A few years ago, I arrived at a client’s facility prepared to conduct another workshop for its supervisors. The HR manager pulled me into her office and told me the director of the supervisors had been terminated that morning and they’d just been informed he was no longer with the company. She asked me how I wanted to handle the situation – should we cancel the workshop, go ahead with the training and ignore the issue, or invite the supervisors to talk about what had just happened? I chose the last option.

We didn’t discuss the termination itself (that would have been inappropriate); however, we did talk about the director’s contribution to the company and some supervisors spoke about what he meant to them personally. It felt a bit like a funeral, which was exactly what I intended. Some of the supervisors were probably glad their director was no longer there, and some no doubt didn’t care one way or the other. However, I know that some of them were shocked and genuinely saddened by the director’s departure, and they needed the time and permission to grieve their loss.

Losing someone or something important to us automatically causes the emotional reaction we call grief. It might sound silly to experience grief over a co-worker leaving the company, but any kind of meaningful loss can trigger it. Unfortunately, the emotions grief causes us to feel are often unpleasant. In addition to sadness, people often feel angry, scared, guilty, lethargic, lonely, numb, achy and nauseous. Although most people don’t want to feel any of those things, grieving is a necessary first step to move forward from a loss. I like the way the University of Washington Counseling Center website explains the importance of grieving: “…it allows us to 'free-up' energy that is bound to the lost person, object, or experience—so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere… Healthy grieving results in an ability to remember the importance of our loss—but with a newfound sense of peace, rather than searing pain.”

Have you allowed yourself to grieve yet? If you lost your business, job, home or a loved one because of this wretched pandemic, I certainly hope you have. If you didn’t lose any of those things, you might think you have no right to grieve or have nothing to grieve about. Not true. Regardless of what’s happened to you over the last year, you’ve experienced a loss that’s worthy of grief – we all have.

If you’re like me, you’ve done the opposite of grieving – you’ve engaged in toxic positivity. In his article, “Trying to Stay Optimistic Is Doing More Harm Than Good,” Mark Ellwood says toxic positivity is “expressed as an overbearing cheerfulness no matter how bad things are” and “responds to all human anxiety, or sadness, with uncompromising optimism.” If you frequently respond to other people’s complaints with comebacks that begin with the words “at least,” you might be guilty of toxic positivity. For example, if someone complains about not being able to get a haircut and your response is “at least you have hair,” then I might be talking about you.

Looking on the bright side of life is not a bad thing, but not allowing others to express their pain is. Not allowing yourself to experience or express pain is also not good. On the website whatsyourgrief.com, Eleanor Haley states, “While one is busy trying to avoid and control their grief, their world gets smaller and more complicated. Fear of grief related thoughts and emotions can start to limit the ways in which a griever is able to fill their roles as a spouse, parent, friend, employee and society member and impacts their overall ability to be the person they want to be.”

Prince Harry is a perfect example of what happens to people when they don’t allow themselves to grieve. In numerous interviews in 2017, Harry revealed he had shut down his emotions after his mother Princess Diana died and sought counseling almost 20 years later after “years of total chaos.” In an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Harry said, “I started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden, all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with.”

While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, numerous resources say the process should include:

  • Acknowledging the pain and allowing yourself to feel it - no numbing it with alcohol or drugs or trying to stifle your tears
  • Accepting that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions - no judging your thoughts and feelings
  • Understanding that your grieving process will be unique to you - no comparing yourself or your experience with others
  • Seeking out face-to-face support from people who care about you (while following current safety guidelines). In her article, “Speaking of grief: Tips for grievers, friends and family on talking about loss,” Jenna Baddeley provides the following tips when talking to others about your grief: don’t rehash the same negative story again and again; be sensitive to listeners’ needs; ask for what you need; appreciate your listeners; choose your audience; and seek help from therapists and support groups if necessary
  • Supporting yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically – exercising, eating well, sleeping, bathing
  • Engaging in activities you enjoy – no feeling guilty because of doing something you love
  • Recognizing the difference between grief and depression - seeking professional help if appropriate.

If you’re an employer or supervisor, I encourage you to allow your employees to talk about their grief, especially when it’s safe to return to the workplace. You can get the conversation started by asking:

  • What was the worst thing about the pandemic for you?
  • What was the best thing about it?
  • What did you learn?
  • How will you apply what you learned? (As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste.)

Just getting back to business as usual without acknowledging what we’ve all been through will probably be tempting, but it will also probably be a mistake. Talking about our experience will help us put it in the past and focus on the future.

Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.