Supporting team members through grief and loss (Co-authored by Vandana Scolt)
About 2 weeks ago, my father passed away quite suddenly. A few weeks prior to that, two other members of our senior leadership team lost one of their parents as well.
Coping with a big personal loss or comforting colleagues who may be grieving can be quite difficult. Although we may want to be supportive, how to help in situations like these isn’t always that intuitive.
I am very grateful that Vandana Scolt has written this week’s message. Vandana, as many of you know, leads Communication Design for GCPL, along with a multitude of things that she leads at the Group level. She has also been the driving force behind #monday8am.
Please read on…
A couple of months ago, I lost my uncle. But it wasn’t just that. I also lost the person who doubled up as a father for the past 11 years, the person who watched over my mother when my sister and I were too young to, and the centre of our very small family. It was the most painful few days I can remember in a very long time. While this is a deeply personal loss that I’m still finding difficult to articulate, something else started happening alongside it. It was seeping into other parts of my life. I felt I was losing control and it scared me.
Over the last few weeks, as I started getting back into a routine, I had the chance to think through how and why I was worried about losing on the work front too. How I wasn’t able to compartmentalise my grief. How it started noticeably affecting my responses. I also realised how fortunate I was to have a team that stood by me so strongly and knew what I needed, better than I did.
So, I want to share with you why, as managers and team members, we play a very critical role in supporting someone who is dealing with loss, and what we could do to be of greater support.
If you have a team member who is grieving, here are some suggestions for you to consider:
1. You’re one of the first calls
As a manager, there is a good chance you will always be one of the first calls when something goes wrong. My team and Nisa were always among the first to know. It was somewhat instinctive because they checked in with me every day. But it was also something I needed to do. I knew I’d take time off, so I had to give them a heads up. If you’ve ever made these calls or sent these messages, you know how tough they are to compose and how you’re not sure what to ask for. So, by extension, you also know how important the responses are.
2. Just listen
The person you’re talking to is probably terribly broken, still in shock, even denial, confused and worried. You don’t have to offer solutions. What they need is to be heard out. So, listen. Don’t ask for details. Don’t look for the order in the story. Just let them talk because it can be very cathartic.
3. Acknowledge the loss
These are very difficult conversations. Not just that, they are deeply personal and everyone reacts differently. So, it’s no surprise that often, we just aren’t sure whether or not to openly acknowledge a loss. But I’d suggest that you don’t ignore it. I don’t mean, go ahead and open up a conversation that the other person isn’t comfortable with, but do take a moment to show that you’re acknowledging what they’re feeling. “I’m so sorry. I’m here for you. Big hug.” can go a much longer way than you imagine. Importantly, it opens up the space for deeper conversations, should someone want to reach out. If you don’t do this, you will end up with an awkward elephant in the room, skirting around conversations because you’re not sure what to say.
4. Allow people to choose how much to share
Everyone grieves differently. Some share more, some don’t. Some want to share early on. Some bottle it up and want to talk much later. You need to respect these differences and not have expectations around them. Always, always, let the person take the lead. Let them choose how and when to reach out. All you must ensure is that they know you’re available when they need you.
5. Offer specific help
You probably end up saying, “Please let me know how I can help”. I’ve done that too. And I know that you mean well, but what is more helpful, is when you offer specific help. Why? Because while it’s reassuring for someone to know they can reach out for help, they’re also going to have to think through what help they need (there’s a good chance they don’t even know what it is at that moment). Instead, if you can, make more specific offers. This is something that didn’t strike me till I was grappling with it. I was particularly fortunate to have a team that enabled it so strongly. Like, when we were in between diagnoses that weren’t very encouraging, Nisa and Vivek repeatedly asked if we needed help with specialists. Later, before I realised how out of depth I would be, Sumit had sounded me out on confusing (read: frustrating) banking and legal formalities. Shyla walked me through a set of investments she knew I was planning to make, but had set aside because I was upset. If they hadn’t broached these discussions, I wouldn’t have realised I could reach out for help.
6. Take turns in checking in
This is something my team does and it works very well. Whenever one of us is grappling with something difficult, we take turns in checking in and sharing updates with the rest of the team. This allows us to ensure that we are constantly in touch. At the same time, you don’t have 9 people calling, who you have to repeat the same update to.
7. Divide up the work plan
Work goes on. So, one of the most helpful things you can do as a manager, is to figure out how to hold fort for someone. Divide up the work among other team members, pitch in yourself, ascertain what can be put on hold and what needs to be prioritised. I’ve always found people very ready to help out. All it needs is structure.
Also, don’t keep the person out of the loop. Sumit, for example, who backed me up when I had to cancel on an important trip we were supposed to do together, shared daily updates on how it was progressing, the response to the workshops, pictures of the teams and offices, and all the smaller details that he knew I wanted to be a part of. It made me feel, in a small way, like I hadn’t missed out entirely. I really needed this boost. My team also stood in for me at all meetings and took the lead wherever needed, till I was ready to start taking calls. They did so without asking. To balance it out, they kept me copied on more emails than otherwise, so I could follow up when I wanted to. We agreed on WhatsApp being the best way to reach out for more urgent guidance. Building this understanding is important. Because we kept talking through all of this, neither they nor I ever felt really awkward about bringing up work.
