One day I was writing up some finding from a research project that my partner and I were doing on the effects of ungrieved grief. The material had to do with grief about losses we as people feel deeply but are ashamed to admit. Some people, for example, grieve when a pet bird or goldfish dies. They are afraid to let anyone know because surely, to grieve for a bird is silly, isn't it?
As I was working I noticed the paper was wet. Surprised, I thought where could the moisture be coming from? That's when I noticed it was from the tears running down my cheeks! I was thinking of the prize garden we had left behind in a recent move from New Jersey to Oklahoma. In particular I was crying for the tomato plants that garden had produced, the largest and most productive I had ever grown. First thought: “This is ridiculous!" And that was the very point of the research finding: we grieve for anything in which we have invested ourselves and lost. There is no such thing as silly grief. But because we are afraid others might think the grief is silly we assume it is silly and “stuff" it.
Stuffing grief feelings just intensifies the feelings. The griever becomes more angry, more irritable, more moody, sadder. Another byproduct of grief also creeps in: the feeling that nothing else, including work, is all that important by comparison.
Life is a constant series of investments. We humans invest ourselves in people, pets, things, hobbies, projects, cars, boats and even barbecue pits. It might be playing cards or tennis or gardening. It often is our job. It often is a significant other, children, friends, home, weekends, gatherings, church, fishing or hunting. Life being what is is, no matter how much we love someone or some thing, sooner or later there will be loss.
Change is inevitable. Even with good and happy events there is loss. Weddings are happy but the family loses a son or daughter. Graduations are happy but that means a child is growing up and will leave home. Promotions mean the loss of old friendships and relationships with co-workers. Retirement means giving up going to the office. Winter means no more green grass. Summer means no more snow skiing. In a way of speaking, there is no winning for losing: the Lord gives and the Lord taketh away.
Standard workplace advice about managing stress is that work should stay at work and home should stay home. What makes grief a hidden source of stress at work is that grief does not stay home. Grieving persons bring grieving feelings with them. Our feelings, just like our shadows, go where we go. To stuff the grief is to be stressed. In addition, many times the grief is not from home but in the workplace itself. Sometimes it is the ending of a love relationship with a coworker. Sometimes it is grief over an approaching retirement. It can be grief over losing a friend who gets transferred, promoted or fired. It can be grief over losing an office, changing responsibilities or ending a project that was particularly satisfying.
Next time you as the manager or executive scratch your head wondering what is really bothering one of your team members or a previously highly efficient cheerful worker, ask about loss and grief. Listen closely. And the next time you get feedback from the workforce that you are the one who is out of sorts do a little inventory of what you have lost or are losing.
Nobody is grumpy and moody for no reason. It's just that sometimes we are not aware or are ashamed to reveal what is really going on inside of ourselves. The grieving person is building up powerful emotional steam, especially anger. Confrontation, while never advisable in the workplace, is especially harmful and dangerous in the grieving context, whether the grief by yours of that of somebody you are tempted to confront.
Grief support is a key factor in employee retention. It is one of the great challenges of our time.
So: how are your tomato plants doing?
Losoncy is a licensed therapist, an executive coach and president of three corporations.