Friday, March 27, 2015

Handling Grief In the Workplace

This piece originally appeared on LinkedIN.

Today on LinkedIn, I clicked on a seemingly kind and lovely blog post one of my connections shared, “16 Signs You Have an Awesome Dad.” I did it because I don’t have an awesome dad. I had one. He died when I was eight. Innocuous posts like these can turn an average day into a flood of memories and emotion. Even thirty years later, little things hang around my world threatening to floor me at any moment. At work, most of the time you just have to breathe and move on. But that doesn't make it go away.
1 in 20 children lose a parent before adulthood. 800,000 Americans are widowed each year. Grieving people are everywhere, including at your workplace. Chances are you passed one in the hallway today. They don’t wear badges or signs. Often they won’t discuss this at work, ever. I know I certainly always avoided the topic.
So what does this have to do with your leadership and your EQ?
Everyone has something going on, including your best team members. Your highest performers rarely share life drama with managers. They simply “handle it” outside of work and move on. They aren’t the ones asking you for a box of Kleenex.
I was at an offsite where a dear friend and colleague received word that his father was dying. From that day, I remember the sun, the one particularly good speaker, and the gorgeous venue. Most of all, I remember my friend’s face when he thought no one was looking. After some prompting he left the offsite to be with his father. Luckily, some close colleagues encouraged him not to wait for an "appropriate exit time." Work could and should wait.
It left me wondering if the host of the offsite ever called him to offer support. I choose to believe so. When my friend came back to work, he picked up as if he’d been on vacation. He only shared with the few of us lucky enough to be considered his close friends. Those must have been some very lonely, difficult days. In that first year, every time someone talked about spending holidays with family or parents coming to visit, he was remembering that he was without.
The only way to help people through rough moments is to develop our Emotional Intelligence. Great people like Daniel GolemanTravis Bradberry and Joshua Freedman are experts in this. One of the main competencies in the Six Seconds EQ model is to “Give Yourself.” And that’s precisely how to help the grieving at work.
How Do You Support Someone Who Isn’t Asking for Anything?
  1. Use Your Non- Standard HR Data – Often, companies grant funeral leave and/or send flowers to funerals. Use this info. Reach out to the people who coordinate these programs and ask for notification when someone in your organization makes use of them. When the person returns, send them a note offering condolences and help. Even if the person never turns to you for help, they will always remember that you were thinking of them.
  2. Include Grief Awareness in Manager Training – Like all people, managers deal directly with grieving employees. They may be afraid to say or do the wrong thing. If nothing else, remind them that their silence speaks louder than any awkward turn of phrase. Consider partnering with a local grief counseling organization for customized help crafting your training. Jeff Haden wrote a great piece about this for Inc.
  3. Be Vulnerable - Remember that everyone, even the people who never complain, experience challenges outside of work. Share your own challenges as appropriate – teams need to see their leaders as being human. Just like they are. Sharing vulnerability is a great way to remain compassionate especially during stressful times.
How have you reached out to employees through rough times? Please share them in the comments.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How I Learned to Ski: When the Fall the Saves You

It's a gorgeous morning in Park City, UT. As with all new things, especially ones that involve falling down, skiing fills my chest with anxiety. I’m in my second series of ski lessons. From the flag where we adult learners line up, I can see my fearless five-year-old Ellie balancing on tiny pink and white skis. When we set-off she passes me in the “first timer’s” lift line. She’s laughing and falls down. The ski instructor grabs the handle on the back of the red vest they put on all the little skiers and pulls her back up to standing. My parka has no such handle yet I have a lot farther to fall. She has all her people to pick her up. Ever since my father died, I do not.

            At the end of my lessons, my husband and father-in-law agree to ski down on a green run with me. It’s terrifying - not only might I fall and experience a broken bone or torn ACL, I could slow them down, or they could leave me behind, alone.
On the big lift, I breathe in and out. From my lips, puffs of air form small clouds which tempt me to move my glove off the safety bar to touch them. Below my skis, the tree line changes from bare birch branches, to evergreens, until there is only purple-white snow glistening as it melts in the overwarm March day. The impossibly blue sky deepens through the lens of my goggles. I congratulate myself on my ability to calm my fears, to be present in the moment, and to handle my instinct favoring panic. We reach the top of the lift. I slide down the ramp and glide to a safe stop. So far, so good.

 “Why don’t you go and I’ll follow?” I am back in the state of mind that questions why anyone would find hurling themselves down the side of a mountain at 12 mph fun. Instead, I feel reckless and stupid.
“Six lessons, you can do this,” I tell myself. Pause and breathe again. In that moment, I stop and look to my right. The view from the top of the Earth is miraculous – I feel freedom. Now I understand, people do this for the chance to see the world through Zeus’ eyes.
“Just don’t leave me, ok?”
“Of course, not. We’ll just take our time,” My husband reassures me.
            About six minutes into the run, my husband has taken a different turn. He’s gone. “And there it is,” I sigh.
My father-in-law stays a few yards ahead of me, I follow his tracks until a narrow part of the run where I fall forward trying to avoid two girls who couldn’t be a day older than Ellie. The snow sneaks into the space between my sleeve and my glove. Its cold burns the inside of my wrist enough to distract me. My brain pushes out the failure and humiliation trying to ignite my amygdala – no time for that now. I’m on my side in the middle of a ski run. All I can do is get up.