8. This is a phase
The reason why I want to emphasise this, is that while loss can irrevocably transform someone, the impact and support we are talking about at the workplace, is a shorter phase. What someone probably needs, is for you to help out during an initial phase which is arguably tougher than the rest. Many people, me included, want to bring things back to normal as soon as possible at work. Please ensure that you treat this as such and don’t go the other extreme, half expecting things to never be the same, and doubting the person’s ability to pull back on track.
9. Be a friend
Vivek recently shared a very meaningful message on how to create ‘brothers and sisters’ out of colleagues. I believe that meaningful relationships transform teams. In fact, meaningful relationships transform people. They are particularly powerful during difficult times. When you know someone more as a friend than a team member, you will have more of an insight to what’s going on in their personal lives. The times when I’ve been able to be of support to someone else, I have done so because of the relationships I had already forged. It helped me think more as a friend than a manager. This made all the difference. I couldn’t have opened up to the people I did either, unless I trusted in them as friends. It’s hard to when you’re vulnerable.
If you’re coming to terms with a loss (and I’m so sorry if that is so), here is some of what I have found personally quite helpful:
1. You can’t plan for it
For someone like me who thrives on planning, this was hard. But you just don’t know what it will be like till it happens. My approach in other similar situations, was to dive headlong into work. This time however, it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t bring myself to even check email. That may sound a bit funny, but it really scared me because it’s the one thing I do every day with the greatest of ease! It wasn’t that I didn’t have the time to check email, but I just couldn’t do it, in a way that I didn’t understand. I had no choice, but to wait it out till the feeling passed.
2. Grieve in your own way
Allowing yourself to grieve is very important. And do it in your way, because every loss is different. You will realise that it doesn’t matter if other people too have had similar losses. This is yours, and it’s marked by your love and your memories and your regrets. You can’t exactly learn from someone else. You can’t pull out a rule book. Once I was able to come to terms with this, I stopped pressuring myself (and by extension, everyone around me), to have expectations around how to manage it.
3. Decode it
Just like in any other relationship, if you don’t share how you’re feeling, you’re likely to end up with expectations that others aren’t aware of. Talking about personal loss at the workplace can be tricky. But if you don’t find a way to decode it for people around you, you can’t expect them to understand it. Remember, they’re possibly being cautious about encroaching on a topic they think you may be uncomfortable discussing. So, it’s not a win on either side. Think about how and what you want to share. Take smaller steps, if that helps. I remember thinking quite hard about this earlier in the year when I knew I would need to be home every month or so, and sometimes possibly unplanned. I realised that unless I set a context for this, no one would quite understand why I was heading home so often. It helped later, because when I needed time off, people knew why and readily stepped in.
4. Let people help
I’ve learned that if you want to be good to yourself, then let people help. Don’t shut them out. There’s no shame really in saying you need time off and that you can’t respond at regular, optimal levels for a while. Don’t worry about being judged. Instead, if what you’re really concerned about is not dropping the ball at work, then ask for help. Make specific requests, let people know what you need, and help them help you. I found that because I could ask my team for help, I was able to start negating a lot of the anxiety I was feeling around work, and channelise that energy into being a stronger person at home.
5. Ease yourself in
When you’re ready, choose the pace at which you want to return to work. You could start with working from home or coming in for a few days a week. Or maybe you want to snap back to reality much quicker. Either way, find what works for you, and do it. Personally, I think that routine helps, so give it a shot sooner rather than later. Also, keep your manager and team posted, so they can work around your plans.
6. Don’t fight the change
This is honestly very much work-in-progress, but I thought I’d put it down anyway. Loss can shake you to the core. It can rip up your fundamental beliefs and knock you out of your comfort zone. (Rather brutally, even.) I find myself questioning a lot of what I took for granted. I think a lot about mortality (though I’d much rather not). I wonder about the choices I’m making and I’ve also started feeling much more gratitude than ever before. I feel like something is changing in me. Perhaps this will be a turning point of sorts. But I won’t know unless I stop fighting it. So, in the bid to get back to ‘normal’, maybe you should slow down to let some of this change happen.
On a particularly rough night, my best friend sent me a message that ended with “There are no good words right now.” She was right, because sometimes there just aren’t. So, I’m not going to tie this up with a conclusion that I’ve already re-written many times. Instead, I’m going to share with you some wisdom from Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps give it a try if you need it.
“Promise me you’ll always remember:
You’re braver than you believe,
and stronger than you seem,
and smarter than you think.”
A big thanks to Vandana for sharing such a deep and personal perspective. We are all going to experience multiple moments of pain and loss in our lives. At an individual level, these moments and how we live through them come to define us. As leaders and colleagues, it is important to take the extra step to comfort our team members and help them cope. Give them the time they need to grieve and heal. And once they are back, do whatever you can do to help them re-adjust to life again.
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.