Healing Grief in the Workplace

Grieving the Sudden Death of a Beloved Mentor, Manager, and “Man for All Seasons” Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc") Updated: Feb 23rd 2012

The Stress Doc captures the shock, sadness, and synergy of a Group Grief Intervention. Purposeful group process reveals both how individuals can soulfully empower themselves while the collective sustains the spirit of a recently deceased beloved friend, colleague, and leader.

Grieving Woman

The sudden and as yet inexplicable death of a 35 year old manager of a hospital research department left his colleagues, understandably, in a state of shock and confusion, truly feeling at a loss. When he did not show up to work or respond to a call on Monday, two colleagues went to his house. They called the police when he wouldn't answer the door or his phone…alas, he had died over the weekend. What made the tragedy so inconceivable was that Paul, (a fictional name), was "Mr. Health" - he ran regularly and ate very healthfully (avocado salads every day for lunch). Heck, a few months earlier, he had hiked mountains in Nepal. Adding to the confusion, there was no immediate cause of death. Adding to the poignancy, I've never encountered a manager so universally admired and appreciated, no, I'll say it, so loved by his staff.

Not surprisingly, in the three Grief Intervention groups that I facilitated on the same day, people were at different states of readiness to share thoughts and, especially, their emotions. In fact, several people chose to attend more than one group, progressively enabling a state of shock to evolve into tearful expression. Naturally, another differentiating factor in terms of emotional reactivity (or feeling numb) was the colleague's length of service in the research department. Paul had been in the department fifteen years; his long-time colleagues seemed particularly bereft. However, younger colleagues, especially the recent graduates from school, esteemed Paul's patience and non-judgmental stance with their learning curve errors and abundance of "dumb questions"; he "never talked down to us."

Group Process: The Beginning - Shock and Sadness

As noted, there were three one hour grief groups that people could choose to attend. Most attended one or two groups. Three senior colleagues, who worked intimately with Paul, decided to complete a work project rather than attend a group. They acknowledged not being ready to talk.

The first group began in stunned silence; then, cautiously, a few people began to share their sadness. Or as likely, when one colleague haltingly mentioned what Paul had meant to him or her, another individual could no longer mask the pain. Now tears welled up or were streaming out, unable to be stemmed by dabs of a tissue. During the course of our sharing, one young woman had to run out; she was too self-conscious about her perceived emotional meltdown. A colleague who herself had been quietly crying, supportively followed her into the bathroom.

A number of the younger employees were apologetically self-conscious; not knowing Paul very long, somehow they didn't have the right to feel as bad as their more senior colleagues. Remember, grief is rarely a logical process; definitely a more psycho-logical one. While I acknowledged the experiential difference, I highlighted an emotional-existential reality: this kind of sudden and shocking loss jogs the lid on our personal Pandora's Box. Once the numbness or shock begins to recede, poignant if not painful memories of near and even distant losses begin percolating up from our own subterranean recesses. And in short order someone spoke of the recent death of a grandparent living in the family's native homeland, while another individual, with watery eyes, spoke of the pressure over the last four years of caring for a chronically ill parent.

Another theme that numbers related to - both silently and verbally - was the unpredictability and fragility of life: if this could happen to Paul…it could happen to anyone! One woman shared a personal near death experience, and its legacy - truly valuing and trying to embrace her every day. Still, a pregnant woman understandably returned to life's uncertainty and ephemeral quality.

Group Process: The Middle - The Question

The question that helped people momentarily escape their stunned, anxious, or weepy, wordless web of grief was asking folks, "What made Paul so special as a manager?" And, naturally, this question broadened into his uncommon qualities as a human being. In fact, different individuals referred to Paul as a "mentor," "coach," and "big brother" while one younger woman made a comparison to her "dad." Focusing for the moment on Paul's life, especially his quirky qualities, including his sense of humor and love of being silly, while also being a meticulously organized individual, brought out both tears of sadness and laughter. And his role of organizer, referee, and chief cheerleader of the after-hours Bocce tournament was simply the iconic icing on the cake.

One male colleague, about Paul's age, who had been inspired by Paul to take up marathon running, after acknowledging he couldn't wrap his mind around the tragedy, stated he would manage his emotions by focusing on the positive, the good memories. This statement triggered a "yes, and" response. I acknowledged understanding his wanting to hold onto the positives. However, life is truly yin and yang. My personal belief: to keep a person's spirit alive inside, one must embrace both the pleasure and the pain. I likened it to two doorways - one leading to a sunlit path, the other to a dark, yet moonlit night. Each path provides its own indelible source of passion and purpose, knowledge and wisdom; yet these seeming opposites seamlessly blend to make a unified day. One must be willing, when ready, to explore both light and dark memories and emotions if seeking to engage and sustain the deceased's whole spirit.