I recount the steps I learned:
Step one: Skis across the mountain.
Step two: Dig your poles into the mountain above you
Step three: Rise up and lean on your downhill ski.
Step four:  Keep on keeping on
We reach an intersection on the mountain. One direction is blue and the other green. Somehow we end up on the blue. I see my father-in-law scoot over to the “Rest Area.” The pitch, as far as I’m concerned, is vertical. The first obscenity emerges from my mouth. It’s only 100 yards, right?
             As soon as I make my slow, wide, round turn, my body betrays me and leans back. On my side, I am sliding down the mountain. Once I come to a complete stop, I look over to the rest area. My father-in-law has also disappeared from view
“Are you kidding me?” I say out loud. A passing man gives me a look as his impossibly small child zips past me.
I make it to the rest area. By now, I’ve lost control. Frustration lights her match igniting the lonely tinder in my veins. Tears run down my face. Where do I go? Whose tracks can I follow? What if I just can’t do this? How am I supposed to continue?
I head out across the steep slope with my skis almost perpendicular to the mountain. A snowboarder comes close behind me as I turn to the right again. My ski slips, I lean back from my fall and I am down again, flat on my back. I’ve moved no more than 15 yards form the previous fall. “So that’s how this is gonna’ be. Might as well get on with it.”

New instructions for getting up from a fall:
Step One: Breathe.
Step Two: Don’t cry. It won’t help you get out of this.
Step Three: Accept that you are all alone and they aren’t going to help you up. If tears fall anyway, return to Step 2.
Step Four: Breathe again. Decide to get up. Keep on keeping on.

I am up and down again in less than five seconds. Get Up, turn left, fall down. Get up, turn right, fall down. I repeat this at least four more times. Anger, fear, frustration, and abandonment overcome me. “How could they do this to me? They left me here, all by myself. By myself. I have to do this alone – again!” Luckily no one seems to notice that I’m literally talking to myself on the piste.
This is the loneliness of keep on keeping on. It never goes away. It comes back when you’re scared for life, miles from civilization. When you need your own sense of self-worth, when you need to know people love you, when you asked them above all else, “Please don’t leave me.”
They don’t know. They don’t understand what it means to be left behind. And you know they will always leave you. The worst thing that’s ever happened to you and people do it over and over again every single day. Even the ones who are supposed to love you – they forget and leave you by yourself, to find your own way down, even if it means rolling down a mountain and starting an avalanche. That is what it feels like to grieve.
            I channel my anger and play the words I will say to them at the bottom of the mountain, in my mind “You are dead to me.” I charge all the way down the rest of the mountain, falling once or twice until I reach the slower, flatter slope at the end. The foam on my mask is soaked with tears. When I finally get to the bottom, I don’t see them.
Finally, I see my husband. “You left me. Then your dad left me. Then I fell. And I fell and I fell.”
            “Where did you guys go? You must have turned the wrong way.”
Be careful of the words you imagine yourself saying. You may say them. “You’re dead to me.” He laughs until he sees my tears. How can you trust anyone when even the ones who know and love you leave you with your skis in the air, flat on your back on the side of a mountain?
            The next day, in my lesson, I ski that same run with an instructor. When I fall, he tells me to get up and lean forward. Go with the feeling of falling. Use it to pull you down the mountain. Keep on keeping on. I don’t fall again. I carve my ski deeper into each turn. You can’t resist the fall – you have to embrace it.

Learning to ski is learning to live after someone you love, who was supposed to take care of you dies. Only you can trust yourself to finish the run. You have to lean toward the fall - it’s the only way down the mountain.

Friday, March 20, 2015

4 Steps To Be A Friend To A Grown-Up Member of the Dead Dads Club

You’re waiting for your kids at pick-up time. Your parents are visiting from Akron for the weekend. You’ve prepped the spare bedroom, shoved toys into the closet, pulled out the “cute” sweater your mom sent a month ago that your daughter thinks is “so ugly it looks like a bug threw up on it.” 
The mood of the day is that blend of excited and stressed that everyone who lives more than a time-zone away from their parents experiences when the family is coming to town.  You start to chat up the other mom waiting for her kids. But it all goes wrong when she says, “Lilly doesn’t know her grandfather. My father died when I was a child.”
You had no idea, did you? That’s because your friend is a member of the Dead Dads (or Moms) Club. It’s the club for kids who lost a parent when they were a kids. She learned early not only that life changes faster than you can say, “stroke,” but also that people hate talking about death. They remember the face everyone gives them when they said they lost their Daddy. It’s not pity, it’s a split second flinch - as if having a death in the family is contagious, like MRSA. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry ” and pretending your dentist just called to confirm your root canal, try empathy:

