How are we saying goodbye? How are we letting go in a healthy way so that something new can new evolve?
For most of us, we are very glad to see 2020 behind us. But there is no doubt that 2021 has not flipped a switch and magically get us back to where we were December of 2019. I miss going to one of my favorite restaurants that is now closed. I miss the easy way we did a handshake or hugged good friends. My neighborhood and my community have changed. But that wasn’t the biggest transformation. It is the faces of those friends, colleagues and neighbors that are no longer with us that has had the biggest impact.
In December 2020, my 93 year old step-father, Bob, was failing. He didn’t have COVID, but the pandemic definitely impacted taking care of him. I got what most of us would recognize and “the” call. It went like this:
“Hi mom, how are you?” a pause. “Well, not great.” That was followed by what had happened over the past 48 hours, an in home evaluation, a two hour wait in the ER potentially exposing both my mom and step-dad to COVID, a discussion about whether or not to put Bob in the hospital, finding a room after many hours, a discussion about surgery which Bob refused and a transfer to a skilled nursing facility where mom was not allowed to visit him. She was exhausted. “Do you need me to come down?” There was no hesitation. “Yes.” On top of that both my sister and brother had COVID and were quarantining. I packed a bag and drove down. I had been extremely careful over the past month so felt safe being with her. However, knew we would be masking inside the house to keep us both protected and would need to air out the house regularly.
After a lot of calls, online research and quick planning, we were able to bring Bob home, get hospice in place, get the medical equipment needed and at least a few hours of support from aids we were able to hire. But it certainly wasn’t support 24/7, which meant we would be doing a lot of the caregiving ourselves (turning him, keeping him comfortable, adjusting the bed, etc.). It was exhausting. I ended up being in charge of his medication. We were able to arrange for most of the family to say goodbye via the phone and a very careful visit by his eldest son. We slept very little. I held my mom when she needed to cry and managed calls from concerned friends. We aired out the house after every aid or nurse’s visit and stayed masked. We took turns sitting with Bob, played soothing music, shared stories, and stayed focus on being present for him. He passed peacefully early Sunday, December 13th at around 2:30 AM. I will be forever grateful that mom and Bob got to say goodbye in person, that I got to tell him in person that I loved him, that he was surrounded by a familiar place and lots of love.
So many people have not had the chance to be with the person they love when they passed in a hospital room or nursing home because of the pandemic. My heart goes out to all of them.
What does all of this have to do with the workplace? Too often, the subject of someone dying is never discussed. Too often we have no idea of what someone experienced. It is the norm to send flowers and a card or make a donation. Some people will acknowledge that someone has lost a loved one, others don’t know what to say. We expect people to “snap back” after just a few bereavement days. For anyone that has lost someone close to them, you know that there is a grieving process that takes time. Everyone goes through it, but it is a very personal, unique experience. After the year all of us have just had, we should be recognizing the need to allow people to grieve in healthier ways. We need to acknowledge the loss of many of the things that were part of our everyday life and be especially mindful of those that have lost loved ones. Being stuck in an apartment for months is not the same as experiencing a death of someone that was close to you. There are levels of mourning for both of these experiences, but definitely not the same.
Moving forward we have an opportunity to open up a more honest discussion about death and mourning. No, it is not like is it usually pictured in the movies. I can tell you that firsthand. It’s something I’ve experienced several times now. Making the decision to bring someone home for their last days comes with a lot of decisions and emotional stressors we don’t discuss. Being with someone at the end of their life can be a very profound experience, if we know what to expect. Understanding what someone is experiencing right after someone passes, those first few weeks, can help them and help their team or managers be more aware of what to do and what to expect from the person that has experienced a loss.
Leaders in organizations have the opportunity to help people in their workforce understand and plan ahead. They can more effectively help managers understand what a team member may be going through, give them the right information to support someone who has lost a loved one, and create a workplace that acknowledges this is a part of life. It does have an impact on how someone shows up in the workplace. Given the amount of people in the U.S. and around the world that have lost people not only to COVID, but for other reasons and not been able to attend funerals, not been able to have the comfort of people visiting them at home, a discussion about how this could impact a return to work strategy is needed.
Not everyone has been impacted by COVID and the pandemic in the same way. There is a connection to DE&I since black and brown communities have been hit hardest by COVID. More women than men have taken on additional caregiving at home and some had to leave the workforce in order to take care of children and/or older adults in their lives. So this is also a gender issue.
Here are a few things you can do to better support your workforce in 2021 to address grief:
- Make sure there is a clear plan around any support you already have in place to address a major life event through an EAP or other services, including financial wellbeing. And it needs to be more than just one announcement. The communications need to be specific to your culture and help normalize discussions around death, mourning and loss.
- Take some time to train managers and give them a chance to ask questions, get educated about resources you may already have in place or are in your community, and have a basic understanding of how grieving could impact their team. They should have a few action steps they know they can take. It will make them a more effective manager.
- Not everyone will feel safe coming back into a physical space until more people are vaccinated. that will be particularly true for anyone that has lost someone close to them to COVID. Make sure there is ongoing communication both prior to and when people start coming back about what the company is doing to the physical space to keep everyone healthy.
- Consider setting up a group or groups for employees to be able to safely share their challenges. But make sure there is someone experienced to monitor the conversation and get people to needed resources. We know that self medication, abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, may be an issue.
Grief and mourning may not seem like a great topic for a work discussion. But, no surprise, many of us are experiencing it right now. We will all go through the grieving process at some point in our life. Organizations and leaders that include culturally specific information and training to their employees on what to expect are giving them a better way to understand and grieve in a healthier way. 2021, given what we have experienced, is the perfect opportunity to make this a focus for any return-to-work strategy and help their workforce thrive.
I miss, Bob, my stepdad, very much. I was exhausted and needed to get a lot done for my mom after he passed, all the practical things like checking medical coverage, making sure bills were paid, dealing with the funeral home, contacting people, notifying social security, etc. But I am forever grateful that I was prepared. I knew what to expect and what needed to happen. I knew that what I was feeling, even under good circumstances, would require time to work through. I needed that time in order to start to move forward. And understanding that journey has a place in the workplace wellbeing and thriving discussion.
I am hopeful that 2021 and beyond, can be a better future for all of us. I am hopeful we can support those that are grieving in a more intentional way to help them mourn in the best way possible and heal. We don’t have to be afraid or uncomfortable with the grieving process. It is transformational. We can come out the other side and once again be engaged in work, our community, and working towards a better future.