Any emotional trauma—a divorce, the diagnosis of a serious illness, spousal abuse, a layoff—can be significant enough to trigger a person to enter the stages of grief. However, the one trigger that is first to come to mind is the loss of a loved one.
Not All Trauma and Grief Are Created Equal
Three factors determine how deeply a person will experience grief:
- How significant the relationship or traumatic event was to the person.
- How expected or unexpected was the event. Was the event natural or unnatural?
- How many complicating factors the person is dealing with surrounding the traumatic event.
Maybe a few brief examples will help demonstrate these points. We have all been in situations where we could see the traumatic event coming from miles away. You knew your plant had slowed production to the point where there would need to be layoffs. The passing of your 90-year-old grandmother, who is in a nursing home and has several underlying health conditions, will not be a shock to anyone. Your company announces a significant structural change that will begin in six months, allowing you time to prepare for the eventual new workflow.
Contrast these examples with the immediate devastation of a natural disaster, like a tornado striking a community. Or a home erupting in flames, causing a total loss. Or the tragic losses associated with a mass shooting. These are unanticipated losses that strike suddenly and deeply. If you lose your home to a tornado and your factory closes as a result of the same disaster, now you have a complicating factor that will cause the trauma and the ensuing grief to be even deeper and more complex.
Scenario One: The Impact of an Anticipated and Natural Loss
It is October 2019, a woman in her eighties is in an assisted living facility. She is relatively healthy and enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren on their weekly visits. Sometimes those visits are at the care facility, but she especially enjoys getting out and visiting them at their home. One of her aides returns from a trip to Tennessee. After two days at work, she calls in sick with the flu. Three days later, the 83-year-old woman comes down with the flu. The flu turns to pneumonia. After battling the illness for a week or so, her aging body and declining immune system succumb to the fight. She dies with her family at her bedside. All of her loved ones attend the funeral and share in the celebration of a life well-lived. There are tears, but she was 83-years-old, and her family knows she died peacefully and surrounded by love.
In this scenario, her family will grieve, for sure. They will miss her. But this was a somewhat anticipated and natural loss. They know people in their eighties are fragile.
Additionally, the family had some time to prepare for her passing as they spent the last three days with her by her bedside. When her children return to their jobs, they will appreciate the condolences and expressions of sympathy. They may need some understanding during those times when their emotions leak out, but for the most part, they will not experience deep grief.
Scenario Two: How COVID Complicates Loss, Trauma, and Grief
It is the middle of August 2020. A woman in her eighties is in an assisted living facility. She is relatively healthy. Because of COVID-related restrictions, she has not been able to touch, hug, or kiss her grandkids since March. A windowpane has separated all interactions. Her aide returns to work from a trip to Tennessee. After two days at work, she tells her supervisor she is not feeling well. The aide tests were positive for COVID. Several days later, the 83-year-old woman tells her nurse she is not feeling well. She has a low-grade fever. Two days later, her fever spikes to 104 degrees. They rush her to a local hospital where her condition continues to decline. She is put on a ventilator the next day. That night, the hospital calls the family with alarming news: the woman’s lungs are filling rapidly, and there is nothing else they can do. The family grants permission to take her off the ventilator over the phone. One minute later, the nurse tells the family their mother has died. The only person with her was the nurse who disconnected the ventilator. While arranging the funeral, they are informed that, due to gathering restrictions, the majority of the family cannot attend the services. Not even all the grandchildren will be able to attend.
While the facts of these two scenarios are very similar, each family’s grief response will be dramatically different. This traumatic event has been catapulted into the realm of an unanticipated, unnatural loss and will carry with it deep and complicated grief. The family is no longer thankful for the years they had her or the good life she lived. As far as they are concerned, she was ripped from their lives. And no matter how peaceful or not her death might have been, she faced it alone, and that agonizes them.
Her children will struggle with why this has happened to her and them, which is a classic symptom of denial. They will reflect on what they or the care facilities could have done differently. They will be angry—an emotion the family in the first scenario may not have felt. They will be angry at the care facility for not making the aide quarantine for 14 days after visiting Tennessee. They will be angry at the governor for imposing visitation restrictions, preventing them from being there with her. They will be angry at the funeral home for not allowing the entire family to be present. All of this anger will compound the family’s grief.
The Aftermath: Ill-Prepared Leaders and Co-workers
Unfortunately, when the loved ones of the woman in the second scenario return to work, their company, leader, and colleagues will treat them the same way as they would treat the loved ones of the woman in the first scenario. Lacking understanding of the grieving process, particularly in cases of unanticipated and unnatural loss, their leader and co-workers will be ill-prepared for the reaction they will receive and ill-prepared to help them to excel at work while they are grieving. Feeling unsupported at work could then lead to a performance spiral, which adds more stress and further complicates the grieving process.
Let’s add one more wrinkle. Suppose this woman’s son is an over the road semi-truck driver. If his company is like most, he will return to work within a day or two of the funeral. He will sit in the cab of his truck with nothing but hours of alone time to think about everything he is feeling. His tear-filled eyes will be on the road, but his mind will be somewhere else. Do you want to be next to him on the road? Or stopped in a construction zone with him coming up behind you?
When the costly accident happens, they will check for evidence of drugs and alcohol. They will look for evidence of distracted driving. They will not, however, ask if the driver was grieving. The company will settle the claim, assume he was careless, and potentially fire him. It will never occur to the company that this accident was preventable with better-prepared leaders who engaged the employee, led with compassion, and better understood how to help emotionally traumatized employees excel at work.
That is the hidden impact of COVID. That is why every leader needs to make it their business to understand the grieving process.
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