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Leading with Compassion in the Face of Grief

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

Leading with Compassion in the Face of Grief

Content warning: This article contains mentions of bereavement experiences, including loss of a parent.

When my mother passed away unexpectedly at the age of 67 this February, I could barely process the thoughts needed to pack for the journey to Pittsburgh, let alone think about what work I would be missing in the foreseeable future. I knew I had workshops to give for both my university job and consulting business, writing retreats to lead, meetings to attend. But it was all a blur. I had no idea how long I would be gone or what mental state I would be in when I returned. In a fog, I sent emails to cancel events and ask our office administrative assistant to clear my calendar.

In the days and weeks that followed, and as I returned to work, that fog of grief settled over everything I attempted. My therapist described it as having 90 percent of my brain focused on Mom and 10 percent left for everything else—eating, breathing, working. I count myself fortunate to have the supervisor that I do; she was able to draw from her own parental grief experience and deep personal well of compassion to prop me up for the next few months, meeting with me in the mornings to prioritize my to-do list since my executive functioning was almost nonexistent, letting me talk about my mom when I wanted to, and giving me small projects so I had something else to focus on. Without her support during those early days, I doubt I would have been functional at all.

In my October 2023 article, I reported on my interviews with Drs. Chinasa Elue and Stephanie Gilbert about what to expect from colleagues who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Here, I share their advice for leaders working with bereaved colleagues, knowing that loss will affect all of us at one time or another. But grief is not something we talk about in the workplace or make space for, which, as Elue notes, referring to colleagues who lost family members in the pandemic, can cause harm: “I recognized in that space that even though we would try to bring up things to our leaders, deans, or chairs, they were like, ‘Oh, my condolences.’ But then it would still be business as normal. There really was not an intentional pause to acknowledge the full scope of what we were walking through. And I think that really brought forth a lot of harm in real time because people were suffering; they were trying to navigate this context and trying to make sense of all the grief around them.” Offering advice to leaders, Elue says,

Don’t treat things as business as normal. I hate when people come back and you expect them just to jump back in. If you have to put a Post-it on your computer and remind yourself, whatever it needs to be intentional about giving them time. Don’t think it’s going to take a semester. Don’t think it’s going to be the academic year. Give them some time. Be intentional about how you allocate workload, even when they’re reemerging back in.

Particularly in higher ed, we have to take a more community care–based approach with how we’re navigating grief. We have to approach colleagues who are reemerging back into the workplace with care. We can’t expect them to come back and be at tip-top, optimal shape when they are trying to make sense of this new world. There’s a big void that’s there. And so it really is being intentional about workload considerations, adjusting things as needed, or taking things off the[ir] plate. Be mindful that things might need to shift so that you can accommodate the needs of your colleague. We have to recognize that things are changing so quickly that when it comes to colleagues who are experiencing loss, it’s okay to remove them from this hurried pace that we’ve been in for some time. It’s okay to slow things down. We don’t have to move so fast where we are trying to force people to do things that they’re not even ready physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to do.

As academics or as staff members, we don’t exist in a bubble or a silo; we are literally attached to other units here. Then we definitely have to be mindful of what resources are needed to support those who are grieving, who might need to be tapped to make sure that efforts are being made to support them while they’re recovering and returning to the workplace or reintegrating. And so it requires us to think more intentionally about grief support in the workplace, about how we can make sure that the colleague feels cared for once they reemerge. And to think about how colleagues might be an integral part of their grief journey and making it a safe space for them to exist as they’re trying to figure things out.

