After my husband died last fall, my world changed. Undergoing and guiding change, both of which are central to my work as a leadership coach, suddenly took on new dimensions. I have new appreciation for the simple kindness of human connection.
One of the most powerful frameworks for helping us go through change comes from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grieving. Kubler-Ross realized grief is a process of changing. Later, William Bridges made the connection between grieving for a lost loved one and making changes at work—losing a colleague, reorganizing work operations, reconfiguring offices space, or growing a company. Change interrupts the familiar patterns of work. Change involves loss: that is the central insight Bridges got from Kubler-Ross.
In this post I’ll share my reactions to what people say when they learn I’ve lost my beloved. I hope telling you what helps me will also help you help others who are going through change.
A simple acknowledgement of my loss is very helpful. Colleagues, neighbors, customer service people (for insurance, credit cards, tech support, etc.), and even townspeople have greeted me by saying, “I’m sorry about your loss.” Their simple human kindness says, “I have heard.” It acknowledges loss that is always in my mind and heavy on my heart. The kindly sentence is sincere, simple, and direct.
Other people’s well-intentioned reactions hurt or stir my anger. I have learned from books on grieving that these unhelpful responses are common.
Playing down the loss is not helpful. “Well, at least he didn’t suffer for long,” some people have said. A workplace version might be: “Come on, it’s just different office space, for goodness sake. No big deal.”
Comparing suffering is not helpful. “I lost my brother last year, so I know how you feel.” A workplace version might be: “Once I had to take on a second job role while keeping the one I had, so I know exactly what you are going through by starting over in a new job.”
Comparing suffering is similar to presuming to know how somebody else feels. “I lost my brother last year; I feel your pain,” someone said to me. A workplace version? “I know, you are shell shocked because you are brand new to the department. I feel your ‘overwhelm.’”
“You’re strong; I know you’ll make it” may also not help. The risk with this compliment is that it doesn’t allow the other person to also be vulnerable, raw, disoriented, off-balance and/or other natural responses to change. In many workplaces, strength and toughness are prized and rewarded; vulnerability is viewed as weakness. To not allow or even to “disappear” vulnerability drives underground the range of responses to loss that helps us get through it.
For me, something simple and direct, like, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry for this hard time” is the most helpful. It says,
- The loss is present and real.
- We are connected.
- Simple kindness matters, even for the well-trained customer service people who know they have to move on to address the reason for my call.
- For people who are closer to me, simple human kindness opens a space for what else might arise, such as, “And how are you doing today?” or “Can I help in some way?” or I might say, “Thanks. It’s the hardest time, ever.”