Buck up? On Grief, Mourning and Working

Let yourself feel — but do not dwell or mope?

“We are trying to give the world positive ways of dealing with their feelings” said Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers, “The best thing we can do is let people know each one of them is precious.”

We are told on the one hand to mourn the loss of the loved one, yet there is a high expectation to maintain our productivity. Not only from others, but also from ourselves.

Is this healthy? Well?… Probably not but it is this “should” that many of us find ourselves currently in. Dealing with inner turmoil while making sure that the wheels keep running is a topic that many folks have broached me with the question on how best to cope.

How the heck should I know?

All I know is, that with the numbers are going up with COVID-19, many of us now know someone who has gotten sick or has even lost the battle. We know of friends who went to incredible lengths to fight breast cancer to no avail. We know of suicide in our overworked medical professionals. Of beloved mother-in-law’s suddenly being ripped out of our lives because their heart just stops beating.

It doesn’t have to be a death of a loved one — it can be losing a job, being faced with mounting debt, being scared about the state of our countries, being worried about sending our children back to school, the emotional weight of working as a grief counsellor or chaplain, being long-time unemployed during a pandemic, having to be the boss to sign-off on downsizing for your organization, or, simply for no “objective reason” being despondent and not being able to get out of a funk.

I know, in short, that — it sucks* and it feels sucky* (*totally a technical term).

While grieving, we actualize that we will never be the same ever again — yet we also know that we have the responsibility and the gift to keep on living. Even if we cannot always picture what that “continued living” will look like.

Just saying “buck up / rip yourself together / get a grip” is, surprise, surprise, not all that helpful to actual coping. Rigid emotional responses often lead to worse and more tumultuous outcomes.

It is key to acknowledge that grief is normal. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection, new demands placed on us, our skills, our families, our livelihoods. This is hitting us and we’re grieving.

In terms of COVID-19 and the social turmoil going on right now, we are experiencing grief collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air: we do not know what is going to happen. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but we cannot see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. How many are reacting is not based on principles or values, but on fear.

It is important to not let emotional fear take over.

It is important to allow the feelings to be.

“When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.” says David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost expert on grief.

So how do we deal with these feelings? How do we support others going through tough emotional times? What do we do at an organizational or community level to help deal with grief — and find a constructive path forward together?

First off — by accepting that there is no “right” way to feel — if you are feeling something, you are feeling something. Period. It is important to acknowledge that there are no “good” or “bad” feelings. Every one of us processes differently — and comes to terms differently.

Secondly, telling folks “this is happened for a reason” or that “this is all part of God’s plan” does not help — it makes you sound like an unfeeling … jerk (IMHO). This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy is a brave decision “to go there” — with others or, in actuality more importantly, with ourselves. As the famous researcher, Professor Theresa Wiseman details in her four attributes of empathy, empathy requires more of folks. It requires:

  1. “To be able to see the world as others see it — this requires putting our stuff aside to see the situation through the eyes of a loved one.
  2. To be nonjudgemental — judgement of another person’s situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  3. To understand another person’s feelings — we need to be in touch with our personal feelings in order to understand someone else’s. This also requires putting aside “us” to focus on our loved one.
  4. To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings — rather than saying, “At least…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.””

Like Mr. Roger’s says, we are trying to “give the world positive ways to deal with their feelings.”

Thirdly, what are some of these positive ways to deal with feelings? For me personally, they fall under a few headlines: 1. Build Context 2. Emotional Courage, and 3. Professional Support.

Each one of us is precious, even if we cannot necessarily feel it in the moment. In the words of Mary Oliver in her poem “Summer Day”:

…I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

So fourthly, please do go ahead and be idle and be blessed. Stare out that window. Take that pause. Think about the person or thing you are learning to be without. The world will continue to churn, even if you take that well needed and deserved mental break to simply process. You will get back into the game at some point — it does not have to be right now, though.

Allow yourself the space you need to grieve.

Allow yourself to be precious to yourself.

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Elizabeth Lembke

Elizabeth Lembke

Chief Talent Navigator: Passionately transforming work, culture, talents and HR. www.transformingtalent.co @hrimprov #learningmavens #AMaze2022 EN/DE/Gif