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Are You Ready for Productive Griefbusting in the Workplace?

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Transforming the Cost of Grief Carriers and Grief Ghosts to Your Mission, Morale, and Bottom Line

Once again I’m reminded of how lingering grief sits heavy on many people’s minds and bodies, hearts and souls; and yet this hulking ghost is often barely recognized in a “TNT” – “Time, Numbers, & Technology” – driven and distracted world. Actually, this psychic specter has the potential to both trigger volatility and be emotionally draining; its energy-consuming presence not only flies under our psychological radar but, not surprisingly, often escapes rational understanding. Limited awareness has definite consequences for our physical and emotional well-being, as well as for the health and harmony of our essential social groups and systems – for example, a capacity to form and sustain effective “hi task-hi touch-hi tolerance” relationships, especially vital in today’s diverse workplace. Preoccupying ghost-like grief, especially if outside conscious awareness, invariably contaminates the ability to manage conflict constructively with authority figures and colleagues as well as customers. Also, people who are “ghost carriers” often become “stress carriers” and “time wasters,” distracting themselves by getting into other people’s business. Persistent grief will eventually compromise productive performance and team cooperation-coordination. (And as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant with the USPS, my gut and experience tells me that a good percentage of workers who “go postal” are likely grappling with inner demons and ghosts.) How can organizations and companies address this disruptive phantom? Can you do early detection through preventive orientation? Maybe it’s time for a Griefbuster to walk your office halls, work floors, and warehouses or, at least, to supplement an EAP or Employee Wellness Program.

Let me provide some background on a recent tragedy which evoked an immediate sense of loss for all personnel in the workplace. However, ironically, for untold numbers, I suspect, the most powerful disturbance involved mostly muffled emotional echoes from both the recent and distant past. One morning I received a call from an Employee Assistance Program/Organizational Consulting firm. Could I respond to a same day Critical Incident/Stress Debriefing at a county agency? An employee driving to work had been instantly killed in a head-on collision with a large truck that crossed the roadway dividing line. Tom (all names are fictional) was a very popular employee whose line of work brought him in direct contact with many fellow employees. Most tragically, Tom was in his mid-30s; he and his wife had two young boys with whom Tom was exceptionally close. Employees invariably cited the close-knit nature of the family and, especially, Tom’s love of coaching his boys in various sporting activities. Tom’s brother (Joe) presently works for the same county agency. (Not surprisingly, during my abbreviated “tour of duty” Joe was with his extended family.)

Stress Doc as Grief Counselor

My two-day role as “Grief Counselor” was multi-pronged: a) initially, briefly addressing the entire staff, affirming the naturalness of being in shock or feeling numb, angry, confused, helpless, or sad; there is no one way to grieve and no way of predicting when and how feelings might come out – whether as a trickle or a rushing stream, b) sitting with stunned groups of people, encouraging sharing or silent reflection, whatever the preference, including informally sitting down with Tom’s work crew, (at least with those not opting for management’s offer of administrative leave), c) meeting with the Director and Senior Management to help them process their emotions and discuss ways to best approach and support their personnel; also the Director solicited my ideas for his imminent call to Tom’s grieving widow, d) formally meeting with Tom’s brother’s work crew, to help these self-described “macho” big-equipment drivers and operators not only acknowledge their grief emotions but to solicit their questions and ideas how best to relate to Joe when he returns to work, and e) to meet privately with individual employees who wanted one-on-one counseling.

With my opening paragraph regarding the unacknowledged yet palpable presence for many of “unfinished grief,” a major part of this essay will focus on grief role e), that is, how my individual meetings brought to light various employees’ “ghosts of grief.” Parenthetically, I must add that when it comes to significant loss, grief is never finished or resolved, nor, from my perspective, should it be. I will elaborate on this shortly. However, right now, I want to spotlight two grief points that emerged from my discussions with: a) the Director in anticipation of calling Tom’s wife and b) the crew regarding how to be around and engage the deceased’s brother, Joe. Actually, these points begin to illuminate “the connection between grief and ghosts.”

