Thomas from Philadelphia Area, USA / CC BY-SA

September 28, 2020; Fast Company

Grief is a normal human response to loss. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or even being laid off from a job, we all experience periods of grief throughout our lifetime. During a global pandemic, however, what is normally an ebb-and-flow of grief experienced on an individual basis has become a global phenomenon touching a vast swath of human life and stretching on for months.

David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, helps name the current experience in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. “We’re feeling a number of different griefs…the loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.”

Rather than reckoning with the loss of one family member or considering the effects of our own job loss, we are all collectively sharing the weight of losing more than one million people across the globe to COVID-19, the economic devastation exacerbated by the circumstances of the pandemic, and the ever-present trauma of racial violence in the US. In the US, the over 200,000 who have died leave behind more than 1.7 million grieving close family members. For those in the nonprofit sector, many too are dealing with the anxiety of their organization going under or mourning the loss of the many nonprofits that have shuttered since March. It can feel devastating to continue living day-to-day while grieving, especially when it seems that there is no end in sight.

And it’s not as though grief goes away when it’s time to get to work. Keeping up with the demands of work—which have become even greater during the pandemic for many, both essential workers and those working from home—can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

So, what are we grieving humans to do? Knowing that COVID-19 and all the feelings associated with it are here to stay for the foreseeable future, it’s key to acknowledge grief rather than try to ignore it. This is where good leadership can help. The human element is essential to every nonprofit, and leaders need to keep this in mind while managing grieving employees. Sara Daren, a nonprofit CEO whose organization Experience Camps works with grieving children, suggests that nonprofit leaders can take steps to face the problem head-on.

  • Check in frequently. We’re all guilty of asking “how are you?” and then diving into the meeting agenda before anyone can give an honest answer. Daren emphasizes the importance of giving employees space to share what they’re going through, even if it’s not related to the pandemic or racial uprisings. Honest conversations about the grief of this time are not only good for individual mental health, they foster trust among staff members and leadership—something that’s essential for organizations during this challenging period.
  • Encourage community. Whether it’s giving staff members time during a meeting to catch up and vent with one another or making calls to stakeholders to see how they are holding up and what resources they need, leaders can prioritize relationship-building. Strong relationships are often what helps individuals stay anchored as they work through grief, and there is no reason that these relationships can’t be in the workplace.
  • Sit—and stay—with the grief. Being with emotions, both our own and those of others, can be deeply uncomfortable. But Daren reminds us that turning away from or downplaying the hard stuff doesn’t make it go away, it only encourages repression. As one Psychology Today writer recently put it, sometimes the best tool is letting ourselves feel all the feels. Leaders can model this by being open to employees who might need extra time or resources to complete their work while working through grief. They can also consistently follow up to make sure that employees know their support is ongoing.

Of course, it’s good for anyone to practice these steps, but it’s especially vital for leaders to do so in order to build relationships among and within their teams. The pandemic has tested many nonprofits by forcing pivots to virtual events, socially distanced offices, and more. If employees feel supported around their emotional experiences, this can help in the workplace when patience and flexibility are needed to execute complicated program-related pivots.

“Community counts,” Daren explains. She adds that “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.”

In many ways, this moment demands our grief; the challenge is to allow ourselves to surrender to it enough to see what lies beyond.—Tessa Crisman