The Grieving Leader: How to Lead through Loss

AdVance Leadership » The Grieving Leader: How to Lead through Loss

 Welcome to Friday 411, issue #018. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll feel better equipped to lead well while facing one of life’s most painful challenges—grief.

 1 Insight

Leading while experiencing the pain of grief can feel insurmountable. The secret to leading well through loss is learning how to grieve well. These three practices will help you grieve well to lead well.


Three Practices of Grieving Well


Practice 1: Receive

Have you have ever experienced excruciating physical pain? Your first instinct is to fight the discomfort. The pain is so intense, you can’t bear to concede to the signals your nerves are firing. Remember your disorientation? What is happening to me? This can’t be right.

The pain of loss can trigger similar chaotic sensations. It may take time and convincing to recognize that the source of the tangled heavy ball of emotions weighing down your gut is grief.

When you feel intense physical pain, you arrive at a distinct transition in your demeanor. You slow your breathing. You become focused and determined. As your mind calms, your body follows. You realize that fighting the pain intensifies it, so you let it in to do its work. The only hope of diminishing pain later is to let it have its way now. The only way to overcome it is to allow it to take you.

With the emotional pain of grieving, you must eventually arrive at this same kind of compliance. The pain is there to do its work. You may need a professional, like a therapist, to help in healing. But healing will not happen without acceptance.

As a leader, it is even more crucial that you receive your pain. If you ignore it, it will leak out all over your people and cripple your leadership.


Practice 2: Rest

Just like any other injury, you will need more rest to heal properly. Moving past the fighting instinct and learning how to breathe through the pain takes an exhausting toll on your mind and body. Mental and physical fatigue will be your daily companions.

You will also have another constant companion: Grief. At work, Grief will feel like another individual joining your team. He will loom in, take a seat, fill up too much space, breathe too much air, and require way too much attention. He’ll only leave on his terms. So, you and your team must accommodate him.

Make room for Grief by:

1. Taking as much time off as you can.

If your job offers leave-time for grief or family care, take full advantage of those benefits. Allowing your team to navigate your absence is trusting their leadership as well as your own.

2. Communicating with your team.

Be honest about what you can and cannot handle during this season. Be transparent about where your heart is, where your head is, and what your current abilities are. If you don’t know how you’re doing or how you will be doing, don’t be afraid to say that. No one is expecting you to have all the answers or for you to put all your emotions and thoughts into words.

3. Reexamining your personal and team goals.
When you or anyone else from your team is treading through the grieving process, don’t expect the team to function at full capacity. Go through your daily, weekly, monthly, and annual tasks. Is there anything that can be redistributed or removed?

4. Reemphasizing the unity of the team, your dedication to them, and your appreciation for them.

They will most likely be grateful for the opportunity to help you in your time of need. But they will also welcome consistent thanks to keep them motivated.

5. Expecting that not everyone will understand. And that’s okay.

Not everyone has experienced Grief yet. And even if they have, no two people grieve the same.

These five suggestions will allow for necessary rest while you continue to honor your leadership responsibilities.


Practice 3: Redeem

One of our family’s most heartbreaking experiences was losing Garland’s full-of-life mother to cancer. We were fortunate to be guided through the process by our own grief expert, Garland’s dad, a hospital chaplain.

Even though losing his wife brought intense suffering, Dad found redemptive value in his leadership role as chaplain. This level of experiential empathy resulted in a new depth of grief-care. He became a safe person for those who had been widowed, which is just what one needs when they’re dealing with the heartache of losing a spouse.

Patients who wanted nothing to do with other chaplains would talk to Dad because he could relate to the pain of their loss. His ability to relate opened them up, and it was in that vulnerability that Dad was able to lead them. He had an advantage in dealing with patients who had lost their beloveds.

One day, Dad got a call to check on a patient prepping for surgery.

“No one else has been able to reason with him.” He was told. “He’s terrified of the procedure and doesn’t want to go through with it.”

Dad met with the patient, an adult daughter by his bedside. Through a series of questions, he discovered that this man had been recently widowed. He wasn’t scared of surgery. He was scared of firsts.

Dad knew a thing or two about being scared of firsts. Everything that first year was a first.

  • First time coming home to an empty house.
  • First time traveling alone.
  • First birthday without her.
  • First Christmas.
  • First difficult decision with no one to process with.
  • First sitcom punch line with no one to laugh with.
  • First grandchild delight with no one to share it with.

This was not his patient’s first surgery. It was his first surgery without his wife to wake up to. And his daughter wasn’t enough. Nobody can replace that person. And nobody at the hospital that day could understand his apprehension like the chaplain who had also lost his wife.

In one of our deep dinner conversations after Mom’s diagnosis, she had looked at Dad and said, “I know my death is going to make you a better chaplain. But I don’t care.”

We put down our forks and gave her our attention.

“It’s not worth it. I would rather have you be the chaplain you are already and get to spend the rest of your life with you.”

We all agreed.

The redemptive value in a loss seldom counterweights the pain of the loss. For us, the redemptive value Dad gained has not been worth it. We’d rather Dad had been an adequate chaplain without firsthand experience.

But it’s something. Finding the redemptive value will help you see the good. Not the perfect. Not the best. Not what could have been. Not what you wished had been. But the good.

Grief robs you of so much. But when you redeem your pain, you at least gain something back that will strengthen your leadership.

 1 Action

Add these three practices of grieving well to your leadership toolbox to pull out when you need them.


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