1.                    Acknowledge Her Experience – “That must be really hard for you.” You say “be” instead of “been” because she is still sad that her parent is not coming to visit this weekend and never will come to visit. That sadness never goes away. It was hard when she was a child too. But she needs support for the hard and sad now that’s still happening.
2.                    Ask Her Something – “I’d love to hear about him/her.” She wants to remember her Daddy because she’s afraid she’s the only one who does. She may look and sound emotional when she answers you. That’s because she's so touched that you care enough to listen for even a minute.
3.                    Thank Her – She’s so used to holding back her membership in the Dead Dads Club because she knows it makes people uncomfortable. When she was in school, she may have been the only one in the whole school with a dead parent. By telling you this, she’s sharing her vulnerability. She’s taking a risk and trusting you. Surely that’s something to be grateful for.
4.                    Don’t Forget – There will come an event, like “Grandparents and Special Friends Day” at school. She will be there wearing a huge smile. Her kids will be with the living grandparents, or not. This day is killing her. She is faking a smile while she shoves a lifetime of disappointment inside an imaginary the box under her ribs. Give her an extra smile or a hug. Take her out for a drink later. Don't get nervous when she orders a single malt, she can handle it - Dead Dads Club members need the burn. 

What happens next? You have a friend for life. We members of the Dead Dads Club are a loyal lot. We expect very little of the world because the world already took so much from us. If you show us kindness, we’ll be there for you and we will want to be there for you good days and bad.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Chess and Checkers

I snap a photo of Ellie in the midst of an open mouthed laugh, her inexplicably gold-blonde hair and blue eyes beaming joy across the room. Someone told me that parents aren’t happier than non-parents but only parents experience short bursts of sheer bliss. I am grateful and sad. Her grandfather would have been her biggest fan. After all, he was mine until he died on the morning after my eighth birthday.
Ellie grins. She’s wearing her chess tournament t-shirt over her clothes. At five, she still has that confidence I lost so long ago I can’t even remember what it felt like. It seems selfish to be jealous of my own child. Both her parents are here sharing the day that’s all hers. I’m terrified that I’ll die before she can really know me.
While Ellie was practicing for her first tournament with my husband, she lost countless games. 80% of the time, she reached a straight robot arm across the board and said, “Congratulations.” Her father said, “Good game. Play again?” But the rest of the time, games ended in truly spectacular displays of poor sportsmanship. Ellie would flip the board over, run crying and screaming from the board, slam her bedroom door, and wail. She’d flail for the longest ten minutes a parent can endure.
One of these times, after letting her cry just long enough to communicate that “we don’t behave like this,” I slipped into her room, sat on her purple rag rug and pulled her into the space created by my criss-cross-applesauced legs. She curled into a ball, letting me hold her like an infant until the wave of rage flowed out from her amygdala to her toes. The force of her feelings leaves me dumbfounded. As violent as her emotions are, she lets them flow. It’s petrifying to me who has spent well more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to master squashing emotional reactions.

I waited for her to quiet and then she asked the question she always asks when she’s a little embarrassed. She asked, “Can you tell me about a time you lost a game with your Daddy?”

“Sure. I was about your age and we were playing checkers. He always won at checkers. I got so mad, I crushed my own finger when I slammed the door. Unless I could calm down he wouldn’t play with me anymore.”

“Did you play again later?”
“I learned to calm down and we played again.”
“And your finger got better?”
“Yes, my finger got better.” I stifled a giggle.
“And then you won?”
“Well, no. You see my father was a very good checkers player. I never beat him.”
“Nope. Never.”
“Then he died?”
“Well, not right after a checkers game but, yes he died before I ever got good enough to beat him.”
Ellie stared at me. I wondered what was happening behind her azure gaze. She returned from her lizard brain. Instantly calm and in-charge, her hyper-sense of justice kicked-in.
“Mommy, that’s not fair.”
“No it isn’t. But life isn’t always fair, you just have to do the best you can with what you have.” Every time we talk about how life isn’t fair, I have to shove my own disappointment into the box under my sternum. That’s where I save my feelings for later. Without that box, I don't think I could survive these conversations. I have to be here for her, to be her mother. Feeling whatever comes over me or remembering anything that could awaken grief would be to fail her. It’s easier when we don’t talk. Teaching a child a lesson you never had the chance to finish learning is its own challenge.  She gave me a fast hug and hopped to standing.
“Can I play against you? I think you might not be as good as Daddy.”

“Sure.” I hope she has a chance to beat me before I die. And just like that, I find myself sitting behind a chess board, playing black, losing to a five-year-old.