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How to respond sensitively to loss and grief

September 14, 2022

I imagine we’ve all had times when life events take over and work is pushed aside: a cancer diagnosis, a flood at home, a phone call from school. How do you respond and what can you say or do for others going through an experience of loss or grief?

For many of us, the death of HM Queen Elizabeth is such an event, even though most of us are far removed from the monarchy. At the very least, I’m finding it hard to concentrate this week. I’ve felt immensely sad at her passing and almost transfixed by the unfolding pageantry. Some people will be dealing with the practical consequences, postponing long-planned work which is inappropriate or unfeasible, or working round the clock to provide things suddenly needed in a period of national mourning. Others will encounter emotional consequences if the Queen’s death rekindles the pain of previous personal loss.

Giving people time to process their feelings 

In my coaching conversations this week, I’ve made sure to ask how people are feeling and allowed them space to talk about their own perspective if they wish. It’s a very practical way I can help people at times of loss, but I haven’t always felt able to initiate such conversations. 

I remember a colleague in one of my early jobs receiving the worst possible news: their son had been killed in an accident. What do you say in that situation? I rehearsed words over and over in my head, but they were all so…inadequate. felt inadequate. 

With more life experience, coach training and personal losses under my belt, I understand now why that sentence was so hard for me. I’m a problem solver, I like helping people, and I wanted to fix my colleague’s situation. But I’ve come to accept you can’t erase people’s pain, they have to process loss at their own speed and in their own way. 

That said, there are two things I’ve learned that I try to keep uppermost in my mind: suspend judgement and increase empathy. 

Suspend judgement 

Hold back on judging how others are ‘doing’ the grief process, and whereabouts they are in that process too as it’s not a linear ever-improving trajectory and there isn’t always an end point. Hold back on judging yourself too. All those shoulds and recriminations – “I should have seen it coming“, “Why did I say that?“. Few of us have the gift of foresight and none of us are perfect. Put your energies instead into noticing what’s happening for people here and now and try to let go of the regret. 

Increase empathy 

Empathy, and how it differs from sympathy, is beautifully illustrated in this short animation that brings the wise words of storyteller and researcher, Brené Brown to life. I reckon it’s one of the best 2 minutes 53 seconds on YouTube. I hope you’ll watch it, share it and be inspired by it when you’re next searching for those ‘right’ words and actions.

The clip focuses on empathy for others, feeling with people, Brené calls it. There’s empathy for yourself too. Whether you’re experiencing loss or supporting others through it, it’s draining so accept you’re not going to be performing at your usual level for a while. 

Loss is unique yet equal 

Queen Elizabeth said “grief is the price we pay for love”. We’ll experience many sorts of loss and grief in life be that bereavement, redundancy, divorce, health issues, kids leaving home (coming up for me next month). People, pets, things, freedoms. It’s all loss, and whilst all loss is unique, all loss is equal. There is no hierarchy. 

If you’re facing a loss right now and feel I might be of help please get in touch. I provide a judgement-free listening space in which you can explore your feelings, make adjustments to embrace your new reality and seek meaning and purpose in what’s happened. If I don’t think I have the skills to help I will try to signpost you to someone who does. I’ve also seen how the mental fitness programme I run helps people deal positively with loss such as finding the strength to mend a relationship before it’s too late. If you think this might be useful for you, contact me and we can have a chat. 

About me

I’m Celia Clark. I’m a career development coach based in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I help you think clearly about your job, in all its ups and downs, so you can be happy and successful in your work.

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