Last updated: Employee grief: How leaders can help, heal, and bring back hope

Employee grief: How leaders can help, heal, and bring back hope


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The global pandemic has changed our world forever. The changes are myriad, spanning cultures, continents, and the personal. One major shift is a newfound world-wide experience with grief. 

Grief is, in many Western cultures, an ignored emotion – despite how unavoidable it is. While countries like Ireland or Mexico have cultural recognitions and even celebrations of those we’ve lost, funerals remain the primary grief ritual in the Western world. 

And during COVID-19, funerals and memorials couldn’t take place due to social distancing – further compounding the loss, from Italy and Spain to New York City and New Jersey – until it became overwhelming. 

Even for those of us untouched by a loss of life due to COVID-19, the anticipatory grief at what might come next and the collective grief at the loss of jobs, social activities, and daily liberty has been immense. 

Grief is no longer something any of us can sweep under the rug. It lives with us, on our walks and on our zoom calls. And it will continue to live with us whether or not we go back to the office or forever work from home. 

This has been a global shift, and how we reckon with the changes as employees, as colleagues, and as leaders is yet to be seen. That’s why we gathered a panel of grief experts to talk about how we might hold space for a new level of employee grief in the workplace. 

I moderated the conversation with the amazing Lisa Keefauver, the founder & CEO of Reimagining Grief and host of the podcast, Grief is a Sneaky B!tch. Lisa’s wisdom as a grief and empathy expert runs deep. Professionally, she spent nearly 2 decades as a clinical social worker and narrative therapist seeing the consequences of unsupported grief in people’s lives. And then, in 2011 it happened to her, too, when she lost her husband Eric.

Dr. Candi Cann also joined us. Dr. Cann is an Associate Professor of Religion, and teaches World Cultures, Social World, World Religions, Death and Dying in World Religions, and Buddhism at Baylor University. Her research focuses on death and dying, and the impact of remembering (and forgetting) in shaping how lives are recalled, remembered, and celebrated. 

The conversation broke down in three parts.

How leaders can model grief wellness in the workplace

The world needs servant leadership right now, despite a potential long-term global economic free-fall. Employees need leaders who model self-care, grief wellness, and vulnerability. And they need that because leaders set the tone for what’s acceptable in the office – regardless of whether that office is in remote or not.

Employees need to see that leadership is willing to lean in to the hard conversations, and hold space for our new, collective well of grief. They need to show that it’s okay to be vulnerable and honest about what we’re feeling. 

What’s not helpful? Prying.

Some employees won’t want to talk about their experiences with grief during this period, and that’s OK. Leadership can only show up when asked, and in the absence of that, they must model the behavior to change workplace cultures so that employees feel safe discussing their realities. 

How colleagues can support peers experiencing employee grief

For colleagues, especially where there was a pre-existing relationship prior to COVID-19, there is so much more that can be done to support one another. Whether those are digital happy hours, written notes and cards, food deliveries, and more, many colleagues feel a moral responsibility right now to check in with one another. 

Checking in, though, doesn’t mean having a “fix it” mentality.

Grief can’t be fixed. It must be heard and held. 

To check in, colleagues need only ask how things are going, and listen to the response. Hold space for the pain, the discomfort, and the anxiety. And then, take small actions to show your support. 

What small actions are best or helpful in times when we must be physically distant? 

  • Written cards and letters were the most popular answer
  • The sending of food is also a great idea
  • Perhaps flowers

Small touches and deliveries that remind us we aren’t alone in this are huge mood boosters for those who are grieving. 

Again, these aren’t solutions to the problem – and shouldn’t be. They’re reactions to having heard someone’s pain, and an attempt to provide if only a moment of relief. 

Taking care of ourselves: Listening to our mental and physical needs

Finally, we have to look inward and learn to recognize when we need to take a step back from our screens, find new rituals or routines to ground us, and say out loud the thing we know to be true the most: “This sucks.”

Grief is not fun. There is a reason why cultures try to sweep it aside. There is also a reason why that never works.

Grief is unavoidable. It produces a brain fog for so many – and an inability to complete basic tasks. It makes people feel immobile; unable to move even the smallest thing forward. 

What helps to activate our grief are small rituals and routines:

  • A morning walk after a cup of coffee
  • A 20 minute afternoon nap
  • A personal promise to close the computer and sign off exactly at 5 p.m. 

These rituals and routines are small goals and promises kept to ourselves. They’re small wins worth celebrating. This pandemic has taken so much from us, and yet, we will preserve. Our resilience will shine through. We will find our feet on solid ground once again. 

In the meantime, through the hard days, our routines, our people, and our willingness to lean in will keep us afloat – moving ever so diligently forward on this less trodden path. 

Watch the complete session on collective and employee grief HERE.

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