to have physical contact with those we love, family and community rituals, economic security, and jobs. As a society, our collective emotional bandwidth is stretched.

Contemplating these losses, I instantly thought about my colleague Michelle Palmer, a LICSW and the Executive Director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, D.C. In this article, I share an excerpt from our recent conversation on the complexity of grieving and leading during COVID-19.

Leading and Grieving During COVID-19

Camille Preston: For over 20 years, you have been supporting individuals of all ages as they navigate grief. What words of wisdom do you have for people experiencing grief at this time? What rituals are important, and how can we recreate them, even as we continue to social distance?

Michelle Palmer: Rituals exist because they help us process loss. They often bring others together and towards us for support. Even with rituals and community, grieving and loss are hard. Typically, we experience the feeling of presence by loved ones when we physically come together.

What is particularly unique about grieving during COVID-19 is that our rituals need to change both in the dying and the grieving. Even how we experience presence is changing. Because of social distancing, we can't be together. We're also struggling because there is so much stress and so much happening concurrently. It is hard for us to be present for friends in grief.

CP: What about leaders? What should or can leaders do to respond?

MP: I learned a tremendous amount about leading in grief as a first responder during the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C., in 2013. Now, with perspective, I can see that I have PTSD from that event because I arrived on the scene already overextended. My marriage was unraveling, and I was stretched at home and work. I arrived at an exceptionally stressful situation with little to zero reserve in my emotional tank and left even more depleted.

Camille, I know that you talk a lot about bandwidth management. For leaders in crisis and grief, bandwidth is essential. How were you doing emotionally on March 8? Were you already overextended and stretched to capacity before this crisis began? You need bandwidth to respond to a crisis. If you were already low on bandwidth before this started, you're going to be more vulnerable to PTSD as it evolves. It will also take more time to rebuild your reserves.

The Role of Resilience in Grieving

CP: It's true that managing bandwidth—our time, energy, and attention—is always essential. In navigating crises and grief, bandwidth can be a buffer and help build and maintain wellbeing.

What I also hear you saying, Michelle, is that resilience is an ongoing investment. It's not something that one can just build because they suddenly see a disaster on the horizon. I also hear you saying that the wellness/resilience promoting strategies that some leaders invest in can pay dividends over the long run when they find themselves facing a crisis like COVID-19.

MP: Yes, I think the real differentiator for leaders who respond to this COVID-19 crisis effectively will be skills they have built proactively. Are they self-aware? Are they able to check-in and assess both how they are doing and what they need?

In my experience of doing critical incident responses, effective leaders have the self-awareness to know when to tap in—show up and fully deliver—and when to tap out—retreat and take care of themselves.

CP: That is one of the scariest things about watching healthcare workers in Italy. Many of them have trained throughout their life to serve others, so it is in their DNA. Many of them now need to tap out and are struggling to do this. Many healthcare leaders I work with here in the United States have anticipatory anxiety about being in this situation over the coming weeks.

MP: Humor and humility are critical here. Grieving is hard if you think it all comes down to you. Both as a leader and as your own best advocate, vulnerability is essential. You have to be willing to ask for help when you need it.

CP: Again, this suggests that we need to invest in our psychology and our self-care regularly.

MP: No one is ever fully prepared to face a significant loss or crisis, but an ongoing investment in your psychological wellbeing will ensure you're better equipped if and when you are in this situation.

How Leaders Can Support Post-Traumatic Growth

CP: We often hear about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With the tsunami that is coming towards us here in the United States, this trauma feels imminent. How can we minimize PTSD and maximize post-traumatic growth (PTG) instead?

MP: Unfortunately, trauma has a stacking effect. Those who have more trauma—for example, from childhood trauma or other experiences—are more susceptible to PTSD. So, if you happen to have a trauma history, like so many of us do, you will need to pay closer attention to how you're doing physically and emotionally, and, as hard as this is, you have to prioritize self-care. Leaders need to do this so that they can continue to lead and because their employees are watching.

Part of effective leadership is modeling desired behavior. Research shows that being calm—for example, being mindful, taking perspective, and managing your emotional reactivity—are critical in positioning you for post-traumatic growth. This will enable you to come out on the other side of trauma even more resilient.

A few tactical strategies that are known to work include intentionally making meaning, intentionally compartmentalizing things since not everything needs to be addressed at the same time, and having hope. Seeing possibilities on the horizon is a critical part of realizing post-traumatic growth.

CP: In my grief, there are so many layers. I agree that our ability to make meaning is vital. Over five years after my father's death, I still grieve the loss of his presence. Acknowledging how his quality of life had already deteriorated, however, gives me peace. Being present and witnessing him in the dying process was also deeply powerful in this release. Right now, I'm present to how this process is being interrupted by COVID-19 for so many since, often, loved ones can't be present at all.

MP: Camille, you raise a really interesting distinction. We are entering a completely different experience of grief—individual versus collective bereavement. In personal grieving, we find safety. There is someone who can hold space for us, someone who is not as impacted and someone who has a perspective that we don't have. This is still true in collective bereavement, but we need to look a little further for that stable base. What will be different moving forward is finding those people who can hold space. With so many people impacted, this will be more challenging.

CP: And this almost brings us full circle to the importance of finding new practices, rituals, relationships, and new ways of being present at this time. Everyone will be impacted. Who will buoy us through this grief? How will we manage our emotions? How will we allocate emotional resources? I imagine, as you mentioned, leaders who have already done some personal work will have more capacity and more resources.

MP: True, but again, we need to remember that vulnerability is essential. You have to be willing to ask for help, especially at this time.

CP: So, this brings us back to the bigger question here and the one I'm asking myself daily: What role do leaders in business and other sectors have to play in this process? How can a leader of an organization proactively help their team members and employees move towards PTG rather than PTSD?

MP: First and foremost, know thyself. If, in the best of times, you tend to come from a place of emotional reactivity, recognize that and become very intentional about taking a breath before you respond. Start using phrases like, "Give me a few minutes to think about that and get back to you." This is a time to practice mindfulness. Pay attention to what is happening both in your body and your mind.

It's also important to pay attention to your team members and remember that they, too, are managing their own compromised capacity and bandwidth. This may look very different from how you've experienced them before. That's not to say, don't have expectations for your team members. By all means, have expectations. In fact, a crisis is the wrong time to lower expectations. But an accompanying bit of grace in how people show up to meet those expectations will help leaders and those being led.

Finally, if it's not already there, begin creating a culture of care where employees are encouraged to take care of themselves. If this has not been the culture previously, leaders may need to be explicit about this. If possible, be flexible with work hours. For example, lots of parents out there are juggling teaching and entertaining children while also trying to do their jobs. If employers can be flexible about when things get done, they will see far better work being done and end up with happier employees. Reminding people that taking care of oneself is not selfish is also essential. Taking care of oneself is the very thing that will enable us to not only withstand this crisis but also grow from it.

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