1. “What if I say the wrong thing?” In times of grief, especially involving unusual, shocking, and horrific circumstances, people, themselves feeling bewildered and bereft, often don’t know what to say to the bereaved. At the same time, most folks are uncomfortable feeling at a loss for words or overwhelmed by emotion, and want to express their shock or sorrow (both to console others as well as for their own subliminal need for stress relief). Not saying anything doesn’t seem right. Yet, in the face of this confusion and contradiction, not surprisingly, there is a near universal fear of “saying the wrong thing.” What is a concerned yet conflicted individual to do?

Three steps for appropriately sharing your grief:

a. Trust Your Gut. It’s perfectly okay to articulate what you are actually experiencing, e.g., “I’m shocked; I just don’t know what to say.” Being real is most important. It’s fine to simply be present with eyes beginning to water. In addition, nonverbal communication can be vital here: look the person in the eye, unless their behavior, for example, lowering their eyes, says otherwise. While different cultural or religious mores may establish behavioral-spatial limits, it’s usually permissible to gently touch a mourner on the arm to show your caring, connection, and support. Unless you have a close relation with the bereaved, let the latter dictate any other physical support, for example, giving a hug.

b. Be Humble. One mistake some people make when talking with an active mourner is exclaiming, “I understand what you are going through.” First of all, unless you almost literally have had a kindred, “Ground Hog Day” experience, you have not truly or painstakingly walked in the other’s shoes. And second, there’s no way to fully comprehend or intuit the array of emotions (or degree of numbing or both) of the bereaved. Some of my insight comes from having a girlfriend who lost a nineteen year old daughter in a car accident about fifteen years ago. The only person from whom she would accept the “I understand” phrase was a parent who had also lost a child. Much better to humbly and more honestly say: “I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

c. Be Available. Finally, let the mourner know that you are available with an ear, shoulder, or a hug when and if they want one: “Just give me the word.” You can also ask such questions as, “Is there anything I can do?”, “Can I run an errand or cook something for you and the family?”, or “May I call or stop by in a week or so?” These offerings affirm your on-call presence while respecting the bereaved individual’s need for time and space.

2. Don’t turn the dead into a ghost. As we’ve seen, being able to acknowledge empathically a powerful loss takes sensitivity and humility. Depending on the emotional state of the bereaved, timing is also a critical factor. Take your cue from the bereaved; especially the individual’s nonverbal communication will help you assess whether she is ready to talk about herself or the deceased. However, over time, it’s important to bring up the memory of the deceased – whether you are a direct family member, a close or even casual friend, or a member of common community. For example, according to the County Agency Director, the wife of the deceased employee was having an open house. She wanted Tom’s colleagues to come by and tell stories or share memories of her husband. In yin-yang fashion, this woman seems to intuitively grasp the need for both animated tears of sadness as well as ones touched with knowing laughter for propelling us through a grief journey. As my girlfriend has mentioned numerous times, her biggest fear is that people will forget Cecily…that her daughter becomes a fading ghost instead of a living memory or vital image and a surrounding mind-body-soulful spirit. So talk about the deceased when the person in mourning is ready; it’s not a burden, it’s a blessing!

The 3 “M”s: Memory, Mourning, and Memorial

However, it’s not simply the obviously grieving individual who benefits from the sharing of memories. As a therapist who has done grief counseling over many years, for me, having the courage to periodically remember and openly mourn, if not memorialize, the loss of loved ones, both from the near and distant past, helps keep their internalized emotional presence and spiritual essence alive within a psyche and soma. And personally, this involves significant loved ones with whom I invariably have both positive and painful emotional memories. And it shouldn’t take a terrible tragedy for us to be reminded of this worldly and other-worldly wisdom.

Actually, we can learn from the military – Memorial Day and Veterans Day are institutionalized days of recall and remembrance with the potential for personal-spiritual, family, and even community renewal. (For numbers of folks, especially minorities, I suspect Martin Luther King Day serves a similar function.) And some religions and cultures are more attuned than others at reviving if not revering the spirit of one’s ancestors. Why not integrate an analogous ceremony in such normative settings as schools, religious institutions, or in workplaces, and not simply on a once-per-year basis? (Of course, I’m thinking on a deeper psychological level than inspirational posters or even a stirring speaker at a town hall-like meeting.)

