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Approaching Grief in the Workplace as a Leader – EP 2

Episode Summary

In this episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo discusses the complexities of grief with Jennifer Barchi, a Trauma Informed Executive and Leadership Coach. They open up about the different ways people experience grief and the best practices for leaders to create a workplace culture where people feel safe to grieve.

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About Jennifer Barchi

Jennifer Barchi is a senior consultant with Design Group International. She’s also an associate for church and leadership for the Presbytery of Baltimore, and a trauma informed executive and leadership coach for her practice, Artfully Caffeinated.

Barchi graduated from Stanford University with her bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Affairs.

Episode Transcript – Approaching Grief in the Workplace as a Leader

Betsy Cerulo: Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo, and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair, there’s always room at the table. 

Welcome to another meaningful conversation on Room at the Table. I am Betsy Cerulo, your host. And welcome to my guest today, Jennifer Barchi, who is a senior consultant with Design Group International, and she’s an associate for church and leadership for the Presbytery of Baltimore, and an executive coach for her practice, Artfully Caffeinated. So, today, we are talking about grief in the workplace and how we navigate it for our teams and ourselves. So, pull up a chair, enjoy your favorite beverage, and let’s get started. Jennifer, welcome.

 

Jennifer Barchi: Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you today, Betsy.

Same here, especially to talk about a topic that, you know, we just can’t seem to escape it, no matter who we are, what our walks of life are, but it’s something that we all have to deal with. So, I appreciate you engaging in this conversation with me, because I know it’s not an easy one.

It’s not, but it is my pleasure to engage in it. It’s something that I think is really important for us to think through. And especially in modern American culture, it’s not one that we often take the time to really rest in and reflect upon.

 

You know, it’s an interesting time, even for me, because I recently lost my mom who passed away at 98. And a couple of months have gone by, and I certainly feel the internal shifts in myself. And I reflect on the first couple of days of it and the shock that I felt and sometimes wanting to go into automatic or trying to escape some of the feelings. And it just got to a point in my work that I just said, “Okay, I can’t, I’ve got to be with this.” And I know in the roles that you have played, you see this a lot and different forms of it.

I do. And if there was one thing that I would want to get across to folks, especially in the workplace, it’s the knowledge that grief takes on many different forms, and is as unique as the person who is grieving. Betsy, I really resonate with the idea of sometimes wanting to get back to something that is totally normal, getting back into the swing of things, and also finding that to be really difficult. For my background, I come from a very academic, very driven family. That was the way that I was raised and socialized. And yet, I have friends and colleagues from other backgrounds and other experiences who experienced their grief very differently and feel a very different level of comfort with taking the time to really engage in those feelings and processes.

Yeah. I come from one of those family backgrounds where you push through, and I can often remember, at different times of loss, hearing the message, show no emotion, and be strong for everyone else around you. So, in my role as a leader over the years, any losses that I had were secondary, because I wanted to be strong for everyone else around me. I have learned, as I’ve gotten older, that it really just comes back to bite you, and it makes the grief, the certain phases of it, hang on even longer if you’re not with it in the moment that you need to be. And it doesn’t mean that in the workplace, when you have an employee who’s in just a constant state of grief, or the emotions, they just keep coming up for them, that’s where we as leaders can really counsel and be with employees to help ease them or, perhaps say, yeah, you took your bereavement leave but grief doesn’t end when the bereavement leave ends.

Exactly.

So, why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go home? We’ve got you, just go take care of yourself and let’s regroup tomorrow or another day.

Exactly. I love what you said about grief. If you put on a strong face, and you are there for everybody else, and you sort of pretend that the grief isn’t there, it doesn’t help. It does come back to bite you. I think of it sort of like if you were trying to plug up a geyser and you were successful, that pressure of that water is going to find another place, another soft spot in the earth from which to erupt. And so, what happens if you try to ignore your grief is that it finds another soft spot in your life where it will erupt. And it may be in a way that is unexpected and you may not even recognize it, which can have some pretty significant unintended consequences. One of the most important things, I think, is creating a workplace culture where people feel safe to grieve, where they know that they have permission to feel their feelings the way that is culturally appropriate for them. Some people grieve very loudly, some people grieve quietly, where they know that they are trusted to regulate themselves, and where they understand that there is compassion enough that if they are really having a difficult day, there is an escape, they are allowed to take care of themselves by going home.

