I have learned so much since my six-year-old son Harry died, 19 years ago; about grief, loss, and the phenomenal strength of the human spirit. And how with the right support, we can rebuild.
My learning has been thanks to my 12 years working in the children’s hospice where he died, through coming alongside other bereaved families, through my surviving children and those friends and colleagues who managed to withstand the enormity of my grief. I thank them all.
To those who couldn’t cope, who didn’t stay the distance, I understand your fear, because I witness it, every day. But I don’t accept it.
Facing a major life change:
When my son was diagnosed with a degenerative, genetic, incurable (1:4 chance of all our children having it) condition, that was the moment my family’s world changed. I started a living grief, which of course imploded completely when he died in November 2000. I had a blissful life until that point, working for Channel 4, a happy marriage, I was driven and motivated by family, friends, work and good health. Harry’s illness and death came from nowhere, with no warning, but has had repercussions and ripple effects for our family, friends and wider community for many years.
It is fascinating investigating what makes people fearful of tackling grief.
A major problem is the notion that ‘time heals’. It doesn’t. We just get better at adjusting, at adapting our lives to accommodate our grief . Most companies I speak to will tell me that they have excellent provision for bereavement, or for anyone coming back to work after a major life change. They proudly tell me that they offer six weeks counselling – and I always say ‘And then what’? Most fall silent at that point as there is very little provision for ongoing support when people get back to work. And by support, I don’t mean spending a fortune, but talking to staff about how that person would like to be treated, opening up a conversation, putting someone in place to be their rock.
In my case, I think I kept as busy as possible for around 8 years, throwing myself into everything I could work-wise, so that I didn’t have time to think. I was very connected to my son through my work at the time, and that was a healthy thing. But even though I had two years of bereavement counselling, attended a year’s group bereavement course (meeting for a day every two months), and my children had help, I have always had to keep working on my mental and physical health – through yoga, meditation, mindset coaching and many other ways. That way I can keep Harry’s memory alongside me, and I can cope with it and enjoy a happy life.
The physical effects of grief
If unaddressed, grief (over a Death, Divorce, Diagnosis, or any major life change) can cause serious physical effects. How many people in your company are suffering from the symptoms of heart, lung and gut problems and taking medication? And how many have truly investigated where those problems originate? Many symptoms will be from stress or grief from events which may have been recent, or many years ago. So many people I meet have had a parent die too young, a sibling, a child, or have been through divorce. And years later these symptoms are treated with medication, no-one stops to ask ‘Why’? Doctors perform scans and don’t come up with answers because most often they relate to issues from years before, which if withheld will show physical symptoms eventually.
I firmly believe that grief is accumulative. When my marriage broke down three years ago, the tsunami of grief that hit me was as bad as when my son died. I was able to get on top of it sooner, but it shocked me how much I was still carrying. Think of how many people in the workplace are carrying past, unresolved grief and trying to keep going, maybe without realising.
Tackling fear – get talking!
So how much do you know about your colleagues and teams? How do you cope when they suffer a family bereavement, or go through divorce? There is so much positive acknowledgement that can make a difference. It’s not rocket science – just to be able to offer help, support, to talk, yet over and over again I hear people say ‘I didn’t know what to say’, and the person who has suffered the trauma saying ‘no-one mentioned it to me, no-one asked how I was doing’.
The slightest acknowledgement can relieve tension for someone. And even if they break down, it’s not you upsetting them, it is the fact they are living with grief and they will usually be so relieved that someone asked.
I have learned personally that grief changes, it isn’t in any order – so don’t give up! Just because someone suffering might push you away to begin with, it doesn’t mean that will last. There will come a point when they want to talk, to be asked out, to be acknowledged – so be brave and stay alongside them until they are ready.
A big issue seems to be that so many HR Teams are unable to spend time with the people they support. They deal with endless forms and data and when the humans need help, they can’t always provide it. This is where good peer to peer support is vital, watching out for each other, not being scared to address issues and equally not being fearful of showing you need help.
I no longer want to hear about people’s fear of addressing this subject any more, let’s work out how we can encourage all employees, but especially HR and Management to be better equipped to encourage and aid the humans they employ and from that lack of fear, reap the benefits of staff feeling safe and the rich seam of energy and loyalty which will undoubtedly flow from that support.
About the Author
Lizzie Pickering provides motivational speaking and consulting Lizzie’s early work was for Channel 4, but following the death of her eldest son Harry, she co-founded the Fundraising Team at Helen & Douglas House, the world’s first hospice for children and young adults, helping to raise £5 million a year and also working closely with the Bereavement Team. After 12 years she left to set up In Trust Films with Film Director Polly Steele. They produced Let Me Go, starring Juliet Stevenson, from Helga Schneider’s memoir on inherited trauma. It premiered in the USA and the Edinburgh Film Festival. They are developing their second film Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams. Lizzie also fundraises for The Good Grief Project, raising money for their Active Grief Retreats for bereaved parents. Lizzie is available to deliver motivational talks and workshops on Grief in the Workplace.