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Accepting the Reality of Grief and Loss into Our Organizational Ecosystems

Learning to work through the fog and haze

I hadn’t really planned to write about grief this week. Somehow, though I wasn’t expecting it, grief and grieving seemed to keep showing up over, and over, again. Which is very much what my experience of grieving has been like. Even when I think I’ve got a handle on it, it creeps up on me and catches me by surprise. One minute I’m feeling fine, but half an hour later I can barely find my way through the fog; sometimes it lifts quickly, but in other instances it can last for days.

For most of my life I’ve looked at grief as an exceptional occurrence; a special sort of extreme situation in which sadness suddenly becomes the order of the day. Grief, it seemed, was something one dealt with in isolated instances after a death in the family, a divorce, the closing of a business, or a national tragedy. Of late though, I’ve started to see that grief is anything but incidental—like joy, sadness, fear, and anger—in small but still significant ways, it’s almost an everyday occurrence. Like these other emotions, grief comes up, often unnoticed, without us having much influence on when it arrives, or later, when it leaves. Grief can be so subtle we push through it without admitting to ourselves that we feel it. Or it can be completely overwhelming. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote after the death of her life partner in the spring of 2018, “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted … Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”

In the last month or so it seems like the cycles of grief around me have somehow sped up. A 40-year-old friend in New York—a cheese seller I’ve known for nearly twenty years, with three young kids—died suddenly in her sleep. A former staffer, also in his early 40s, died unexpectedly ten days later. Two different staff members’ grandmothers also passed away. Another colleague has more than a few folks close to her who are fighting through severe illnesses. Still another coworker’s cat is terminally ill. A much-loved salesman we’ve been buying from for decades is retiring, and a long-time supplier is closing his business. A local store that opened about the same time we did in the ’80s is closing its doors. The father of a friend of mine died, and another good friend shuttered his business for good. You may well have read what I wrote a few weeks ago about the story of Lindsay Van Zandt and her mom’s passing. Grief is hanging heavily in the air.

I’d like to pretend this series of grief-provoking, and -evoking, incidents were caused by some coincidental coming together of Covid, a confrontational political climate, and the current crisis of short staffing, but I’ve begun to understand that this sort of steady appearance of grief in our lives is pretty much par for the course. True, it’s tougher right now in the pandemic, but it’s not like feelings of shock, loss, and deep sadness started in March of 2020. Most every week since we opened the Deli in 1982, we’ve had staff members leave, long time customers leave town, and valued vendors go out of business. Projects we are passionate about don’t play out as we want, customers feel let down and complain, products we are excited about don’t do well. Jobs are lost, friendships fade, sports teams lose, neighbors move away. It’s this everydayness of grief and grieving that’s got my attention in the context of our organizational ecosystems. Grief and grieving, I’m realizing, are rarely far away. Which means that the more we can create the kind of organizational ecosystems in which we can openly acknowledge them as part of our daily existence, the healthier our businesses and the people who are part of them are likely to be.

With that in mind, I spent a fair bit of time wondering what the best equivalent for grief would be in the ecosystem metaphor. I settled on fog. Like grief, fog often appears unexpectedly. Sometimes it clears up quickly, in other instances it can last for days. Left to themselves, neither fog, nor grief, cause any real harm; it’s all in how we respond to them. We have no say about when either of them comes on, and there’s little we can do about it other than move slowly and carefully and wait for them to pass. At their most intense, both grief and fog can make it very hard to move forward. While I love the idea of seeing clear sunny skies in Arizona, I realize that most of us live in the emotional equivalent of San Francisco—a place where fog can, unpredictably, appear almost any time.

In one of the most touching and insightful essays I’ve read about the subject, scientist and philosopher Stephen Harrod Buhner writes,

We become experiencers of grief, expeditionaries of ending, explorers of loss, engaged witnesses who must—if we are to travel through the territory and find the other side—let grief have its way with us. And grief … it is pervasive and insistent and relentless. When it finds us, it enters every part of the self, every aspect of our lives. It fills up the senses. The life that existed before, carefully built throughout the years, shatters into a thousand sharp fragments. We then live in the ruins that loss has made of us, and we grieve. Every day, we grieve.