Yeah. I was always fascinated, especially being a business owner, about bereavement leave. And I don’t mean fascinated in a good way. Just how, seeing that in work cultures and with the customers that we’ve represented, knowing what their policies were, again, where the magic number was, three days, five days. I would think, okay, obviously, funeral services are a fixed amount of time. But it doesn’t mean that everything goes back to normal. And sometimes that feeling of normalcy is a good thing. And grief creeps in at times that — you can’t plan it. I think it’s sometimes, it’s a gift of the universe, and I’m not going to call it a curse because I can think, over the years when I’ve experienced my own grief, that it was really a magnificent place of exploring oneself. Being with the flooding of memories for your loved one, or, in this case, my loved ones, but things that you hadn’t thought about in years that were actually really wonderful memories, and some that weren’t. But in some of the memories that I found that were not pleasant, that’s where I had the opportunity to do some deeper inner work with myself. That, “Oh, I think I need to spend a little bit more time exploring why is that bothering me now? And how can my life expand in a better way at this stage of life?” Have you experienced that with people?

I have, and I want to go back to the first part of what you said, which is about, we think of bereavement leave as typically being three to five days. And I think, as with so much in, sort of, our American business culture, there is a desire to be able to have a regulation that is standard across people and to put productivity at the very forefront of things and expect that our human processes will follow our business productive processes, which of course, is just not true. And even with what I would call the most uncomplicated of grief cycles, I would expect that grief and normal grief cycle would last at least a year. And part of the reason for that is because we go through an entire year of experiences that we might have shared with that person.

Yes.

So, there’s a year of, what does this birthday look like without them? What does this holiday that we celebrated as a group look like without them? What does the season look like without them? And those memories that you were talking about will surface differently and with a different amount of poignancy throughout those different periods. And that’s when grief is uncomplicated. And the truth is, most of us experience some level of more complicated grief, whether that’s that our relationship with the person who passed away is not as lovely, or as rosy as perhaps we wanted it to be and there are lasting regrets. Or perhaps, it’s something along the lines of it was a traumatic death, which brings its own host of complicating factors with it. But at its best, I agree with you. Grief is such a tender place that when we really engage with the process of grieving, it leads us to know ourselves more deeply. And it leads us, also, to forge relationships, sometimes more strongly. In a way, I think of it almost similar to a post-traumatic growth process. So, the idea with post-traumatic growth is that in the aftermath of a traumatic event, and deaths can be traumatic events, they aren’t always, but they can be, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, we are able to work through it in such a way that we grow psychologically, we grow relationally, and therefore, would say that we’re actually better off after the trauma than we were before the trauma. That’s sort of the definition of post-traumatic growth. And I think the same can be said of grief, that if we really engage with the work, if we find meaning in the midst of it, if we are able to draw out how we ourselves can grow out of it, and then also find ways to contribute to the world in a way that really honors that person, then we might say that we wind off actually better off or as a fuller person than we were before the event that sparked the grief.

Yeah, absolutely. And I know from the workplace, there has to be some kind of rule in place. And I always look at that as a place to start from, because as a small business, we wish we could give people endless amounts of time, even for myself to have endless amounts of time. But we know that in the world of business, and oftentimes in a small business, when the resources are less, in terms of the people, you can’t do that. But as a leader, if you’re aware of someone’s loss, and checking in, how are you? What do you need? And sometimes people don’t know how to say or don’t feel comfortable saying what they need. If those of us who are in leadership roles know that the person is, perhaps, responding or acting differently than we are accustomed, it’s okay. Always ask for permission, ask for permission. Sit down with the person, talk to them, how are you doing? And those kinds of conversations that could be had in a short period of time, I know, go a really, really long way, even more so than say, “Hey, go take another two weeks off,” or something like that. Because in that moment, you’re being held with a lot of love. And that’s really, whether the grief is giving pleasant memories, traumatic memories, you’re reliving things, whatever it is, being held in a space of love helps to heal.

Yes. I often find that people have this question of, “Well, what do I say when someone’s lost someone?” There’s a deep discomfort around death and around loss. And so, the question comes up, “Well, what is a helpful thing to say? What can I say? Is there anything that I can say that’s meaningful at this moment?” And there are actually writers who have written about their own personal experience of loss and what they have found to be helpful. And some of the constants that I’ve seen are things just like you said, like, how are you doing? I’m thinking of you, being willing to sit in silence with somebody for a period of time, also, asking questions, and this can be brief as well, but saying, “If you’re comfortable, I’d love to hear a story about whoever it is who’s passed away.” Or being willing to share a story of a fond memory if you happen to know that person as well. Sharing a fond memory that you had, that can also be meaningful. I’ll also say that I have never had a negative response to asking somebody, “How can I best support you right now?” And the truth is, they may not know. Plenty of people, it can be an overwhelming question for some folks in that period, but it allows them to advocate for themselves at a time when they may feel like they don’t have a lot of power.

