Leadership and Grief
Loss is built into the fabric of our culture. Every one of us knows what it is like to lose something precious to us. Whether it be the loss of opportunities, loss of possibilities, or feelings we can never get back again, it is part of what it means to be alive.
Over the past several weeks, months, and years, people have been suffering from some form of loss. Whether it be the loss of a loved one, a job, or the simple pleasure of dining out with family and friends. Add to the individual loss the deep grief of war, mass shootings, and violence, it is almost overwhelming.
Leading Through Grief and Loss
It is unbelievable how quickly and suddenly grief and loss affect people through television, social media, and internet outlets. Even though it might be tempting to ignore grief and keep a semblance of normalcy, it is up to you to set the stage for how grief is accepted, managed, and transformed. As a leader, you play a critical role in modeling care and compassion for the people entrusted to you and for your community. As you listen to the needs and seek to understand the emotions, you identify and develop a way forward into and through the grief.
Keep in mind that grief, while painful, ultimately leads to a deeper appreciation for life and relationships. This strengthens you as a leader. We only grieve the people or things we deeply love. Whether it be a beloved family member, a significant relationship, or a special and meaningful time in our lives, deep grief comes from the experience of deep love.
3 Reminders for Leading Through Grief
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you enter into and lead through periods of grief and loss.
1. Be yourself and lead with authenticity.
Courageous leaders lead with compassion. Vulnerability is at the core of their leadership. Too often we feel we need to hide our grief, pain, or sadness. The reality is grief, and the feelings of grief are opportunities to be authentic and vulnerable as you respond with compassion.
Being a vulnerable leader means asking for help with your own grief. It means showing up and saying, “I’m going to do my best, but I need to lean on you for support.”
When you are less than authentic, you risk detachment. At that point, you take away your ability to experience love and happiness. Be yourself, experience love, acknowledge the loss, and lead with compassion.
2. Mourn and create a culture of hope.
Courageous leaders model hope. This is more than wishful thinking. This is living into the grief and coming through it with a new love and appreciation of life. Too often grief becomes indulgent. Even though it is painful, we want to stay in it because it requires nothing of us. But remember that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn…” He did not say, “…those who grieve.” Grief is passive. Those who mourn are those who are moved to the point of action.
3. Transform Grief Into Action
A hope-filled leader not only acknowledges the grief but discovers ways to transform the grief into meaningful action. Grief sometimes is like a specific location, a place on a map of time. When you are there, you can’t imagine getting to a better place. But when someone assures you that they have stood in that same place and have moved one, it brings hope for the future. Draw upon the loss and develop a pathway for moving forward. Your action creates and models the hope needed to get through the difficult times and into a new day of love and appreciation.
Charles Dickens, in his classic novel Great Expectations, used the kind and simple blacksmith, Joe, to deliver his message regarding loss. As he parts ways with Pip, Joe remarks that it is merely the nature of life to have to say goodbye to the people, places, and experiences we have loved. It is never easy. But we find comfort knowing that in the end of each parting is a brand-new beginning.
When you, as the leader, acknowledge your grief, you create a sense of vulnerability for others. You create a space for people to support and care for others who are grieving. You model community and begin to develop and deepen relationships. You are a catalyst to a new beginning.
While the loss is painful, you use it for good. You share your story to inspire others to not give up, to connect with one another and the community, and you move forward with the hope of loving and appreciating the people you encounter each day.
Over the years I have heard a sermon illustration comparing the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake, full of fish, and a source of food. The Dead Sea is a salty lake in which nothing can live. The usual point is that the Jordan River flows into and through the Sea of Galilee, but it only flows into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has no outlet.
But I heard a different observation by Dr. George Buttrick regarding the Dead Sea. He said the Dead Sea has an outlet. An upward outlet. An outlet toward the sky. Across the centuries as it has surrendered itself to the sun, a residue of potash has built up and remains along its shores. Potash, a different form of life than water. It is a main ingredient of fertilizer. Engineers have estimated that if the potash around the Dead Sea could be mixed and distributed, there would be enough fertilizer for the whole surface of the earth for at least five years.
Surrender to the Son
Life never comes to a complete dead end. Even when the only outlet is to surrender to the sky in helplessness, there is positive residue.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
Out of the helplessness of grief and loss comes the miracle of new love and appreciation for life. So, let’s try it. Let us surrender ourselves, as leaders, to the Son. As sure as you are reading this blog, there will be something good to show for it.
Remember, who you are is how you lead.
Before You Go…
Take a simple (and dare we say, fun) five question quiz to help you identify your season of following Jesus and what steps to take next.
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