Embracing Grief, Emotions, and Friendships at Work

morag barrett, ceo of skyeteam, looking thoughtful

Note: I originally wrote and share this post on Linked In in 2020. I updated it today following an executive coaching conversation where the leader shared their grief and our coaching session provided the space and a moment he needed to process the emotions he was experiencing.

Grief is a personal journey. There is no one playbook, there is no timeline when it is ‘done’. Even today, 23 years after my mum died, as I reread this post and made some minor edits, watched the James Blunt video – I cried. I cried hard.

We need to be able to bring our full selves to work. To share all the emotions we are experiencing, especially the tough emotions like grief, in a way that helps us, and those that care about us, to thrive, and not just survive.

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I’ve cried today, several times. I’ve been a glorious, blubbery mess, and it’s all James Blunt’s fault.

It all started with social media (doesn’t it always?) There I was (mindlessly) scrolling through my news feeds when the video popped up. James Blunt singing “Monsters”. It’d been a while since James and I had had a play-date, and so I thought “why not”. I clicked on the link… If you haven’t seen/heard it, you can watch it here.

It was like a punch to the gut

And then I read the context for this video and song, James’ dad had stage 4 cancer. This song is heartfelt. This is real. It’s happening. Two people are saying goodbye.

And that’s when the floodgates opened. I couldn’t stop.

grief
John and Lucy McLeod aka mum and dad

It’s been 23 years since I said goodbye to my mum. It’s been 15 years since I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad. All of those feelings that I’d carefully boxed up, put on the shelf and chosen not to acknowledge, not to feel, came tumbling out.

I cried. I sobbed. I blubbed. I raged. I felt sorry for myself. I cried some more. When it came to emotions, I experienced most of them, at least the ones associated with sadness, guilt, anger, despair – all at once. It’s a visceral pain. I miss them both. My heart is broken; and yet life goes on.

Phew – Emotions. See I told you it was James’ fault!

An EQ Tea Pot

So I made a cup of tea (it’s the British remedy that cures all crisis moments). And all was right with the world. Except it wasn’t really. Putting these emotions away was not what I need to do. At least not yet.

Thankfully the universe knew that I hadn’t yet learned my lesson, and sent me me another thunderclap. Ruby shared a link to a self-assessment from the book Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. Here are my results:

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Look at those top three, it makes sense (to me) now. I’ve worn ‘hyper-achiever’ as a badge of honor my whole life. Work hard, be strong, don’t fail, be brave (aka don’t be sad) have been my mantra. Busyness also has the advantage that I don’t have time to look inward, at least not at the stuff that’s buried deep. The stuff that matters. Couple that with ‘pleaser’ and ‘avoider’ when it comes to conflict, whether with others or within myself, things became a little clearer, or muddier depending on which emotional perspective we’re considering.

Cancer Sucks

In 2019 my mum was diagnosed with a second brain tumor (her first was when I was 4, the early 70’s) and told that this time it was inoperable, that we had 6-months, my over-achiever went into over-drive. At least that is what I tell myself. When mum died (April 1st, 2020) I took on the role of the ‘strong one’ for my dad and my brother. Stoic. Pragmatic, there to listen when my dad sobbed, keeping my emotions in check, keeping them hidden, because in my mind, that’s how I could best support him. In doing so I avoided the conflict within, ignored my own emotions, my vulnerability, my own heartache.

It was a fleeting 8 years later when Dad literally dropped down dead. An aneurysm. There was no time for goodbyes. Except I did get to say goodbye, 5 months before he died. I have the memory of an amazing heartfelt and heartbreaking goodbye at the end of a wonderful canal boat holiday. When we all said goodbye at the train station I was inconsolable. We hugged so tight. I can still feel the sadness at parting, my boys bemused at my seemingly out of proportion emotions asking why I was so sad, and my reply “because we don’t know when we’ll see each other again”. We didn’t see each other again.

Guilt and regrets are the emotions I carry, guilt that my sadness at that goodbye didn’t result in my calling him more often, the missed conversations. Regrets about what might have been. Hindsight’s a cruel bitch, and then we move on.

The EQ Melting Pot

Hyper-Achiever, Pleaser, Avoider – patterns I’ve taken with me through all of my life, before and after my mum’s diagnosis, before and after my dad’s sudden departure. They’re what has made me successful. What has helped me to take the informed risk to become an entrepreneur, to take on new challenges and projects, to write three books, and to succeed.

They are also what has held me back. What has tripped me up when I have missed others expectations of me, or been disappointed in others when I haven’t articulated my needs and ‘quelle surprise’ those needs have not been met.

We can’t feel joy unless we also understand heartbreak and sadness. 

Morag Barrett

The thing about emotions is that they are ALL important. We can’t feel joy unless we also understand heartbreak and sadness. We can’t feel anger unless we understand contentment. We can’t experience courage unless we also experience the vulnerability that comes from failure and mistakes. Perfection doesn’t exist. If you don’t believe me then watch the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out.

When it comes to experiencing grief – Friends Matter

And when I write ‘we’, I mean ‘me’. It’s not that I don’t experience a wide range of emotions, what I’ve nurtured is the “British Stiff Upper Lip”. I have (until recently) internalized my emotions, thinking I have a great poker face (I don’t), until they break through the dam(n) walls in all of their puffy-eyed unstoppableness.

I’ve gotten better at showing and sharing the real me, and there is still room for improvement. Eric was one of the first to break through, it took 13 gins (yep, you read that right.. and may I add, I remember every moment, and there was no hangover – don’t mix your drinks). It was during one of our early business trips in NYC, a late summer evening, it was fun, until that 13th gin when my ‘missing my mum’ took complete hold and I broke down. #Alliesforever

Amazingly, the sky did not fall in. He didn’t throw up his hands in horror. Our relationship, personally and professionally was strengthened. He saw some of the real me. My fears.

It’s these Ally Relationships, our friends at work, and in life, that make the difference, that enable us to have both the courage & vulnerability to show up authentically. Where we can connect at a human level, show compassion both to others and, as importantly, to ourselves.

The last few years has seen me make a choice, to lean into the relationships that matter most to me, to all the relationships I have at work and in life – and in doing so I choose to present a more honest version of myself. I choose to let my guard down, to share more of what is on my mind and in my heart. It’s liberating, empowering, terrifying, and I am grateful to each and everyone who has supported me and in turn leant on me.

At SkyeTeam we start every weekly staff meeting with Ripples and Joys. A section that can take 5 minutes, or the whole meeting. A space for each of us to share

  • a ripple – something we’ve done (for a client, for ourselves, for each other), a win,
  • a joy – anything personal or professional that has brought us – well, joy!

Over time this has been a space where we have shared the highs and lows of life.

Life is short, even when it is long.

Life is short, even when it is long. Call the people who you care about. Let them know you care and embrace all of the emotions that life brings you. I promise that you, and those around you, will be better for it.

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