Shawn Ginwright, Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, speaks eloquently about the immense emotional challenges that so many people live with. Ginwright points out that the idea of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome implies that the trauma has ended. But for many people, he says, trauma, and the grief that goes with it, is a constant presence in their lives. He calls these settings “Persistent Traumatic Stress Environments.” Dr. Ginwright says:

The most egregious consequence of living in a persistent traumatic stress environment is the inability to feel. We know from research that emotional numbing is a coping mechanism to avoid processing the emotional turmoil. It’s like hiding from your emotional self, stuffing all that emotion into a box, and stuffing it neatly away down in the basement.

Ginwright’s work is focused on helping young men who are caught up in underserved, very often violent, ecosystems, but his words resonate with me. When I began going to therapy thirty years or so ago, it became clear that, even with all my middle-class upbringing, advanced education, and socio-economic advantage, I had no real emotional vocabulary either, and little understanding of how to process grief. I can now see some of how that happened. I vividly remember, back when I was a boy of twelve, my mother and grandmother coming home in the morning from the hospital after my grandfather had died (of ALS). They said little, at least not that I can remember, just came quietly in the house. While we went through the funeral and sitting shiva, I don’t remember anyone talking about their feelings. They were, of course, dealing with grief, as best they could, in their own quiet way, but what I learned from them was, as Shawn Ginwright describes, to “stuff all that emotion in a box.”

Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way, denial doesn’t work. The grief stays with us, quietly waiting, coming in at times as Carl Sandburg once wrote about fog, “on little cat feet.” Unresolved grief grows, quietly compounding like a 401K. You’ll see little change in the day-to-day, but many years later when it comes due, it will almost certainly have gotten bigger by far. It’s about forty-five years ago this week that my father died. As shared in the End Notes of Part 3, I hadn’t seen him since I was seven. When he died, eighteen years after my parents had divorced, no meaningful conversations about his passing took place, at least not in my presence. My mother and my aunt both mentioned it to me, rather matter-of-factly, but no one, including me, said more than a few words about it. Fifteen years later, as part of the work to get back to my own past in order to better deal with the problems of the present, my therapist had suggested I write a letter to my father. I didn’t get very far—a few paragraphs in I started crying, harder than I had in maybe forever. The grief I hadn’t allowed myself to feel when he died came back with a vengeance all those years later.

On top of our personal challenges, it’s important to acknowledge what we could call the pandemic-induced “collective grief” that’s hovering in our greater ecosystem as well. Loss of loved ones and much-loved local businesses. The loss of contact, physical touch, and jobs. There’s a loss of innocence, a loss of the sense of safety, and the loss of futures we’d hoped for. The uncelebrated graduations, the gatherings that didn’t happen, soccer games that weren’t played, after school get-togethers that went by the wayside, and unheld holiday gatherings all lead to low-grade grief. Add to all that the gloom of an impending tragedy of climate change, our long overdue national reckoning with racism, and the grieving some are doing—and some might still need to do—for the loss of a national past that never really existed. This is, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes it, “A dark time inexorably darkened.”

Above and well beyond all that, there’s also the collective grief that nearly every culture carries. Even if these stories aren’t about actions that are directly connected to what we do at work, our colleagues could well be impacted by it. Whether something happened last Saturday or in the last century, we will likely still feel grief in the here and now. Find any “group” in history, and if you study even a small bit you will see that each has its stories of suffering to tell. My mother and my grandparents were shocked and devastated by the situation in Germany in the 1930s and news of the Holocaust. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s family lived through the Nigerian Civil War. Native Americans live with the destruction of their way of life, Armenians with the tragedy of the massacres that happened during WWI. Black people in the U.S. speak about carrying the pain of many centuries of trauma. As Marissa Evans wrote recently:

The grief we feel today also echoes back through time, to our ancestors, enslaved people who mourned long before I existed, and to those who endured the indignities of the Jim Crow era. Our traumas are handed down through the generations and intensify with each new death and realization that American systems were never designed to work in our favor. We know, too, what the inequities mean for our future. Our pain comes not just from those we’ve already lost, but from those we stand to lose over time. A specific sadness emerges when you realize that someone may be denied the chance to be their ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Grieving is far easier for me to write about than it is to experience. When the fog of grief settles in, we can find ourselves feeling lost, alone, unable to see far enough out front to know where we’re going. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the end of a project, or the end of a relationship, as Stephen Buhner writes, “The truth slowly sinks in. … the life I/we once knew is ending.” At an extreme level, we can barely function. As Dr. Buhner says:

We fall and the fall is endless. There literally is a “rent in the fabric of reality” and we feel it every moment of our daily life. The old world that we relied on for so long is gone and that reality, that world, will never return. … We have lost an integral aspect of our identity, a mirror which has told us for decades who and what we are. At its loss, for the first time maybe, we are incredibly, deeply, terribly, alone. Existentially bereft.

