Have You Given Yourself Permission to Grieve?

Come to Terms with the Interruptions

“Mom, you are annoyed,” my six year old stated in a matter of fact way before abruptly bouncing away on her exercise ball to her room to play. Days later, her remarks haunted me as I realized that she saw something in me, which I had neglected to address.

Upon learning of the impending shut-downs, I dove into a crisis management role to ensure our organization was as responsive as possible.

 Internally, however, I wrestled with understanding the measures at play. While all around me the public sentiment was set on flattening the curve, I wrestled with what seemed like draconian measures. I kept thinking of, not only the economic toll, but of the kids bound at home already in abusive or neglected homes where school serves as a sort of shelter during the day. I thought of the victims of domestic violence, and of the mental health consequences due to the social isolation. As a clinical psychologist I have stories embedded in my heart of kids weighted down by the trauma and abuse they experienced and I ached for them, fearing the worst.

While a part of me could appreciate the care for the most vulnerable and the race to get healthcare facilities ramped up in an effort to flatten the curve, the social and economic cost seemed utterly devastating.  

 I carried on, leading our team through COVID-19, all the while harboring a bit of internal rebellion and anger at the measures that had suddenly been imposed on us. I felt anxious about the grief and pain all of this was causing. 

COVID-19 had also upended my rhythm. I had developed a daily routine and weekly goals, which I was tackling with confident steadiness. I had entered the year full of hope and enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Could I be angry at a virus? COVID-19 disrupted my schedule, my goals, and my stride. 

The incongruence of leading my team by staying above the fray with the internal anger, was making me bitter. This was true in spite of taking care of myself and checking off the ticker box of all that I could do to stay grounded in the tumultuous times: meditate and journal, keep my family on a schedule, set boundaries, take hikes with the family, jog, take frequent mental health breaks, do acts of service for others, enjoy the company of my kids by spending more time with them baking and making crafts. For sure all of this helped to keep the anxiety at bay and to create a sense of physical and mental wellbeing. Still, there was an undeniable current of bitterness lurking.

And it was this irritability that my keen daugther commented on. Kids have a way of calling our bluffs and stating things as they are. They see clearly what as adults we are good at masking.  But it wasn’t just my daughter. I knew I had to pay attention when my husband joined in remarking that I needed to relax a bit. Perhaps in my zeal to keep both work and home functioning well through COVID-19, I was driving a bit too intense.

Accept the Interruptions

The message fully sunk in when I watched Pixar’s Inside Out again with my kids. Inside Out brilliantly personifies core feelings (disgust, sadness, joy, anger and fear) and creates a plot based on how the external experiences of an 11-year old are unconsciously processed into long-term memory. We are introduced to the principal character, Riley, through Joy, one of five emotions dwelling in the “control center” of Riley’s mind.  Throughout the movie, Joy ambitiously does all she can to create positive and optimistic outcomes for Riley. When Riley’s world begins to unravel after her parents move to San Francisco, “Sadness” is tempted to touch some of the core memories that were originally only colored with happiness. Concerned that Sadness will taint these core memories, Joy does all she can to keep sadness and all the other feelings preoccupied with contingency plans and limits their engagement with Riley. She even limits sadness to stay within a circle stating that she is to keep sadness within the boundaries of her circle.  Eventually, her efforts to control sadness are thwarted. And hence begins a sequence of events where Joy and Sadness are “kicked out” of the “control room” into an inner world of memories that is falling apart. Without Joy and Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust are left and Riley becomes increasingly defiant, obstinate and even plots to run away from home. While trying to get back to the control room, Joy and Sadness run into Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who tries to help them get back. In one of the sequences, Bing Bong is sad after a special rocket is thrown into what looks like an infinite pit where forgotten memories are evicted. Joy is concerned that Bing Bong is frozen for a few minutes and stops and in her urgency to move forward she tries to rush him forward. It isn’t until Sadness steps in as the one that is able to truly comfort Bing Bong during this time. The moment where he is able to cry and let it out is freeing and loosens him up. Afterwards, he is able to focus and help the team again in their quest to return to control center.  