Presently, though, I must confess my celebratory musings reflect a touch of the absurd, for example, what about a ritual that integrates two cultural-media icons – the Charlie Brown character and the Seinfeld sitcom? How about a “Good Grief Festivus” for the rest of us? Or what about this new vocation for the Stress Doc: as Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd decades earlier snapped up the Ghostbuster title, how about the Stress Doc as Workplace Griefbuster? (Informally, I’ve already, donned the mantle of Stressbuster.) But seriously, my recent work, again, reminds me of the widespread need to help folks engage in major psycho-spiritual reflection and transition, one that can potentially turn the haunting into the healing – transforming lingering, loitering, and long-lasting ghosts into living, learning, and liberating grief.

Waking Up to Grief and Ghosts

While it has been a background awareness for many decades, it took my father’s recent death and my writing about his tortured and triumphant life and our emotionally distant, then stormy yet open and loving then, once again, distant and critical and, finally, with death hovering, some return of a mutually understanding and forgiving relationship, to more knowledgeably grasp how “grief ghosts” walk and stalk the chambers of so many minds, hearts, and souls. (click here to read my Requium for an Angry Man post ). An awareness of the extent of lingering grief was sparked by the emails received in response to my requiem. After offering much appreciated condolences, almost universally, each reader mentioned a personal loss – whether recent or distant – that was still being harbored in an uneasy, if not somewhat stormy, port of recall. And several readers envied (quite warmly, actually) my ability to track and capture that father-son rollercoaster relationship. When ready, they too wanted to embark on such an exploratory quest, to dig deep with their own evolving, hard-earned voice to unearth and embrace the ethereal mix of ghostly shadow and substance

Grief often involves the loss of a loved one (including a pet); it can also be triggered by the unexpected loss of a key position or opportunity. In response to a RIF (Reduction in Force), I recall a manager-in-training exclaiming: “I once had a career path…then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.” Grief may be conjured by memories of a time and place or of a socio-cultural ambiance that touched one deeply and can never quite be replicated or replaced. For example, having savored the multi-layered tastes and colors, the sights, sounds, and smells, the “oddball and outcast” spirits of the Big Easy in the ’70s and ’80s, having come out of the creative closet during my “American in Cajun Paris” years…I genuflect at the mantra: Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans! And at least as poignant, fantasies about “childhood innocence” (or “good enough” parenting, shelter, friendships, or stability) lost through death, separation, and abandonment, or through frequent or painful uprooting from a family home, or a childhood contaminated by chronic illness, family trauma and abuse (e.g., living in a substance abusing family system)…all potentially are fertile ground for the raising and restless roaming of psychic or post-traumatic ghosts.

Lingering, Loitering and Long-lasting Grief Ghosts: Image and Impact

Before illustrating some grief counseling ghost scenarios, let me shed light on the term “grief ghost.” Basically, as a replacement for the questionable notion of “unfinished or unresolved grief” (for a significant loss, as mentioned earlier, grief should never be truly finished), a person with ghosts means the presence of three grief states:

a) a “lingering grief ghost” signals some emotional hurt or dirt in the psychic wound needs to be washed clean with tears or wind swept with reflective sighs, to be disinfected by the light of day; defensive reactivity or passivity may be a warning smoke signal,

b) a “loitering grief ghost” means that one has seemingly closed one’s head and heart, has been avoiding or numbing painful memories and emotions for a prolonged time period, and the moldy moody wound is seriously festering and distressing your functionality and health; look for signs of insecurity, apathy, or depression, and

c) a “long-lasting grief ghost” means that the memories and pain are basically locked away, never to be openly engaged. The festering wounds are sealed in by an impenetrable callous. While a person may for a time appear crusty and hard-edged, what likely will prevail is a ghostly gangrenous pallor. The moral, however, is clear: even when seemingly a distant memory, if the loss was once significant, grief must be meaningfully embraced with palpable emotion, recollection, and mourning. (And meaningful mourning, whether alone or with others, may range from a time and space for quiet reflection or dream interpretation to an outpouring of eerily primal, animal-like wailing or engaging the pain through creative-expressive immersion, e.g., dance, painting or poetry.) Disengaged or alienated grief turns a once living and breathing, inspiring, and/or infuriating important person or emotional period in one’s life into that lingering, loitering or long-lasting ghost. And as previously noted, the longer the lingering ghost walks alone, isolated, unrecognized, denied, dismissed, or shunned, the heavier the emotional toll and loitering fine. (Insert Hamlet’s Ghost here.)