Right, right. And I would notice over the years with loss that, yes, grief, loss, it is very uncomfortable. None of us want to be in that place. But when you do nothing, you’re doing something. You’re ignoring it, and sweeping it under the rug, especially for a colleague that you interact with often, it’s not a pleasant feeling to be on the other end, when it’s like, “You knew that I had this loss.” I think it’s really how we, as a society, view some of these things as uncomfortable. We want life to be perfect all the time, but when these kinds of things happen, the way to have perfection is to stand with someone through their darkest hours. And it doesn’t mean from a work perspective that you are crossing boundaries. It just means you’re having a conversation from your heart to theirs because we all have loss. We all do. The other part of loss, given, and I know you are too, a big animal person, how sometimes, in my entire work life, which goes many decades, how people make side jokes when someone loses a pet. For some of us, whether you have two-legged children or four-legged, that animal becomes a part of the family. So, I even put bereavement leave for pets into our space, because it’s sometimes traumatic. And sometimes, someone’s like, “Look, I’m okay,” or, “If I need it, I’ll tell you.” But that’s one of the most god-awful things is when you lose your pet, really is.

Absolutely, yes. And that gets, to me, to sort of a broader concept in grief, which is, it’s twofold. There’s one, the idea of sort of hidden griefs that we tend not to talk about or tend not to acknowledge as a society or tend to make light of. One of them is losing a pet. Another one that we really do not talk about, there’s a taboo that’s slowly getting lifted, but there’s a taboo about talking about infertility, or pregnancy loss, which can cause real grief for women and men. But part of this is also — the other piece that I wanted to lift up in this is the idea that we often think of grief as being a direct correlation. So, I am grieving the thing that happened right now. Right? I am grieving the death of this person that I loved, or I am grieving the death of this animal, when in actuality, the way that grief often works is that a grief will bring up the feelings that are associated with that relationship and grief’s past. And sometimes, it happens that a grief that might seem like a small grief to people around us, it might seem like it makes no sense, that, I don’t know, let’s say someone’s grieving their second cousin twice removed, right, and they’re falling apart. Now, it could be that you don’t know the relationship, and they were actually best friends and grew up together. It could also be that there was something in the death of the second cousin twice removed that is triggering all of the memories of someone that they lost as a child that they were never able to grieve properly at the time. And so, this new grief becomes a cathartic release of something that is older. And so, the reality is that, as much as we might like for it to be, grief is not simple and it’s not always a direct correlation. And it’s often not linear.

Yeah, absolutely. And I have had experiences, especially through the pandemic, that has brought up a lot of loss through the isolation, and it’s not necessarily death. It has been the loss of relationships, breakups, and have really shattered both men and women that I know from the work that I do. We, sometimes, kind of put that off to the side. Just because someone is not married, that doesn’t mean that the loss of the relationship is any less important. And when someone’s life shifts because someone or a pet is no longer in their life, that’s a transition that needs to be paid attention to, because that’s what creates healthier work cultures when we know, I think not so much know, but when we really take care of each other. And taking care of is not enabling, but it’s being a human being, a good human being to another. So, one other thing I want to talk about with grief is let’s talk about it culturally, in diversity. In the work that you do, do you see that across different diverse cultures, how is grief handled or treated?