One of the many poignant lessons portrayed in the movie is how sadness is a feeling to be reckoned with. Sadness, who otherwise is treated as an annoying pest towards the beginning scenes, grows in value as she aids and comforts. In the end, joy and sadness work together to bring healing and growth. We see the feelings integrate and blend with experiences, co-existing and sharing power. 

We need to have some grace for ourselves and for our families as we settle into the new normal of quarantine life. We need to stop and take a moment to grieve the losses in our midst. It is okay to let the sadness settle in. In the hustle and bustle, we may survive by pushing the sadness away. Yet, once the initial crisis has been abated, it is time to grieve. It is okay to have a day of rest. It is okay to get out of the driver seat and to feel the heaviness of the situation. It is okay to pause the questions and to not always have answers.

I took a day to give myself permission to rest.  I asked my team members to also take a mental health day as well. Now, everyday, I give myself moments and space to grieve. The magnitude of this situation requires it. And everyday I am seeing the interruptions less as a burdensome and tiresome barrier keeping me from my goals and more as a gift, a gift to be present.

Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude in the Turmoil 

When I came to terms with the grief, when I accepted the interruptions, I started to appreciate at a greater depth the delicious supply of hugs I get to enjoy on a regular basis now that I am home. I delight in the creative play buzzing as the background music that plays while I work. Their joy is contagious. I join in my kids’ enthusiasm as they excitedly discover a caterpillar in their backyard expeditions. It is a reminder that in a sense we are all now in a caterpillar state. This situation has brought us all back to ground “0.” We are all starting again.

Grieving frees one to experience life. Sadness and mourning give new meaning to joy.  The deadness of winter awakens us to the beauty and wonder of spring. Skipping one deprives us of the other. When we relax the reins, we get to be awakened by the sounds and smells of spring and it resurrects everything that is otherwise dead. 

When you lead out of a place of gratitude, you can usher in a sense of purpose and meaning. 

Lead through the crisis

As you gain your footing, you can lead your team well. Below are some practical tips to consider while leading your team through this crisis. 

  1. Understand everyone grieves at a different pace. Everyone grieves differently. People have different ways to cope and manage.  We don’t all process things at the same speed and at the same time. If you are a pacesetter in your organization, some may have an especially tough time keeping up. Just like you have to give yourself the freedom to grieve, you can set the tone by also giving your team permission to process things. 
  2. Acknowledge the unconventional situation. Recognize the unconventionality of the stage we are in, take a moment to recognize the low morale, the difficult unpredictability of our current state before you trail onward.  
  3. Set the tone and expectations. And if you are one of the essential businesses that are charging ahead at full speed, let people know what is expected of them (as much as you can). One executive of a tech org working at full speed stated that they let their team know that they would be driving very hard, and that in doing so they may lose some of their team members. They stated that if any of them needed to sit on the bench for a bit, to let them know. If people know they are in a war zone, they are more likely to prepare accordingly. 
  4. Establish a communication process. Create new habits of communication and accountability within the team. State the expectations, communicate them, and repeat them frequently to give clarity. I frequently tell my team that unless something is communicated at least 7 times, it is easy for the message to be missed. Communicate across different platforms and do so frequently to ensure clarity. 
  5. Give people a clear role and purpose. Give meaning and direction to your team members. There is much that is spinning out of control. There is an amplitude of uncertainty and worry, a breeding ground for anxiety. What is within the realm of your control is giving specific roles and tangible goals to your team. Giving them directives, giving them clarity, and giving them a sense of purpose in the midst of this struggle is important for their well-being and to foster a healthy organization. A message of hope and a reminder of your vision and mission helps to channel the anxiety towards purpose and restores a sense of agency. 
  6. Remind yourself and others that people are resilient. It’s easy to drown in the negative news of the hour. Throughout history people have come back from national and worldwide crises and from traumatic experiences. Take heart, we will bounce back.

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