Grief: Why Leaders Must Conquer It
For the past year, I have been pondering grief—not in the traditional sense in that someone close to me died—rather how endings happen to all of us both in life and in leadership. And when we are caught unprepared, we can be rendered incapacitated. I’ve experienced the ending of some close relationships in the last two years, some personal and some professional. And as I reflect on these endings, I am discovering that dealing effectively with grief and its earth-shattering impact on us is central to our resilience in life and to our success as leaders.
Allow me to share with you what I am learning in this area.
Loss is a part of life.
This is a hard truth to swallow, and a truth we prefer to ignore: Everything comes to an end. Jobs, relationships, careers, and ultimately life itself…everything. Death and endings are a part of life and living.
Endings bring new beginnings. New chapters. And while many times there is beauty in new beginnings, the fact remains that we are also left to deal with the pain of endings. Some endings are slow and expected, like the ending of our childhood, or the childhoods of our children. Some endings are sudden and unexpected, like a car accident that results in life-altering injuries. Still other endings may be somewhat predictable, but in many ways still unbelievable, like the ending of a business. Regardless, many endings bring us pain—sometimes mind-bending, crippling pain—that grips our hearts and arrests our souls.
As a family doctor I see patients struggling with loss all the time. The loss of a long-time spouse commonly provokes people to seek medical attention. The endings of relationships, whether by death or divorce, render many people into some stage of depression. In the medical field, we have called it bereavement or grief. Until recently the DSM (the standard for defining psychiatric conditions) did not even consider Major Depression after a loss as depression.
As difficult as it is, once we acknowledge that everything does come to an end—from life, to careers, to relationships—we can equip ourselves with internal defenses to aid us in dealing with losses when they come. Defenses that hopefully make us more gracious, not more callous.
Grief is not exclusive with death.
Two years ago a long-standing business partnership ended for me. Though it ended well, the loss was very difficult for me. With that ending, many relationships as I knew them also ended. With those endings, I had to let go of a dream and a vision I had fought for for years. On top of that, within the last year, another significant, long-term working relationship ended for me. These and other losses have brought forth strong emotions that I have had to contend with. So are the emotions produced by these kinds of endings similar to those we experience with the loss of a loved one?
I think so. While grief is usually associated with physical death, I think we experience very similar emotions with other losses, emotions that can twist our hearts and minds like pretzels. Most of us are familiar with the process described by Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Klubber-Ross. She explains the five stages of grief as: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
But sometimes Acceptance never comes. I have known bereaved spouses who remain in the Depression Stage for years, sometimes never recovering. I have known parents who simply cannot accept the passing of a child. I’m not suggesting we equate the passing of a spouse or child to other losses we experience in life or leadership. But many times we cannot get over the loss of a business, a house, or a car. Without question, when we experience the emotions of loss, it is grief that we are dealing with.
What happens to us when we refuse to face grief?
In the past, I have chosen to deal with difficult endings as best as I knew how: by erecting walls. I emotionally distanced myself from the pain and simply made excuses for its cause. I did not call it grief. I did not own the pain. I just steered clear of it. I ran from it. Even in the death of my own father, as heartbroken as I was, I did not shed a tear. I could not face it.
So what happens when we don’t know how to face grief? In leadership we often make choices to stay in relationships and situations longer than we should. In life we often remain in a holding pattern, unable to process our loss and move on. When we are not willing to face grief, we lend ourselves to poor decision-making.
Maturity increases our capacity for acceptance.
It has taken me a while to be able to think about and process grief effectively—much less write about it. As I have reflected on this uneasy topic, I’ve found it interesting that the older I get, the more I feel. At first, that perplexed me. I just assumed that as I matured, I would think less about grief. After all, I thought as I grew stronger, I should be even better at ignoring this annoying emotional distraction. But what I am discovering instead is surprising to me.
I’ve found that when I was younger, I felt more invincible, more untouched by loss, because I was more self-centered. I focused on me. So when things ended, I just moved on, unscathed. But as I mature, I value relationships so much more. I value the people in my life so much more. I hold them near and dear to my heart. While this maturation of relationships affords me a greater capacity for love and connection—whether personally or professionally—it also subjects me to a greater capacity for feeling loss and grief, when endings come.
So what have I learned about dealing with grief and loss? Rather than avoiding it, detaching, and becoming emotionally numb, I have learned to accept it and to expect it. I have learned to feel it, to own it, and to have ways to help me deal with it.
This revelation has been pivotal to my ability to lead well.
As leaders if we don’t handle losses in an emotionally healthy way, we will not be as bold in our leadership. We will not take as many risks. We will not end relationships in timely and respectful ways. And we will not move on successfully when endings occur.
In both life and in leadership, endings will be a constant companion on our journey. And so, I am convinced that my success as a leader is directly proportionate to my ability to handle loss and grief. I am going to lose partnerships, people, dreams, relationships, and businesses. I must equip myself to handle those losses effectively. And I must challenge myself to get up and try again.
Here are a few principles I have learned as I have walked through loss and grief.
- Anticipate loss. When you expect endings to come, you are already better equipped to handle them when they occur.
- Acknowledge the emotional power of grief. Grief can render our senses useless. Like any other overwhelming emotion, we must avoid making important decisions until we are emotionally stable.
- Allow time to bring you healing. The old adage is true that time will heal the pain. Not only must we give ourselves time, we must give our loss and grief intentional attention and energy.
- Honor people and celebrate the memories. As a way to deal with loss, many times we forget to honor people through the process by trying to block out their memories. Embrace the good times.
- Move on. It is told of the great confederacy general, Robert E Lee, that after the war was lost, he was visiting with a Southern socialite. As they looked out of her big house upon the lawn, they observed a large, dying oak tree. The lady asked the general, “Isn’t it sad how this tree has died. What should I do about it?” (referencing both the tree and their lost war) The general promptly said, “Cut it down my dear, and move on.” You might think that the loss of the war would have destroyed General Lee. But it did not. He went on to become the president of Washington University, later renamed Washington Lee University.
Actionable Step: Expect loss. Face it with grace and courage.
What I am Reading Now: Ask: The Counterintuitive Online Formula to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want to Buy…Create a Mass of Raving Fans…and Take Any Business to the Next Level, by Ryan Levesque. The author explains how to survey your online audience so you can create the product that they are looking for.
For Further Reading: