About a month ago, I was on a coaching call with a client who shared with me that a colleague had recently died. I paused our agenda and asked her how she was doing and how her team had handled the situation. Thirty minutes later, I learned that her company has one of the most supportive grief support processes I had ever heard of in a workplace. The company systematically supported the grieving process. They contacted the deceased employee’s family, informed all employees about the death, created an informal space for employees to grieve and process together, and attended and financially supported a memorial that family and friends could attend. Listening to her account, I couldn’t help but get emotional. And here we were, planning to discuss what was on the agenda, just to be reminded that business can’t always go on as usual.
Another month has passed, and we're again at the intersection of grief and business. However, we're not just grieving with an individual, a client, or a few people this time. Instead, we mourn with thousands of people grieving the death of recently targeted communities. As we process the recent shootings in Buffalo, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Uvalde, I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of our DEI efforts. Are we effectively holding space in a way that supports grief in the workplace? This year alone, we’ve had a total of 212 mass shootings. Over 10,300 hate crimes in the United States involve a firearm annually. Last year, the FBI reported that hate crimes were the highest in 12 years.
Let’s face it; this isn’t the first time we’re having a conversation about mass shootings or racially-targeted violence. 90% of Americans have been pushing for stricter gun control laws. Others have stated that more stringent gun control laws would infringe on their second amendment rights. This debate hasn’t led to viable solutions, and we still have a gun violence problem.
Just two years ago, we witnessed many organizations (including ours) looking for ways to support Black employees and friends while beginning to adopt anti-racist frameworks and teachings after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. While every effort counts, we also need to talk about how we value life, whose life value, and how our values influence how we view death, dying, and grief in and out of the workplace.
In an attempt to be more vulnerable and intentional with you, I’ve added invitations (short prompts or questions for you to consider) at the end of each section below.
Many of us, especially Americans, don’t discuss death until we have no choice but to discuss it. It reminds us of our mortality. We often think of it as something that happens to “those people over there” until we begin to face our own mortality or experience the loss of someone close to us. This is due to the change many Americans experienced after the 1900s. According to historians, “most people died in their home, leaving family members to prepare the body.” However, once end-of-life care services moved from the home to institutions, we witnessed a cultural shift from death awareness to death avoidance. We aren't as equipped or prepared to discuss death on a cultural level. On a workplace level, “death seems to be the undoing of everything we value at work: control, growth, productivity, connections. Death can’t be fixed or mastered.” To put it briefly: it’s uncomfortable and deeply vulnerable for many of us. If we have to start somewhere, it must be by exploring the narratives we’ve created about death, dying, and grief on a personal and cultural level.
Invitation: As you continue reading, notice and name what is coming up for you. Check-in with your body, your breath, and your mind. How are you feeling, and what are you thinking as you experience the concepts in this post?
“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” This quote by the late Paul Farmer speaks to one of our core issues as a society. Our internal narratives, biases, and stereotypes often influence our actions and how we treat each other. When accepting or committing identity-based violence and harm, we're saying that we don’t value a person (or their life) because we disagree with their very being. Therefore, any harm committed is justifiable. When someone is harmful because of how someone else shows up in the world, we deny their right to live, thrive, and reach their full potential. Continuing down a path of dehumanization can only lead to our communal destruction.
Invitation: What biases do you have about certain identity groups? Where do your beliefs or mental models come from? How are your beliefs negatively/positively impacting someone else’s livelihood?
Research shows that our response to death can change depending on the number of people who die. An individual death often elicits more of a response, emotion, or action because our brains can empathize more with an individual death than multiple deaths. In fact, the more people die, the less we care. We see this when people experience psychic numbing, a psychological phenomenon where we become indifferent to the suffering of many people because the “individual” becomes another statistic rather than a person.
This phenomenon might explain why many were outraged at the stories and recordings of George Floyd’s murder. While statistics show that police officers disproportionately kill Black and Latino individuals, George Floyd’s murder awakened many of us who had become numb to the harm and violence of white supremacy culture in communities of color.
It’s true that since 2020 many of us have made anti-racist and anti-oppressive efforts as a result of horrific killings being shared in mainstream media. However, it’s problematic for us only to do or say something when there’s “one tragic story” that makes it on the news and pushes us into action. The danger of psychic numbing is that we lose our sense of action when we become numb to mass human suffering. We accept things as they are, and harmful realities begin to feel “normal” until the next hit to our nervous system. We act as allies, activists, or humans after yet another horrific death.
Interestingly enough, we’ve been pushing individuals and institutions to keep the momentum and action going without considering the human reality of numbness. My question for us is this: How do we break through the numbness while also taking action to address collective pain and grief?
Invitation: Reflect on how you've been responding to recent events and stories of mass suffering. Have you felt moved to take action? If so, what have you done? If not, what have you been doing instead?
Each of us will likely grieve the loss of someone one day if we haven’t already. Whether your employees are grieving the death of a colleague, family member, or multiple people, you can play a significant role. Below are several ways to begin addressing death, dying, and grief in the workplace that feels authentic and meaningful.
Invitation: What bereavement practices or policies do you currently have at your company? How might you begin creating new policies or revisiting old ones that will consider both individual and collective grief?
Death is something we can’t avoid. And unfortunately, there’s no knowing if or when identity-based targeted violence will stop. To address what we do have control over, I hope we can begin discussing the uncomfortable to move to a place of healing and transformation at work.