So, what do we do with all this understanding of grief as an everyday issue in the workplace? I’m still processing the answer to that question, but at the moment, here are eleven things that I’m beginning to believe would help us make the reality of grief and grieving into accepted, if not particularly welcome, parts of our organizational ecosystems:

Actively share the Five Stages of Grief

I didn’t learn about Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief” until I was in my thirties, but I sure wish I’d learned them at thirteen. “Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” are, in my own way, most definitely what I have experienced. Experts in the field I’ve studied all seem to say the same. So why not share Kübler-Ross’ simple “recipe” for working through it? It’s true that, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve,” but it might be a bit “easier” to go through the grieving when we at least have some idea of what’s coming.

Honor that we each have our own ways of grieving

Grief expert Dr. David Kessler says, “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint.” For some, it will be best handled in the form of organized religion. For others it’s better to find private ways of grieving on our own. Some folks will grieve loudly, while others (like my mother and grandmother) will want to stay silent. Some people will want time off; let’s find ways to get it to them. Others still prefer to come to work, to have some sense of normalcy to help them get through. It’s important, I’ve learned, to let each person do it in the way that works for them, because, as Dr. Kessler says, it’s our judgement of how others are grieving—not the actual grieving—that causes relationships to crash after a loss.

Support each other through the struggles

Shawn Ginwright writes, “Healing comes from sharing our stories and holding space to hear one another’s pain, and joy, without judgment.” We can get through tough times if we do it together. Even just reaching out with care and compassion—in person, on email, through a text—I’ve come to understand, can help. As David Kessler says, “What everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.” Making it OK for someone to share their struggles (of course in appropriate ways and at the right times) with coworkers can help a lot. Here we’ve also had an Employee Assistance Program for most of our forty years in business. It’s a confidential service that’s available to anyone who works here and anyone in their family.

The more we love, we all learn over time, the more it hurts

As the inspirational teacher and writer Hilary Stanton Zunin, who sadly passed away early in 2021, said, “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.” If we didn’t love our spouses, kids, coworkers, and pets so much, their loss would pass quickly. Thankfully that’s not the case. The two go together. As the late Lou Reed sang in “Magic and Loss,” “There’s a bit of magic in everything; and then some loss to even things out.”

Understand that deep grief is very hard to get through

Deeply felt grief can be, quite simply, debilitating. We feel it in our bodies and experience its impact in our brains as well. There is no easy way around it. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote after the loss of her father, “Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger.” Two weeks of bereavement leave may be helpful for many, but grieving a loss may take two years.

Understand that it takes time

With that in mind, I try to remember to stay patient. Grieving is not an action step to put on someone’s to-do list. As Stephen Buhner says: “What is really true is that grieving takes time, a lot of it. And it’s a slow process.” Trying to force ourselves, or others, through it quickly it will backfire. Patience is essential to the process.

Steer clear of silver linings and dismissals

One of the saddest situations around grief in the work world is coworkers dismissing someone else’s struggles. As Phyllis Windle writes, “Premature reassurance and pressure to accept a loss just short-circuits the grieving and recovery process.” Remember that what seems an almost insignificant loss to one person can be overwhelming for another. When my Corgi Jelly Bean died six years ago, at the age of seventeen, it was honestly harder for me than the loss of some of my close relatives.

