When Tragedy Strikes: How To Help A Co-Worker Cope With Grief And Loss
Whether death or divorce, natural disaster or partnership disagreement, loss is a fact of life. The impact of these events (and the grief that follows) cannot be denied. So what’s the best way to prepare for, and cope with, the inevitable? And if someone on your team or inside your organization experiences a loss: how can you express your feelings with authenticity? What’s the best way to help your co-worker (and your company) by supporting the powerful emotions surrounding an unexpected or unwanted change?
As VP of Customer & Market Insights at Salesforce, Karen Mangia is an internationally-recognized authority on Customer Experience. But the experience of losing a family member was one she had never anticipated. Looking out of a 34th-floor window at the San Francisco Bay, she recalls the loss of her grandmother – and the co-worker that helped her through it. “One of the most comforting notes I received was from a friend who explained that when she lost her dad, she cried every day for six months. Then one day, she saw something – I don’t even know what it was – but it was something that reminded her of him. And she smiled.” That memory, and that smile, made a difference. “She told me it’s ok to be sad, and that one day those sad memories will be comforting.” Karen paused and looked down at the conference room table. “Granting permission,” she explains. “Permission to grieve. To not be ok. To not show up perfectly for a bit.”
What’s The Best Way To Respond To a Loss or Personal Tragedy?
“Is there any way I can support you?” Esther Pipoly is speaking to executives in a recent workshop on loss and grieving. Pipoly is the founder of San Antonio based LOLA, an organization that helps individuals, families and businesses to work through a life transition – death, divorce or disability. “Being specific in your offer of support, like saying, ‘can I get your kids at carpool on Thursday?’ is a personal touch that goes beyond platitudes – and shows real concern,” Pipoly shares. She’s helping the leaders in the room to go beyond empty clichés to a place of authentic connection and genuine concern.
The one thing to avoid at a time of loss? Avoidance. “Sometimes people don’t know what to say, and they ignore you [when you are grieving].” Silence doesn’t help anyone, she suggests. Acknowledgement is the key – and letting people know that you are there to support them – is critical.
The New Normal
“Leaders don’t understand that when you go through a loss, you’re not the same person you were before,” Pipoly continues. “Everybody wants to get back to ‘normal’, but normal has changed.” And sometimes, diving back into work too quickly is the exact opposite of helping people to heal, according to Pipoly. Beyond the traditional bereavement leave, Pipoly says, “We recommend to employers that you set up a buddy system – a ‘work buddy’ for an employee who’s just gone through a loss.” Pipoly’s RESPOND process helps co-workers to be able to truly support through a tough transition. “The work buddy is someone to cover for you in a meeting, to double-check your work, or allow you to step out and just get some air. It’s a process to gently guide members back into a new normal, after bereavement.” The idea is twofold: facilitate effective performance, and to watch out for a dangerous condition known as STERBs.
“STERBs stands for Short Term Emotional Response Behaviors,” Pipoly explains. These are unusual behaviors that often show up in the grieving process: weird stuff, like buying expensive items, spending way too much time on social media, or showing up super-early at work are small signs that grief could be leading to unintended consequences. “You end up with a condition called ‘presenteeism’,” Pipoly explains – a condition where someone is physically at work, but mentally somewhere else. The work buddy is shown how to identify troubling behaviors, with instruction on how to help the impacted employee to find new ways of handling things.
What about the financial consequences of loss – and lost productivity? According to the Exit Planning Institute, over 50% of privately held businesses will be forced into exit (sale, bankruptcy or other unwanted outcome) due to duress – such as death or disability of one of the partners.
Chris Vanderzyden is a visiting professor at Harvard’s Entrepreneurship Program, and a Certified Exit Planning Advisor (CEPA). For entrepreneurs at Harvard, she opens every lecture by writing this phrase on the board: “An exit strategy is a good business strategy.” Vanderzyden runs Legacy Partners – a Vermont-based organization that advises founders on how to maximize the value of a privately-held business. “We know that life events like death, divorce and disagreement can erode the wealth an owner has worked hard to create – for yourself and your heirs. But preparing for transition means more than just taking out an insurance policy,” she explains. “It’s not just about reducing risk, it’s about maintaining business value during transition.” Financial mechanisms, like a buy/sell agreement, can help to preserve assets (and relationships) when the inevitable arrives.
Honor and Connection
“Unfortunately, we live in a culture that doesn’t teach us how to honor loss – the loss of people we love,” Brad Gallup explains from inside a large horse corral at Oak Lea Ranch in Kelseyville, California. Major Gallup has been a part of the Stable Warrior program for 22 years – helping military veterans and first responders to deal with loss, tragedy and PTSD. A certified transformational coach, Gallup runs equine therapy workshops – using horses to help people process some of the most traumatic events on the planet. The military veteran explains, “All people want is to connect up, and be listened to.” True in life, but especially in loss.
“It’s a misunderstanding to assume that I know exactly what you’re going through. I don’t. Everybody’s pain is uniquely theirs.”
Gallup suggests a counterintuitive approach to someone who’s gone through tragedy. “Really ask about their loved one,” Gallup shares, as he brushes a quarter horse with a gloved hand. But doesn’t that bring up more hurt and pain? “People are hungry for somebody who’s willing to really listen, without judgement, just to hear where they are. We call it a ‘sacred witness,’ because seeing and hearing the grief is all part of life.”
From Grief to Gift
“We’re kind of a culture of denial about loss, so when [tragedy] happens we’re not taught how to honor and comfort one another. Stable Warrior is about helping people to see past the trauma – whether it happened in combat, or on the streets for a first responder.” Tragedy doesn’t have to define a person, according to Gallup – and that’s what the horses and the healing process help people to see. “The anger. The pain. The heartbreak. It’s all part of being human. Sometimes we just have to honor this part of ourselves, to understand who we really are.”
There is no denying the devastation, sorrow and business implications of tragedy. Understanding that loss is life points to a connection we all share. That connection can help anyone to be a “sacred witness.” Gallup says that just listening can be a way to point someone to the understanding that, underneath this traumatic event, they’re still ok. Maybe not right now – but beyond the sadness of recent events is always a whole person, changed and hurting, and in need of your support. A person who is slowly beginning a process of reinvention into the new normal – hopefully at an organization that’s prepared and willing to help.
Getting your team and your business ready for unavoidable circumstances seems like a smart business decision. It’s not always easy to access compassion and humanity in the workplace, but difficult situations demand nothing less. What can you do, or share, when someone experiences an unexpected life change? Listen. Support. Share a simple smile, from outside the sadness. Because being authentically present for co-workers, in the midst of tragedy and grief, is the greatest gift of all.
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