Ghostly Voices: Haunting Ourselves, Hurting Others

And once the image and memory of a loved one fades into ghostly status, any positive life giving or affirming characteristics in that once meaningful now disconnected relationship starts drying up. That former significant other loses his or her power as a role model or psychic transfusion-motivation-inspiration source. (Alas, the negative energy and critical voices from the past are often interred in our bones and brain when not released through grieving.) Over an extended time, the loitering ghost’s critical emotional voice, while often still operating at a subterranean decibel level, gets louder and louder, gets more emotionally shrill and accusatory, especially as we encounter new work-life-family transitions, performance-role challenges, and potentially intimate relationships. The more I hear a person declare, “The last person I’ll ever be like is my old man,” the surer I am of a haunted psyche.

Remember, restless, rejected ghosts make us susceptible to dysfunctional conflict as we displace onto others old hurts and humiliations along with compensatory hubris. Ignoring the reality of being quietly consumed by past grief-personal ghosts contaminates an ability to engage and fight objectively, constructively, and, certainly, with compassion those supposedly difficult people in our present. This increasingly weighty, wearing, and wary shadowy phantom subtly yet chronically drains us of vital energy for work, play, and love. And alas, in todays “always on” and “do more with less” 3-D technology “driven-distracted-draining” world, it’s harder and harder to carve out and protect such essential grief space-time. Still, external obstacles are surely not the whole story; many are simply leery of entering the dark and deep labyrinth of grief, afraid of discovering a shadowy monster within.

Bringing Ghosts to Life: Workplace Examples

But, let us make a foray as I illustrate some recently encountered grief ghosts in my Grief Counselor role. As sketched earlier, while the employee’s tragic death was the immediate catalyst, many of the folks encountered were on what I call the emo-existential edge because of their own long-lasting, lumbering ghosts. A common yet psychologically complex and multifaceted shadow now brought to light was the ghost of stormy marital or intimate relationship past, even one of seemingly ancient history – especially when tensions and tearing down had been chronic. (And invariably, people were always surprised, and often apologetic, for their emotional eruption, complete with hot streaming tears.) Not only were many searing memories connected to the loss-divorce of a spouse or mate who invariably defied simply being loved or detested, but grief involved both the loss of one’s role and identity as a partner. And even family of origin voices – often of an all too familiar manipulative game-playing, blaming, or shaming variety – reverberated in this volatile land- and mindscape’s “echo-system.” Not surprisingly, this relationship rupture was frequently a shock to a person’s core self-image. The collision of lingering, and especially long-standing, festering subterranean grief and crisis tremors often discharged multiple ghosts, now arising on a haunted horizon.

Seriously debilitating health issues or the death of a parent, child, or of a grandparent, or any close relative, not periodically remembered and engaged through grief, naturally, has ghostly potential. The premature death or incapacitation of a sibling is also an emotionally charged loss. During a recent grief session, one County Supervisor spoke of a sister killed in the 9/11 World Center attack. (I would imagine the violent death of her colleague heightened the connection to her sister’s horrific demise.) She also recalled the stormy interaction and termination of a troubled marriage, its impact on the kids, as well as her decision to retrain professionally, eventually uprooting from New Jersey to take her current job in Maryland. Actually, this woman was really on the edge because just a few days before, a close friend in his late 50s died of a heart attack. And when I asked if she had anyone to talk to at work or on the outside regarding her litany of losses, she shook her head. The advice she got from most people was, “It’s time you got over it.” Clearly, her support system was on the verge of extinction; all work and little play seemed to be sowing low grade depression. I made three suggestions: a) keep grappling with the ghosts, there’s no time line for “getting over it,” b) “fight for what you need” (a mantra that she insisted would shine forth from her screensaver), and c) consider some brief EAP counseling to help with a) and b).