Honor the memories

To “re-member” means to keep memories alive; to tell stories of those we’ve lost and of projects that failed so that they can stay part of our culture long after they’re gone. Finding small ways to honor those who have left our company—both in the business sense and personally—can help. Publishing essays about the deaths of my mother, and four years later, of my friend Daphne Zepos (in the Epilogue of Part 3) helped me process the pain. Writing about Frank’s retirement, or Maggie Bayless’ move to a smaller role at ZingTrain, have helped me work through those losses as well. In the process, I hope I’ve helped keep their memories and contributions to our lives alive for others to learn from. One memory I try to honor regularly is that of Stas’ Kazmierski. Stas’ passed away in the spring of 2017 at the too young age of 72. I keep his memory alive by regularly referencing Visioning, Bottom Line Change, and many of the other tools and stories he shared with us.

Use systems and ceremonies

One of the things we learned from Stas’ is the “Group Organics” model. If you’d like a PDF of the article he co-authored with Catherine Lilly, email me and I’ll send it to you. It walks us through the stages that every group goes through. One of them is termination—the endings that trigger grief and grieving, and how to best address them. As Stas’ and Catherine explain:

First, there must be some team reflection on the experience of the team, including an evaluation of the pros and cons. Second, individual group members must identify the lessons that have been learned and will be taken forward beyond the ending. Brief ceremonies, such as good-bye luncheons, going away potlucks, and Best Wishes cards also help deal with the emotional and symbolic aspects.

We do this sort of work here in our practice of ending every meeting with “appreciations.” When someone moves on, other members of the group will say something to appreciate the contributions they made during their tenure. When wrapping up a project, we now nearly always take time to do a Liked Best/Next Time. William Bridges’ transition model also helps us to understand that each of us will go through the emotional stages of change at different paces.

Remember to appreciate the beauty and bring love to all we do every day

Learning to live in appreciation and gratitude is something I’ve worked at for many years now. I’m many miles from mastery, but I try hard, every day, to be appreciative of the people, pets, products, and even the problems that we have right now. As Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat Ildan writes, “In nature, everything has a job. The job of the fog is to beautify further the existing beauties!” When we acknowledge grief as a regular and reasonable and inevitable part of our ecosystem, it helps us to better appreciate the positive things that we have, and to acknowledge their—and our—temporary presence on the planet. ​​As therapist Francis Weller writes, “There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive.”

Add the Sixth Stage of Grief to the conversation by making meaning

David Kessler worked for years with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and with the permission of her family, he took it up again a few years after she had passed away. He added a sixth stage to her original “Five Stages of Grief”: to bring meaning to the loss. This is not to imply that the loss was desirable, or that it happened for some “good reason.” Rather, Kessler’s recommendation is that we will process our losses best by creating something lasting that helps us to both honor the past and, at the same time, bond ourselves into a positive future. After Daphne died, we started the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award to advance her great cause of cheese education. When Jelly Bean passed away in May of 2015, we started the Jelly Bean Jump Up to raise money for Safehouse Center in her memory. David Kessler writes, “Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.”

In the context of this sixth stage, all this work for me is about making meaning from what I’ve been learning about the role that grief and grieving are playing in our organizational ecosystems almost every day. It’s been about making peace with grief’s near constant (if often quiet) presence. To sort through ways to work low-grade grieving into our regular routines, and how to handle that grieving more caringly and more constructively. Grief and grieving, it seems clear, will always be hard to handle, but when we learn to help each other deal with them more effectively, both we, and our ecosystems, will benefit. My belief is that in the process we will create a workplace in which its members can acknowledge their grief, one where it’s ok to talk about sadness and sorrow. An organization in which those who have made it out the other side of “the fog” of grief can freely share stories and experiences to help others learn. A place where we can honor grief’s impact on all of us, while still finding ways to move forward together.

When we weave grief and grieving effectively in our everyday existence, our fog might lift a bit more quickly; we will, I hope, see through it a little more clearly. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the losses that will inevitably come in the days, weeks, and months ahead, but embracing grief and grieving in this way makes me at least a bit more confident that we can handle them more holistically when they come, and that all of us will be better for it. It’s not easy work, but I believe that our lives and our organizational ecosystems will be healthier places for it. As Anne Lamott writes:

Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in—then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.

(In Part 3, I wrote a bit about how the Buddhist teaching about a not-yet-broken vase had helped with processing my mother’s passing in May of 2008. I don’t have room to include it all here but if you have the book, it’s on page 145. If you don’t have the book and want to read it, email me at [email protected])

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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