Grieving for Other, Grieving for Self

But I was not simply talking about reviving a beloved manager and colleague's life-force. As terrible as this tragedy is, it holds out the possibility for each participant in the drama to reacquaint himself or herself with lingering if not alienated "grief ghosts" still wandering, if not quietly haunting, a personal heart-way and soul-way. (For my previous essay on "Transforming Ghost Carriers to Grief Warriors and Healing Guides" email stressdo@aol.com .) In other words, grieving for Paul, (actually, genuinely lamenting the loss of any significant other or trauma), enables one to further clean out psychological wounds as well as soften separation scars. With patience and endurance, the reflective nature of grief encourages a reassessment and reawakening of the impact and meaning of the hard-earned lessons of various and often "necessary" losses accumulated over the course of a life. Eventually, you may embrace, learn from, and "let go" of (or, more accurately, at least not be so burdened by) hurts, holes, and humiliations that have not been sufficiently recollected and wrestled. By confronting long-standing fears and tears, shame and smoldering pain, not only does this mourning "en-lighten" our emotional load and often reduce general stress levels, e.g., by letting off steam, but it seems to lower the volume of background critical voices. Forgiveness and self-acceptance now loom lower on the horizon, seemingly approachable and within grasp. However, this grief crisis moment of acute vulnerability is fleeting, especially when seeking a more introspective or "dark night of the soul" catharsis and conversion. (It's hard for the mind-body to sustain profound disorientation for long; one way or another we need to rebuild our psychic defenses - whether through more adaptive or addictive attitudes and actions - and to regain control.)

Yet whatever the depth, duration, and dimension, multi-layered lamentation increases available energy and courage for exploring new ideas and relations, maybe even old dreams. It is truly an unexpected wellspring for learning, loving, and liberation. As Nobel-prize winning author, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain. Remember, after encountering that seemingly unending swarm of demons, the last fury out of the mythological Pandora's Box was Hope!

Group Process: The Closing - The Challenge

In yin-yang fashion we were able to complete a grief circle of sorts. I modified a favorite personal growth and team building group process tool that reaffirmed an old crisis intervention and brief therapy training maxim: endings replicate beginnings…with a twist. I now asked people not simply to recall the things about Paul that were most memorable or admirable. No, drawing on his essence as a role model and well rounded "Renaissance Man," I encouraged people to select one quality of his that "touched you most deeply, to choose an admired attribute or behavior that you would like to make more of your own." I will summarize concisely here, for if I tried to recapture each person's poignant body of words and powerful body language, who knows where and when this essay would end.

The individuals responded, with poise and passion. With each person's pronounced intention, pieces of Paul's spirit, soulful seeds to be planted and nurtured, hovered portentously in the room. Objectives and plans included:

a) being more patient,
b) getting to know colleagues as individuals
c) sharing silliness with others, especially to soften criticism
d) reduce over talking; like Paul, try to succinctly capture the core or essence of an issue
e) being tolerant of other people's "dumb" questions, actually being more tolerant in general
f) getting better organized, without having to reach Paul's level of meticulousness
g) eating healthier (resisting that Big Mac) and living a more healthy lifestyle
h) staying calmer when under pressure
i) needing to be more adventurous and discover and pursue a passion
j) a senior person, who acknowledged occasionally having friendly disagreements with Paul's orderliness, drew on a religious inspiration. She would be expanding her four-word reflection mantra; along with, "What would Jesus do?" there now would be, "What would Paulie do?" (And, I quipped, "Hopefully the two will not be in conflict too often.")

Upon completing our "go round," I returned to the personal and transpersonal potential of our group process. However, before providing a closing reflection, the obvious was acknowledged: "Clearly, Paul cannot be replicated or replaced! Still, by accepting this 'experiment' [remember, these are researchers] you have potentially put in motion something special. By cultivating a part of his essence not only would you be giving yourself an empowering gift, but as a collective you are helping to strengthen, to 'keep alive' symbolically Paul's spiritual presence in the department and the team."

Terminal Thoughts

Finally, other ways of memorializing Paul, beyond the formal hospital-wide service were mentioned: a scrapbook, planting of trees or something reflecting his love of nature and the outdoors, a Bocce tournament award in his name, etc. I encouraged management to allow all levels of employees to actively participate in this remembrance planning process.

I will likely return to the hospital in the next few days, meeting again in groups and, for those interested, having individual grief sessions. My hope is that I have given nearly as much as I have received as an "intimate outsider" in this acutely painful and poignant, still pregnant with possibility, yet, ultimately, chaotic, outrageous, humbling, and unfathomable slice of life and death. My closing mantra: Grieve, Let Go, and Inspire Flow!

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