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What grief management can teach us about leadership during hard times

One of the most powerful roles a leader can play is in helping people to find their own resilience, and building a culture where they are encouraged to support others.

What grief management can teach us about leadership during hard times
[Photo: Tanya Trofymchuk/Unsplash]

“How are you?”

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This question is commonly glossed over as a simple pleasantry. Well, at least it was before the pandemic.

These days, I see more people pausing to really listen. The answers from our colleagues and the communities we serve often involve feelings of grief.

After a decade leading a nonprofit that dives deep with grieving kids, I have come to recognize the signs. In grief, I have found wisdom, humor, and some surprising insights that can inform not only my work, but how all leaders can help their organizations move forward amid the uncertainty and loss we all are experiencing now.

Grief can teach us a lot about leading during uncertain and tumultuous times. Here are a few takeaways that I hope will help us step up to the many fast-moving issues confronting our country and world, challenges that true leaders must address.

Stay aware

COVID-19 is a “bereavement multiplier” likely to leave at least 1.7 million Americans mourning the death of a close relative. As leaders, one of our first jobs is simply to be aware of how our people are doing.

Even before the pandemic, one in five U.S. children would mourn a significant death before age 18, which means that even in an ordinary year, their parents and caregivers—likely your employees and clients—were dealing with grief. And 1 in 14 of those children were mourning the loss of a parent or sibling, which is a major blow.

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How are they doing? Our company recently conducted a pulse survey to find out. The overwhelming majority of parents said that their children’s mental health (64%)—and their own (39%)─is their top concern, ranking higher than fear that they (35%) or someone they love (44%) will contract COVID-19, and much higher than the fear of financial loss (29%).

Leaders understandably focus on the bottom line, but for many people, mental health and well-being is a leading concern.

Fight the urge to downplay

Since grief is a natural part of life, many people are tempted to downplay its impact. The truth is that grief changes us, as individuals and as a society. There’s no question that grief can alter the trajectory of our lives, and our life’s work. The only question is how.

Research shows that when childhood grief is left unaddressed, it can lead to anxiety and depression, decreased academic performance, and even early mortality. Unexpressed grief impacts adults, too. Nonprofit leaders and staff also may be feeling something akin to grief, and 95% are facing negative financial impacts related to COVID-19.

When times are tough, many leaders bear down and power through. As the head of a small nonprofit, I have spent many late nights re-forecasting the budget, strategizing ways to pivot our in-person program model, rallying our staff and more than 400 volunteers, and communicating with the people we serve. It is all too easy to ignore what we are feeling and focus on the task at hand.

It should be noted, grief is also the task at hand. Recognizing and wrestling with it can enable us to better deal with the other challenges facing our organizations and our society.

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Ask (then listen closely)

Many of us have been in crisis mode.  We want to help the best way we know how. Yet we don’t always know best.

Whether we are trying to motivate employees or comfort a grieving child, we would do well to keep in mind that needs are profoundly individual and can change with surprising speed.  The most effective approach is to ask.

That is what we did when we realized there was no safe way to host an in-person summer camp this year. We polled our community on how we can best support them, and heard that a whopping 84% were craving the chance to come together. In response, we created a virtual model, Experience Camps @Home. Yet we never would have taken that step if we hadn’t listened first.

Bring people together

While my career involves extolling the power of deep connection, even I have been surprised by just how much that matters. Our recent pulse survey of nearly 200 grieving kids and their parents found that the top sources of hope for grieving kids are time with family and their camp experience. That outstripped even the promise of science, the remarkable inspiration of frontline medical workers, and the power of people helping one another right now.

Community counts. Leaders can play a meaningful role in serving as community conveners, whether that means bringing your own people together or forging connections with the wider community.

The grief experience may be instructive here, too. Only 46% of people surveyed by New York Life indicated that they would know where in their community to turn for help if they suffered a loss, and 54% of those who lost a parent growing up say they struggled to find grief resources.

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Even when we are stretched thin, we can help by strengthening our networks and connecting people to resources and one another.

Allow resilience to emerge

Loss is hard, and it is not made easier by platitudes. Paradoxically, by not sugarcoating loss, resilience may be more likely to emerge. Acknowledge the hard reality that your people are experiencing, and have faith that they (and you) can emerge stronger.

In the New York Life survey, 68% of adults said they felt that experiencing loss as a child made them better prepared to handle other adverse circumstances in their life. In our survey, 83% of parents said they have seen their child using coping skills learned from their grief experience to help them navigate the pandemic—and the majority of kids told us they have used those skills to support others during COVID-19.

One of the most powerful roles a leader can play is in helping people to find their own resilience, and building a culture where they are encouraged to support others, in turn.

Stay in it for the long haul

One tween we surveyed said, “I just want it all to go back to normal.” It’s a sentiment many of us share, although there is a danger to expecting our teams to move forward too fast.

When adults who lost a parent growing up were asked how long it took before they could move forward, the mean was more than six years, and the most common response was that they have never been okay with their loss. However, 57% reported that following the loss, support from family and friends tapered off within the first three months, and a full 20% said support tapered off after the first week.

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I see a similar risk in how some may respond to the pandemic, economic stress, and movement for racial equity. We need to stay in it together for the long haul. Many parts of our society are facing tremendous loss. Ignoring our grief is to ignore our full potential, which is the last thing we can afford to lose. When we move through grief in this way—acknowledging it, allowing space for individual differences, bringing people together, and staying in it for the long haul—remarkable things are possible.

And, after 430,000 hours with grieving kids, I can confidently report that expressing grief furthers the full expression of our humanity. And expressing our humanity is the beginning of executing outstanding leadership.


Sara Deren is the founder and CEO of Experience Camps, a national nonprofit that provides no-fee, clinically informed camps and other programs for kids who have lost a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver, and resources and advocacy to lead the fight against unresolved childhood grief.

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