It’s Hard to Say Goodbye

its hard to say goodbye

If you’ve been on my email list for awhile, you might have noticed something – or rather the lack of something. I haven’t been writing any emails or blog posts.

This summer, I hope, will go on record as one of the hardest summers ever for me.

My Dad who battled acute cancer this whole past year took several downturns this summer, resulting in a few unplanned trips to the east coast where he was in a clinical trial, and to the Midwest where my parents live. The unplanned travel added a new layer of stress to my family and work – but was manageable.

Then, despite having felt better and better, my Dad ended up with an infection and quickly our luck changed. He passed away on August 10th.

Not that leadership is usually a light and amusing subject, but I do realize this email is even more revealing than most.

I’m writing it for two reasons. One, it feels inauthentic to talk about my life in my personal notes and not share when the life-altering, earth-shaking events happen too. But also, the nature of leadership, collaboration and teams is that we’re often working side-by-side with people who are having this kind of deeply personal heart-breaking stuff happening for them.

And most of the time we never know about it.

Sometimes people do voice their pain. All my clients were more than gracious and accommodating when I took off the rest of August after my father’s death. But I have flexibility that way. Many people do not.

Here’s the typical situation:

Many employers give three days’ paid time off; however, a sample of a more generous bereavement policy might include up to five days off. In this case, a sample policy might state: “When an employee loses an immediate family member, the company provides up to five days of paid time off. Immediate family members include spouse, child, parents, mother- and father-in-law, stepparents, stepchildren and step-siblings. The company provides three days of paid time off in the case of an extended family member’s death. (Source: Houston Chronicle)

Speaking from experience, a week is not enough to mourn the loss of a parent and I can’t even imagine going back to work so soon after the loss of a spouse or child.

While you might need to disclose a death in your family to get time for bereavement leave or to travel to a funeral, many of your co-workers have other personal sadnesses that they are coping with every single day. My Dad’s cancer diagnosis and treatment felt like a layer of sadness and worry over my whole life, even with all the good things happening that I was grateful for.

Of course, there’s no easy answer for how to handle personal loss in the workplace. And there’s definitely no one-size fits all technique for “sniffing out” employees and coworkers managing these emotions.

A little vulnerability goes a long way though. . .

Whether it’s you deciding to take some of your co-workers into your confidence and share when something personal is up for you, or whether you’re giving someone else an opening to share – there’s a lot of power in being more transparent.

If you do take the time to approach a co-worker who seems “not like their normal self,” here’s a few tips:

  • Make sure they know this isn’t feedback but instead an offer of support.
  • Gently share that you’ve noticed a shift in mood/happiness/energy with them and ask how things are for them.
  • If they do open up to you, ask how you can support them. If they deny anything is going on, perhaps still reiterate that you would love to support them and that they can feel free to reach back out if they need anything moving forward.

Speaking of, thanks for letting me share what’s been going on in my world.

How about in your world? How are you doing? I’d really love to hear.

Sending wishes for a lovely October autumn.

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Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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