“We’re grieving the loss of what was, Pre-COVID.”
“We had so much momentum in March, and then . . .”
“People have disappeared and we don’t know where they are.”
These statements from pastors reveal a common thread: Leaders are grieving the loss of what was before the pandemic. Before the national unrest. We’ve been taught—at least some of us—about dealing with personal loss. Not too many of us have been taught how to deal with organizational loss.
Some leaders are deflecting their grief by saying things like, “I feel the loss, but others have it worse than me, so I really have nothing to complain about.” While I appreciate the sentiment, a loss is a loss. Grief is the proper response.
Other leaders are grieving, but feel concern that admitting it might be a poor reflection on their leadership. So they grieve alone. Here’s the problem with that approach . . . grief over significant organizational loss is too heavy a burden for a leader to carry by themselves. Grief is meant to be shared.
It’s hard to accurately measure, but my guess is at least 80% of leaders are going through some sort of grieving process right now due to organizational loss. Most haven’t given themselves permission to grieve. And even those who do give themselves permission aren’t sure how to grieve properly.
Because grief is often mysterious, we humans don’t instinctively know what to do when it hits us. Some believe that leaders don’t grieve loss and are somehow impervious to that sort of thing. False. Even Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of what that city and its inhabitants failed to understand about Him, and what their lack of understanding would mean for Jerusalem a generation later.
I think a good place for us to start today is understanding a few baselines about grief and loss:
- There are good ways to grieve and bad ways to grieve.
- Wrestling with loss openly and honestly will increase your chances of coming through the grieving process as a stronger, deeper, and more compassionate leader.
- There are fairly predictable stages of grief. Not everyone goes through all of these stages . . . nor do they all walk through the grief process in the order I’m going to outline in a minute.
- There really is no way to speed up the grief process. You just have to go through it. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 23. When my dad grew critically ill sixteen years later, I thought, “Hey, I’ve been through this before. This time I’ll get over it faster.” False. The grief cycle over my dad’s death took about the same amount of time.
- Grief that you feel today is proof you loved the people you don’t see anymore. So in that sense, grief is the proper emotion.
So with these baselines in mind, let me share eight stages of grief many leaders will walk through when it comes to organizational loss. These stages are adapted from Granger Westberg:
Stage 1: Shock (denial)
When we suffer loss, we are often temporarily anesthetized in response. Shock keeps us from having to face reality all at once. As long as it is temporary, the shock stage is actually a gift from God.
Stage 2: Emotional release
This stage is where the loss begins to get real. The urge to express our grief wells up. And that is precisely what we should do . . . express the emotions we’re feeling. We don’t need to apologize for our emotions or our tears. Leaders need to be selective about who they share their grief with, but they still need to share it.
Stage 3: Depressed mood
Every person who deals with loss at some point will feel a certain level of depression knocking on their door. When we find ourselves feeling depressed, we should remind ourselves this is a normal part of the process. Here’s the good news: this stage will not last forever. Brighter days are ahead.
Stage 4: Panic
In this stage we obsess over the loss. We try to think about something else and maybe succeed for a while, but it isn’t long until we are dwelling on the loss again. Unpleasant thoughts rule the day in the panic stage. We may have difficulty concentrating. Panic, although difficult to deal with, is perfectly normal at this point of the process.
Stage 5: Guilt
In this stage, feelings like the following emerge: “If I was a better leader, we would have survived the pandemic better.” Well, almost every leader can look back over the past six months and say, “I could have done this or that better.” All of us have been leading through uncharted waters. Beating ourselves up with statements that begin with “If I was a better leader . . . ” is often false guilt. If you’re having problems sorting out true guilt from false guilt, talk to someone trained to help you discern the difference.
Stage 6: Anger
Once we begin migrating out of the depression and guilt stages, we may find ourselves venting anger and resentment, some of which may have been out of our conscious awareness up to this point. Our anger may be directed at God, or at people in the organization we lead, or at the people who’ve yet to return. When dealing with loss, angry feelings are normal, even for Christians. They are to be expected, wrestled with, and overcome by the grace of God.
Stage 7: Resistance
The thought of reengaging can prove painful, and if we’re not careful, we can get comfortable with our grief in a way that prevents us from moving forward.
Stage 8: Coping
In this stage we learn to cope with what’s happened to the church we lead (or the business we lead, for that matter). When we go through any significant loss, we come out of it as different people, depending on our response to the loss.
So leader, if you’ve suffered organizational loss, don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Acknowledge you’ve lost something. Perhaps you’ve lost people, or momentum, or even a clear sense of vision; etc. Please don’t try to carry your grief alone. Open up to trustworthy people. A burden shared is half a burden. And understand this: Better days are in front of you. Keep moving forward. God will leverage your loss for good if you cooperate with Him.
Rooting and praying for you,