The importance of hope and gratitude in times of grief

April 21, 2020

We can remind ourselves that even though some of our losses will stay with us, this situation is finite-it will end, we will recover.

Last week, I had a conversation with one of the smartest and most well-respected leaders I know-over Zoom, of course. We were discussing big, complex topics like how to make a difference now, how to keep staff on payroll when facing catastrophic declines in cash flow, and how to work together to support people at the frontline of care. Or, how to help people we have labeled heroes, but can’t protect-especially when we may not have businesses for them to return to when all this is over.

Big stuff. Hard stuff. The same stuff being discussed in virtual conference rooms across the country and the world right now. 

At some point, there was a break in the conversation, and as the silence carried on, I impulsively asked a simple question. “Are you ok? Not I’m fine, but really ok?”

I was unprepared for what came next: the sound of quiet, shaking sobs. The sound of heartbreak, loss, grief.

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At first, I looked away, embarrassed. This isn’t what we do in business, right? Especially right now, when we’re supposed to be strong-when, as leaders, we’re supposed to be focused, decisive, reliable, inspiring. But I’m a trained physician; I know how to will myself to face somebody else’s pain and discomfort. I met their gaze, sat in the silence, and then, surprisingly, felt my own pain and fear rise up, my own tears run down my cheeks.

We are at war with an unforgiving virus with unfathomable destructive force. As we look over the horizon, we can’t see a logical end game yet. We are frightened and don’t know what will come next. This is true for all of us. For some, though, the destruction is hitting on many levels-we’re losing loved ones, jobs, businesses, even our identities as the world shifts and what we once relied on to define our lives disappears.

“I’ve lost everything,” my friend said. “It’s all gone-all the revenue, all the new opportunities. This was going to be a perfect year. Now, we have nothing.” I recognized the voice they were channeling-the voice in my own head ranting out of fear of the unknown, grief, and anger. 

Despite the despair, I felt a deep connection with this leader, another human in a time of crisis thousands of miles away. The connection made me feel brave, gave me a jolt of hope, and reminded me what has gotten me through every other hard time: gratitude.

“I don’t think you’ve lost everything. What we thought we were going to do this year in January is dramatically different, sure, but I don’t think everything is gone. I think you have far more than you realize right now. It’s just hard to see it through the fear.” I realized as I said those words, I was also speaking to myself-and now to everyone who might read this. 

We are all experiencing the despair and grief that my friend was experiencing, on various levels. There’s a reason a new article titled “That Discomfort You're Feeling Is Grief” has become one of the most read ever on Harvard Business Review. As the interviewee, grief expert David Kessler, said, “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.” And that’s okay, he explains. It’s okay to feel sad, disoriented, and angry. But we can also turn to hope and gratitude to guide us through.

As leaders, these might be the greatest gifts we can offer right now, but we can’t offer what we don’t have. To sustain ourselves and build our resilience, we first have to do what my friend and I did-make space to acknowledge the fear and grief. It won’t overwhelm us, as long as we also seek out hope and gratitude. That may feel difficult, even impossible, so we have to be intentional. 

We can cherish our family and friends. We can build connections rather than fall into the trap of isolation, of believing that we shouldn’t talk about our very real fears. (You never know where you’ll find a creative solution to your greatest challenges, so now is not the time to stop seeking help.) We can show ourselves the same compassion we’re showing others. As Adam Grant has suggested, we can focus on the contributions we’re making each day. And we can remind ourselves that even though some of our losses will stay with us, this situation is finite-it will end, we will recover.

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I am not a Pollyanna, but I think I made a difference for my friend in that conversation, and she made a difference for me. I felt like I could reach across the electrons separating us to offer comfort and that it would be reciprocated. The conversation turned to one of opportunity-the actions we could take and the positive impact we could have. In connecting through our fear and grief, we were able to move toward gratitude for the roles we could play and our hopes for the near future.  

When I signed off, I looked up at the poster of the Shawshank Redemption that hangs in my office, a gift from another dear friend. I was reminded of what Andy Dufresne wrote to his friend: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”