Leadership, Grief, and COVID-19

Leadership, Grief, and COVID-19, by Jamie Hansen, M.S., LPC

We are truly living in history. As the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold around the globe, circumstances are changing every day and the leaders among us have been called to sort out how we move forward through these unprecedented times.

After 20 years as a counselor (I still maintain my license), I cannot help but watch the local and global reactions to this crisis through the lens of a mental health professional. I spent years watching people deal with all sorts of situations in their personal and professional lives, and it occurred to me this week that I recognize what's happening on a local and global level. This is grief.

 Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first outlined her five stages of grief in 1969. More than fifty years later, the Kubler-Ross model is still playing out in front of our eyes. Let's take a look at how these stages of grief are presenting themselves through this pandemic:

1. Denial
"I won't get the virus. I am young and healthy." You have probably heard something like this in the last few weeks. Maybe you've seen the footage of spring breakers on Florida beaches. Perhaps you have heard this variation: "Even if I do get sick, it won't be so bad."

2. Anger
"I cannot believe that they canceled this sports season." There was a lot of anger pouring out a few weeks ago, wasn't there? As the situation has evolved and the number of cases has increased, it seems to me that the anger has subsided and given way to a heightened sense of irritability.

3. Bargaining
When circumstances are so far beyond our control, it is a natural response to look for things that we can influence. If you have heard anyone say something to the effect of "If we all stay in for two weeks, it won't be too bad and we can go back to normal." This is a perfect example of seeking out some agency during the crisis. "If I can just do this thing/these things, then the situation will improve."

4. Sadness
There have certainly been some losses in the midst of this crisis, and there is a general sadness for the activities or experiences or personal connections that we have lost out on or are missing due to the public health crisis. These are real and normal feelings as we deal with the ongoing changes throughout the world.

5. Acceptance
The examples of acceptance during this time are few, but they are out there. Perhaps you have heard advice like "Seize the opportunity," or "This is a new normal." Acceptance is a major challenge during a large-scale crisis with so many unknowns factors.

A quick note on these stages: they are not necessarily sequential. I think "stages" may be a bit of a misnomer - components or reactions might be more fitting. The truth is that we can flow back and forth between each of these, especially in a prolonged situation like this.

While we can all expect to experience these reactions, we should know that they will be expressed differently from person to person. What's more, each of us will flow through these stages at a different pace. You may be experiencing some anger while your spouse is bargaining. It is important to keep in mind that these emotions will interact with one another, which has the potential to create some additional tension.

Over the years, experts have added a sixth component to the stages of grief:

6. Finding Meaning
I love this one because it looks forward. Meaning gives us hope and a north star to aim for. Leaders can ask themselves, "What do I want my legacy to be on the other side of this crisis?" When we have meaning and a purpose we can align our goals and our activities to support it.

Another component of grief during this time is anticipatory grief. Many of us have lost things that we were looking forward to. Sporting events, family gatherings, music festivals, and vacations, to name just a few. These can be excellent mood boosters - I get a lot of mileage out of looking forward to future events or upcoming gatherings. Anticipatory grief comes into play when we know there is a loss coming, and it can be magnified if we don't know exactly what it will be. We grieve the loss, and the uncertainty compounds it. How bad will this be? How much will I lose? How long will this last?


Fortunately, I have some good news. Once we understand it, we can deal with it. When you can identify what's going on in your mind and your emotions, you can work to counteract it.

Do you know what people say the most to grieving people? "It just takes time." I used to hear this all the time as a counselor. The thing is, it's not completely true. It doesn't just take time; it takes time well spent.

These days, some of us have more time on our hands - or the same amount of time but allocated differently. This gives us an opportunity to spend our time well. Some suggestions:

1. Watch those expectations.
There is a lot going on for each of us, and we're not all on our A-game. We would not place normal demands on someone who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Give some extra grace to your family and team members as we walk through this together.

2. Be curious with others.
Ask questions. What went well today? What didn't work? What were the highlights? Did you learn anything today? Ask your family members, coworkers, and anyone else you might interact with. Take it from the counselor - people want to talk about their experiences as they're going through this historic time period. You can be a resource for them, and you can give yourself an outlet by engaging in the conversation as well.

3. Focus on what you can control.
Right now, so much is beyond our control. If we aren't comfortable with that feeling, it can create a sense of helplessness. My suggestion: actively focus on what you can control. If it helps you, use a list. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On the left side, write down things that you can't control. On the right, make a note of things that you can directly influence. Commit to putting your energy into those things that you can control and let go of the things you can't.

4. Stay connected.
You will be tempted to isolate. It will seem natural to "circle the wagons" around yourself and your household in order to get through everything going on. Resist this urge (while following social distancing guidelines). Leaders can't stay isolated for too long - our people need us! Make a quick phone call to friends and family to chat. Provide opportunities for your team members to connect with one another. Host a virtual coffee, lunch, or happy hour to provide that sense of connection.

5. Stay positive.
When we're alone and facing the unknown, our minds may wander to some scary places. Author and speaker Jon Gordon said, "Where there is a void, negativity will fill it." Don't let your thinking spiral too far down. When you play the movie forward in your head, don't make it a horror story. Don't let your brain go to "I'm going to lose connections, lose momentum, and lose business." Instead, make it a hero's journey. "I am going to overcome this in order to take care of myself and the people around me by..." Those next steps may very well include asking for help or learning a new skill to give yourself a leg up.

More than anything, remember that we are all in this together. No matter your question, someone out there has an answer or will talk you through the thought process. You can always call our Solutions Team or your Employee Assistance Program to get help coming up with a plan for your career, your team members, or yourself and your family members. We are all dealing with this, and we don't have to deal with it alone.

I will leave you with this quote from John Maxwell:

"Leadership is seeing the opportunities in a situation while others are seeing the limitations."



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