Absolutely. So, there’s a really, really broad range of what is considered to be normal and acceptable in expressing grief. I will never forget, so as a pastor, part of my training was doing a chaplaincy internship, and everyone in my small cohort was, we were all white people who had grown up in similar contexts. We all tended to be relatively quiet, introverted folks. And one of the chaplains who was on staff was a black woman, and she made a point of handling a seminar that we had on grieving in a diverse setting. And one of the things that she made very clear to us from her experience was her experience of black families was that grief tended to be loud. And what she had witnessed in the hospital as a black woman ministering to families across the spectrum, but she was particularly troubled when she would minister to a family of color, and they would be expressing their grief in a way that was totally normal, and white staff in the hospital would be so uncomfortable that they would come in and say, “You have to quiet down,” or, “You can’t grieve like this, you can’t be that loud, you need to move elsewhere.” And to be clear, this was not out of a regard for other patients. In this case, it was because of a discomfort on the staff’s part about the level of emotion. And so, that’s just one example. But across the broad spectrum of race, ethnicity, class, and gender, there are different expectations about what is appropriate and grieving. There are different norms for how long a grieving process should last. There are different volumes of grief, there are different traditional things that can be said or even postures that can be taken. So, for example, throwing yourself on the floor or being low. So, it’s understanding that, and I think a huge piece of what we’re talking about is understanding where we ourselves as leaders within workplaces are uncomfortable and moderating our discomfort, controlling our discomfort, so that we are able to be present and sensitive to another person and meet them where they are, instead of taking our discomfort out on them.

Right. Yeah. And I have definitely seen in my career when, from a leadership perspective, leaders can be very quick to go to the front of the room to celebrate the good stuff, to champion the accomplishments. And I have definitely seen leaders over the years that will run out of the room and ignore the troubled times, these kinds of troubled times. There are the leaders that are so vocal when the sales and the revenues are behind, but when it comes to grief, I have definitely been horrified when I have seen leaders just disregard others’ feelings. And I believe, we, as leaders in an organization, if we have people that have come to work in our organization, we have a responsibility to hold people at their best and at their worst. And again, not from an enabling place, but from a place of genuine compassion and humanity. And my hope and prayer is that as the workplace continues to evolve, that more people will see that and call out the leaders who are ignoring this because this is a part of life.

Yes, absolutely.

We have parties for baby showers and birthdays and weddings, but there’s nothing, there’s silence when there’s loss, whether that’s a person’s life, or a person’s relationship.

Yes. And to me, that gets to our real discomfort. America, not just America, but I’m going to speak from American culture because it is the one I know the best, we have a real difficulty with the process of aging and with dying. You can see it in ads that want us, especially women, to look younger for as long as possible. It’s almost as if we want to deny that we’re slowly creeping towards death. The fact that we’re not comfortable even saying, “this person died,” as opposed to, “this person passed away.” We have real discomfort with it. And so, we’re happy to celebrate the good things, and we would rather push away and pretend that things like loss didn’t exist, because then we don’t have to face that it’s going to happen to us as well.

You know, as we bring our conversation to completion, and conversations like this can just go endlessly, what piece of wisdom would you want to leave for the listeners on this topic when it comes to the workplace or when it comes to self?

So, when it comes to the workplace, it’s really where I began, which is understanding that grief is different for everybody. And it is as unique as the person who is grieving. So, there’s a real need for us to check our own internal discomfort and to simply be present with people in the midst of that process and to know that it can last for a lot longer than we would anticipate it lasting. And that that’s okay. And when it comes to self, I would say the biggest piece of wisdom is to be gentle with yourself and to really work to get the growth out of it, which means to engage with a grieving process, whatever that looks like for you, to engage with the grieving process, and to embrace a grieving process, as opposed to running away from it.

That’s beautiful, because for people that are in leadership or high performing, sometimes grief can be the greatest gift to give you permission to slow down and to stop, however that may look. Again, my wish is that people continue to be gentle with themselves inside and outside the workplace and that we continue to strive to get through it together and to be present. I mean, when I think about the different topics that we talk about on the podcast and that a lot of the work I do in leadership, it comes down to being present. And it’s amazing, when one is present to what is going on in that moment, some amazing discoveries can occur, and beautiful relationships can form and grow.

Absolutely.

Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today to have this conversation. I appreciate your wisdom. And I am so excited that you touch so many people and that you feel comfortable and are present to be with someone in one of our darkest hours. So, thank you for all you do.

Thank you. And thank you for having me today. It’s been wonderful talking to you. And I appreciate all that you’re doing and transforming the way workplaces work.

Little bit of time, right?

Little bit at a time.

Okay, thank you so much, Jennifer, and to our listeners, we thank you for being here today and hope that you left this conversation with even one new awareness that tomorrow, you can go into the workplace and to be able to share and be more present and gentler with yourself. Thank you, everyone.  

Thank you for joining us. And if you enjoy this episode, please follow Room at the Table on your favorite platform and share with a colleague or two or three. You can find the full transcripts, links and more resources to creating more equitable workplaces at RoomAtTheTablePodcast.com.

This has been a production of Twin Flames Studios.

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