Cultural Clutter Undermines the Griefbuster

“It’s time…” or “Turn the page; just look forward” or “You have to move on”…common exhortations of a society and culture that doesn’t understand that the past is never really over. (And for folks with a “strong silent type” or “don’t air dirty laundry” upbringing or later socialization, who equate almost any emotional display with weakness or foolishness, you know who you are, you Rambos and Rambettes swearing by that psychic stain remover – “Grief Be Gone!”)

Actually, your life is like a book; you can build upon and use early chapters as an essential and fundamental map for life-long travels and/or see those early models and mandates as outmoded if not outrageous attempts at mind-body-spirit control. And perhaps with (occasionally without) the help of a friend, tutor, or mentor, a counselor or coach, one may recover repressed pain, rebel against the once formidable teachings and preachings (or selectively sift through the mind-field), discover your passion and develop self-discipline, and start reworking those pages into a “coming of age” novel or “one’s own genuine voice” and pathway of self-redesign. While those formative chapters are not set in stone, they still are, for better and worse, a structural – bio-psycho-social-cultural – foundation. And especially if you wish to launch or liberate yourself from the primal visions, voices, and vices, then understanding and applying the process of Griefbusting, that is, transforming ghosts into rejuvenated energy and spirit through active and creative mourning, is a necessary and critical step.

The Carly Simon Syndrome: “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain”

And alas, naturally, for many there is another cultural barrier and psychological obstacle that must be surmounted for lingering-loitering ghosts to be transformed through living grief: the everyday refrain, I just don’t have the time. Consider this recent example. An African-American woman, in her 50s, who exudes compassion, as a Human Relations professional, after some encouragement, agreed to an individual grief session. Once again, the discussion quickly moved from the death of her colleague to a series of personal losses of a distant and recent nature. The death of her dad was most prominent; he died just six months earlier. Not only family, her dad was also her pastor and mentor. And now with his unexpected death, pressure is mounting to fulfill his mission and oversee the congregation. (She too is trained in the ministry.)

It also didn’t take much for tears to well when I asked about her mother, a best friend who died eight years earlier. And as she more actively tends to the physical-emotional-spiritual needs of her congregants, she realizes some serious caretaker burnout is starting to set in. All the stress has her seriously thinking of early retirement. (She already walks with a cane.) When I asked if she has a shoulder and ear in her life, not surprisingly the answer was “Not really. People look to me as the strong one.” And when I suggested that she might want some Employee Assistance Program (EAP)-sponsored emotional counseling-career coaching before making a final decision about retirement, she seemed wary. Yet eventually she recognized the irony: “I’m always encouraging others to seek some kind of counseling, but I don’t have the time myself.” She also was nervous about making time for reliving her grief pain. However, I finally got through with an altruistic appeal: “The hard-earned knowledge you’ll gain by exploring and better understanding your loneliness and losses, this wisdom you will share more personally and deeply with others.”

Closing Summary

Grief sits heavy on many people’s minds and bodies, hearts and souls; and yet this hulking ghost is barely recognized in a “TNT” – “Time, Numbers, & Technology” – driven and distracted world. However, when ignored, in a workplace, persistent grief will eventually compromise productive performance, adversely affect employee morale, along with disrupting team cooperation-coordination. How can organizations and companies address this ominous phantom? The context of Grief Counselor during a recent workplace tragedy brought to light both grief “do’s and don’ts”: steps for overcoming the fear of “saying the wrong thing” and not turning “the dead into a ghost.” Examples of current and possible ways of ceremonial engaging in “Memory, Mourning, and Memorial” were cited. Also, defined and illustrated were three types of “Lingering, Loitering and Long-lasting Grief Ghosts.” Finally, two workplace scenarios highlighted a pair of socio-cultural messages-obstacles to effectively engaging grief: “It’s time to move on” and “I don’t have time for the pain.” Look for future writing on ways to shrink burdensome ghosts down to size through living, learning, and liberating grief. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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