Part of being a part of someone’s grief journey in a positive way is recognizing that loss and expressing compassion. Because we don’t talk about grief much as a society or in the workplace, colleagues might feel awkward or afraid of saying the wrong thing to a grieving colleague. But both Elue and Gilbert find in their research the great importance this recognition can have for those experiencing loss. Elue says,

I know that sometimes it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge a loss, but not acknowledging what someone’s walking through also does a lot of harm because it lets [them] think that people don’t care what [they]’re going through; [they] feel isolated. But I think being brave and courageous enough to perhaps take the colleague out to lunch and say, “Hey, I just want to check in with you. You’ve been on my mind. How are things going? How are you adjusting? How can I support you?” It’s helpful. It shows intention. It shows that you care for the person more than [for] what they can bring to the workplace. Humanize and normalize [the fact] that grief is in the workplace. It is there. It’s not the boogeyman. It’s not hiding behind the closed door. Leaders have to be intentional with recognizing that grieving colleagues are just making sense of a new world that does not make sense to them at all.

Gilbert agrees, saying,

It‘s really important that people’s losses are acknowledged and recognized. That may seem really obvious, but it’s not always so easy to find a time when it feels comfortable to say to a person, “I’m really sorry that you lost your mother. I’m here for you. I’m here to listen. I know you’re going through a lot of pain right now. I just wanted to let you know that you’re supported.” The way that you do it is going to depend on your relationship with that colleague. But we found overwhelmingly that people remember who recognized and acknowledged that they’ve had a loss and who didn’t. And when somebody doesn’t recognize or acknowledge what they’ve been through, that can feel more like harm to that person because they’re feeling invalidated in their pain, dismissed.

Adding to the importance of recognition, Gilbert described a model she and her colleagues created that leaders can use as a guide when directly working with someone who is experiencing loss:

Recognition is really important. And in one of our papers, we developed a model of bereavement support. It spells CARE. The R is for recognition of the loss, which I think is the most prevalent theme. The C is for communication. And that’s two-way communication where you’re giving the person information they might need. Maybe it’s around their leave options, maybe “you should talk to this person” or “you should consider this form of accommodation.” But communication is also about getting the information from the bereaved person about what their needs are and acknowledging that their needs might change over time.

That two-way communication is really critical to informing what the A in the CARE model is: accommodation. And that’s doing what you can to help that person. And then the E is for emotional support. That is ongoing support that people really need after their loss. They’re going to continue grieving quite intensely for probably six months, maybe longer, and then [continually] for the rest of their life. So that emotional support might look like checking in on their well-being over time. Maybe it’s remembering those important milestones after their loss, like their first major holiday without their loved one, the death anniversary of their loved one. Maybe it’s sharing bereavement experiences, or maybe it’s just listening about their loss asking, “What was your loved one’s favorite meal?” Or asking something about them so that they have an opportunity to share, and it can open up a conversation.

This CARE model could be applied by coworkers and managers and maybe HR professionals also. It provides some guidance as to how you could support your colleagues. And in academia, things are quite complex, so it might not always be straightforward. That’s where communication is really even that much more important to understand, “How can I help you?” And compassion really underlies that whole process, right? It’s seeing suffering and then doing what you can to try to alleviate that. Right after a loss, we are often not very creative; our cognitive capacity is really reduced to think about those kinds of options. The CARE model is just compassion.

I think the main thing is not to cause undue stress on the grieving person, because their capacity is so reduced at that time, and their ability to cope with stressors is just tanked. So I think the compassion process in higher education might look like continuing to check in with your colleagues, finding out how their needs might be changing.

What else can leaders do to support someone grieving in their team or unit? Both Elue and Gilbert find that it’s important to know what options are available for the bereaved in terms of leave or time away, workload, and policy. Be ready to support your colleague by providing information and recognizing that just because there is a policy around bereavement and time away doesn’t mean that there is a culture that allows the person to seriously consider taking time away. Gilbert found that many of her study participants wish they’d taken more time off to deal with their initial grief shock before jumping back into work—even the folks who found work to be an important element of their recovery. Faculty especially have a lot of autonomy and may not know the options they have to consider when they experience a loss. Be ready to offer them options.

Finally, Elue reminds us to normalize having conversations about grief in the academic workplace. We will most likely all experience it at some point in our working careers, so if we normalize the conversations and accommodations, we are making higher ed a better workplace for all.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).


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