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Grief: Coping with loss

Grief is something we'll all experience. But it's difficult. Here's how leaders can work through grief and help others do the same.

5 min read


Grief: Coping with loss


“The fact that something has happened to a million other people diminishes neither grief nor joy.”  ~ Author unknown

We humans are resilient creatures. When adversity strikes, we may pause a beat, but typically we figure out ways to overcome, or at least cope with, the new challenges.

There is an exception to our ability to bounce back. Grief!

Grief, chiefly due to the loss of a loved one, can be debilitating, mentally and physically. And so now in our time of pandemic, grief is more apparent. We are losing people we know. Unexpectedly.

“Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt,” by psychologist Mary Frances O’Connor, delineates how grief affects us. As summarized by in a newsletter by the Institute of Coaching, the paper discusses the psychological and physiological effects of grief. These include:

  • Acute grief producing a loss of an ability to regulate emotions such as sadness and anger
  • Coping by alternating between living without the individual and learning to how to do so
  • Loss of one’s own personhood due to the loss of a loved one

Rabbi Earl Grollman, who counseled survivors of the Oklahoma City bombings, writes, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

The good news is that 60% recover from grief, but in others where there are complicating emotional and physiological factors, grief can produce degrees of clinical depression.

Grief affects the body, too

Physiological impacts are real. For example, the “broken heart” syndrome is not a myth; acute grief can affect the immune and cardiac systems. Sometimes there is also co-morbidity. The loss of a loved one contributes to the death of the spouse. And in some cases, there can be cognitive decline, especially when other factors compound grief.

There is another kind of grief produced by the loss of colleagues. Many companies have either gone out of business or laid-off employees. Those left behind feel a degree of survivor’s guilt – why them and not me? They also miss the camaraderie of these colleagues. There is a degree of grief; while not as acute as the loss of a loved one, there is the pain of separation.

Coping with grief

Carol Kauffman, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist and executive coach, says executives have a role to play when it comes to grief in the workplace: “Acknowledge its presence.” She advises leaders to do the opposite of a famous saying “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

In other words, as Kauffman explains, “Allow the person to have their feelings.”

It is important to recognize such feelings. Talking about what has been lost is an acknowledgment that things have changed. It is essential to air one’s feelings. It’s part of the coping and eventual healing process.

Kauffman recalls an experience when she was early in her clinical training. She related to her supervisor that her client was crying. The supervisor then asked, “What were they feeling?”

Tears are an expression of emotion; crying can mean different things to different people. The challenge is to allow the individual to express themselves. So when dealing with an employee who has suffered a loss, Kauffman advises, “How are you holding up?”

That question opens the door to conversation, and ideally a moment of sharing between indivduals.

Coaches working with those who have suffered loss must understand the implications of grief to better address any adverse side effects. It is essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise and stress reduction. These factors can improve some of the symptoms. Likewise, executives who have employees experiencing grief need to be alert to the ill effects.

Social distancing

Our isolation caused by the pandemic compounds all of these factors. So often, we cannot be physically present for a colleague suffering grief. We can, however, make it known that we care. We can do that by staying in touch via video chat and other forms of e-communications.

Kauffman, whom Marshall Goldsmith called the No. 1 coach in the world, invokes something known as the “Platinum Rule.”

That is, “treat others as they would like to be treated, not necessarily as you would want to be treated,” says Kauffman. “Normalize in your own head, as well as in theirs, that what they’re going through is normal for them.”

It is important to realize “that people have very different psychological needs.” Individuals process grief as well as crises in different ways.

Grief is real. Acknowledging it is essential to healing. Those in leadership positions must be aware of its effects and make space for those suffering from it.

Grief unites all of us. We will all suffer it at one time or another. Preparing for it will enable us to cope more effectively when it strikes us.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.

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