As a nation, we’ve shared two lessons in grief recently through the experiences of public figures and their losses: Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook with the unexpected death of her husband while on vacation and Vice President Joe Biden on the loss of his son to cancer at the age of 46. Grief and loss are something we all experience – yet they’re topics that most find difficult to discuss. Coping with grief is one of the most frequent issues that cause employees to pick up the phone and seek our EAP services; Similarly, employers and supervisors frequently look for help in how best to support grieving employees who are returning to work. Both these losses offer examples of public figures who are balancing tremendous personal grief and loss with highly demanding work responsibilities.
Last week, Sheryl Sandberg published a moving 2,000-word essay on the one month anniversary of her husband’s death. In her Facebook post, she shared her feelings, her search for meaning and lessons learned.
The essay is brutally honest and raw. One of the passages that interested us greatly was her return to work, which she saw as restorative – but she also describes the difficulty her colleagues had with her loss and finding ways to support her:
“For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.”
At another point in the essay, she notes that “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”
Sandberg has a personal mission to help women achieve success in the workplace. In her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she looks at both societal and self-imposed barriers to success. Her public sharing of her personal experiences in grief offers another type of lesson for us all.
In another highly public loss, we saw the Biden family cope with the death of son, father, husband and public servant Beau Biden following his death from brain cancer. It seems a particularly difficult loss, not just due to Beau’s youth and promise, but also because he was a surviving son of a horrific tragedy that took the life of Joe Biden’s first wife and daughter right after he was elected to office some four decades ago. Biden’s commitment to his surviving sons and his family has been exemplary and is often praised by his colleagues in DC. In addition to his family commitment, Biden has often been called the “mourner in chief.” Having experienced a profound loss, he is able to connect with those who grieve.
If you haven’t seen his 2012 address to surviving families of fallen military heroes at the opening session of the 18th Annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, it’s a must see. He speaks from the heart about recovery form loss – you can hear how much his remarks resonate by the audience reaction.
Both Biden’s speech and Sandberg’s essay offer clues to ways that we as HR managers and supervisors can support grieving employee in their time of loss.
- Supervisor’s Guide to Dealing with a Grieving Employee
- More on bereavement and funeral leave
- Sheryl Sandberg’s Post on Late Husband Sets Off Meditations on Grief
- Vice President Joe Biden’s loss offers lessons in grief
- VP Biden navigates difficult choices about when to return to public life
- 6 lessons survivors learn from tragedy
- Grief is a process, not an event – and it does not keep a schedule
- Anthony Griffith: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
- Beau Biden’s funeral services – President Obama’s eulogy