Leading Through Grief in a Post COVID World

During the 1950s, Harry Levinson said “all change is loss, and loss must be mourned.”

The economic losses caused by COVID-19 have brought harsh realities: layoffs turning into terminations and financial limbo becoming the norm for many.

Yet, there are losses that lie deeper than financial calamities.

The losses vary in their scope and depth: some have lost loved ones. For others, days of the office coffee break and comradery are gone. Social events, whether a relaxed dinner out with friends or large family gatherings, have taken a step back. We’ve all lost our cherished routine. We’re all grieving in some way.

Leaders are Impacted by Grief, Too

Leaders are not immune to this time of grief, of profound change. As we witness those around us who are worn, weary and working on auto pilot, we too, are affected.

Denial is a common survival mode. For us to continue to be strong, bold leaders, we must move from denial, recognize the grief in others, and show empathy and compassion for those we lead – and for our own feelings, too.

For those around us that are hurting, we must take time to listen.

Really listen. Bring people together to share their stories, their feelings. And as a leader, affirm confidently that they will emerge stronger from this crisis – even if it may not seem so at the moment.

Unchecked Grief Can Have Profound Impacts

As a leader, ask yourself: Am I allowing for the mourning process in my organization?

Folks are numb with grief. Unchecked, grief can overwhelm the body. According to Marissa Levin writing in Inc., grief can cause significant physiological, neurological and emotional changes. Memory is affected – and it can be years before full cognitive abilities return.

Levin wrote of three professors from major business schools who followed the performance of 75,000 Danish companies two years before – and after – the CEO suffered a family loss. Their findings reveal the profound impact of loss and grief, such as at least a 10% decrease in financial performance following the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, Levin writes that grief can cause increased physical ailments and can even increase risk of a heart attack by 21 times.

Aaron De Smet writes in McKinsey & Company, “the prolonged levels of uncertainty and disruption will only add to the grief and anxiety that employees experience.”

Now is not the time for worn out, compassionless phrases like, “Time heals,” or “You’ll get over it.” Nor is it a time to judge others, either. It’s a time to come together to express feelings, losses and expectations.

“How far you go in life depends on your being

tender with the young, compassionate with the aged,

sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.

Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”

– George Washington Carver

Mourning the Losses and Moving Toward Healing

De Smet writes the grieving process helps us recognize and accept our emotions. But where to start?

According to De Smet:

  1. Limit denial. No one knows how life will be post COVID-19, so refrain from careless phrases like “toughing this out.” Be mindful of people’s emotional challenges: ask questions, acknowledge feelings. Set aside time for this for your staff – and yourself as well.
  2. Learn what people miss – and acknowledge it instead of taking a “just get over it” mentality. Have staff bring in photos or mementos of what they’re missing. One team found this reduced the sense of loss and created stronger bonds of trust.
  3. Combine empathy and compassion. “It’s not the efficacy of the action that helps, but the willingness and genuine intention to help or support that is key,” writes De Smet.

Levin also notes ways to move through grief: While they may sound simple, they are impactful:

  • Know that you’re not alone in your grief
  • Ask for – and accept – help

We must all give ourselves permission to grieve fully. Take time away from the business you lead to heal, for as Anne Grant so aptly states:

“Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. It is originally an unlearned feeling process. Keeping grief inside increases your pain.”

And, as most, if not all, of us have experienced, pain keeps us from being our most productive selves.

Sarah Deren in Fast Company writes that however hard loss is, by not sugarcoating it, resiliency is born. She urges leaders to recognize and acknowledge the losses your staff is experiencing and affirm that together, you can – and will – emerge stronger.

Leadership in a Post COVID-19 World

No one can predict what a post COVID-19 world will look like. We’re all experiencing an upheaval that is affecting each of us the same – but differently.

As a leader, by demonstrating compassion and empathy during this time, by designating a time regularly for your employees to share their grief and concerns, you can heal as a team and your organization can move from pandemic panic to post pandemic resiliency.

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”

-Anne Roiphe

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