Reality check: When grief and work collide

Posted May 16, 2011 in Communication, Latest News & Insights

On May 27th, we’ll be doing an e-Roundtable on probably one of the most uncomfortable subjects out there: death.  Although it’s the one outcome we inevitability all share, when it comes to death and grief at work, it’s the one thing that we probably are the most ill-equipped to talk about.  When my friend Brenda launched her practice – The Solacium Group – focusing on grief at work, I knew that other leaders were probably like me and needed to be better at talking about death and grief… for their teams and for themselves.

As leaders, we are expected to be “on” all the time.  And when you experience the loss of a loved one, there is this unsaid expectation that after the “obligatory” company approved “bereavement” leave, you’ll be back to “normal”.

We all know, this just isn’t the way it works.

In my own life, I have been incredibly “blessed” to have had limited experience with “to the bone” grief (I’m knocking on wood right now).  The first time it really hit me in the face was when a former boss and mentor, Don McQuaig, succumbed to colon cancer.  To say his death hit me like a ton of bricks is an understatement.  I have to say, it’s five years later and I still find it had to believe.  His death came on the heels of a close friend losing her brother one month earlier.  After seeing the pain that she was working through (her brother was my age at the time with a son the same as my daughter), I realized that life is too short and it prompted me to make some radical changes.

For me, radical looked like quitting my executive job and started on my entrepreneurial journey (as the primary earner with a high personal need for security, this move was not something I would have ever considered before).  Death has a way of putting things in perspective and also flipping your life on its head.  And this is why, as leaders, we need to understand how to manage through these times.

Until that experience, I never feel like I knew what to say to someone who had lost somebody important and how to balance their grief with the demands of the business.  I don’t think I’m alone.  In watching the people I coach, I’ve observed that it’s very difficult to step out of the “deliverables” of the work and figure out what type of support the person in grief needs.  Sometimes people in grief don’t even realize they’re in it.  One former boss told me that he collapsed at work after his father died… many, many months after his father died.  For type A personalities, there’s a tendency to push down the feelings and “power through” the tasks at hand…which often only works for a little while until they hit the wall.

If you’re going through grief or have a member of your team that is nursing a dying family member and/or just lost someone or if you’re just interested in better equipping yourself to handle this situation when the time comes (because it will come), please tune into Brenda’s e-Roundtable on May 27th.  Although seldom talked about, addressing grief at work is a crucial issue for every leader.

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  1. Business owners are vulnerable to grief because they have a typically bigger impact on their business. Great reminder to try and be prepared so not forced into worse situations.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Jacoline… I agree completely. I definitely think business owners need to proactively think about not only a succession plan for their exit but a continuity plan for when/if they ever need to step out of the business. An owners impact on their business goes so beyond what they do. Whoever steps in has to be able to embody their vision and values in order to provide the continuity needed for the owner to step out. That’s a tough person to find, but crucial.