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What We Have to Gain By Talking About Grief and Loss At Work I lost my husband to cancer during Covid — here's how it changed how I lead at work.

By Cathy Thorpe

Key Takeaways

  • Being open and vulnerable about personal struggles, like grief, can foster deeper connections and trust within workplace relationships.
  • Embracing the "whole person" approach creates a supportive work environment conducive to individual and organizational growth.
  • Normalizing talk about death and grief in the workplace can also foster healing and support among team members.
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I was at my daughter's dance recital when I got the news that would change our lives: My husband, Harry, had cancer.

Harry and I met in Germany when I had just turned 30. I had moved there for work and fell in love with him the first day I saw him. He had an infectious smile and a way of moving through life that both honored the little moments and created space for great adventures during our 19-year partnership.

Harry was a planner, which made for a full life — but there was no amount of groundwork that could have prepared us for the last two years of his life, which were spent fighting cancer. They were the hardest years my family and I have endured, but they also taught me the most about love, hope and leadership.

As the leader of a global company that supports seniors through at-home care, I'm accustomed to helping caregivers and families through loss, but losing Harry was a different experience entirely. I hit my rock bottom and learned a lot about how we show up and talk about grief.

Death and grief are inevitabilities in life, yet even in my industry, we need to talk about it more. As awkward as it can be, the more we normalize conversations around death and grief, the better positioned we are to support those around us who are impacted by grief. Here's what my experience taught me:

Related: Grief and Loss Can Seriously Impact the Ability to Work. Here's How to Create a Workplace That Supports Those Going Through It.

Being vulnerable builds better workplace relationships

As the CEO of a fast-growing company, I was accustomed to showing up to work with positivity to set the tone for my team. As I navigated the loss of Harry and the hardest obstacle of my life, however, I decided not to hide what I was going through from my team. Instead, I showed up to work exactly as I was.

For me, the best way I could support my team and myself was to be honest about what I was going through. If I was sad one day, then I would let my coworkers know. I didn't want to be tip-toed around, and it was important my team felt comfortable looping me into workplace conversations. If I expected transparency, I had to lead by example.

Going through grief openly, I realized there was a deeper level of vulnerability I could tap into, and this made many of my workplace connections stronger. The more open I became with my team, the easier it was to find alignment.

Being vulnerable at work has long been viewed as a weakness or unprofessional, but opening up to my team about my grief brought us closer together. It also gave us a more personal understanding of how we could better care for our customers and the caregivers who support them through their health challenges on an ongoing basis.

There's a reason, the most leading research ties vulnerability to better team performance and a stronger sense of trust and inclusion within a company's culture.

Supporting our "whole person" at work allows for better outcomes

Having survived one of the worst cards life could toss my way, after Harry's death, I started to re-evaluate what was important to me both in life and at work.

Not only did my facade around putting my best face forward at work fade, but my conversations with my team changed. I had always taken an interest in my team as people, but acutely aware of our mortality, I became even more focused on learning about their hopes and dreams. I went all in on supporting my team and myself in reaching our truest potential both personally and professionally.

When you've been broken open and gone through the hardest obstacle you've ever faced, you realize you can get through anything. Rather than focus on rigid goals and outcomes, we honed in on what mattered most and trusted in our capabilities to reveal the best outcomes.

As we became more focused and fulfilled in all aspects of our lives, we started to see incredible results. I started inviting anyone I wanted to build a greater connection with out for coffee or dinner, and if I had to pick my daughter up from school, I left work at 3:00 pm without feeling guilty.

It's amazing what kind of life you can create when you put the right energy and focus towards it. As we made room for our personal goals, we thrived even more professionally — our caregiver net promoter scores rose from the low 60s to a world-class score of 74, and we saw significantly less turnover. Not only was there a renewed focus on fun, balance and achieving dreams, but we created more autonomy for each other to do our jobs.

Related: 6 Ways Grief Can Transform Your Business and Mindset

Normalizing talk about death and grief at work

When I engage in any kind of public speaking now, I make a point of talking about Harry. It can make people uncomfortable at first, but afterward, they always come up and thank me.

When you normalize conversations around death and grief, you create space for people to heal, and in turn, you help those who are supporting them. At work, we're used to adhering to professional boundaries, and that's healthy, but there's a place for conversations around death and grief to happen within them.

Dr. Brene Brown, widely known for her work on shame, vulnerability and leadership, suggests getting clear on the intention behind sharing vulnerable information like your experience with grief or death at work.

For example, in our work, families and caregivers may be supporting someone with a terminal illness. Just acknowledging the conversation around death can lead to new ways of bringing happiness and joy throughout every stage of their journeys, until the end.

It's been nearly three years since I lost Harry. The experience has forever changed how I live and how I lead. I love the life I had when Harry was alive. And in many ways, my life is even more full now, because I have a greater understanding of how to live it — that's the gift Harry gave me.

It's my hope that by creating a work culture where being open about grief is encouraged, my team will find more connection and support when faced with this inevitable human experience.

Related: Being Vulnerable Is the Boldest Act of Business Leadership

Cathy Thorpe

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO, Nurse Next Door

Cathy Thorpe is the CEO of Nurse Next Door, a company that provides at-home care and support to seniors internationally.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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