What a conflicted position to be in: the heir to a family business experiencing the death of an elder.  Imagine, your parent dies, and you’re immediately thrust into the role of Chief.  As you feel the anguish of grief, you must also step up and lead.

The death of HRM Queen Elizabeth last week and the subsequent promotion of her son (now King) Charles to the role of Head of State, has reminded me of what it was like to be a leader in grief.

Towards the end of my father’s life (which was sadly cut short by cancer) I was successful in interviewing for a more senior role. I’ve been thinking about what I did as a leader to make that time easier for myself and my team, and reflecting on what you can do to support colleagues going through a bereavement.

1. Model good leadership qualities by showing vulnerability and delegating

One of the first things I told my new team was that due my dad’s declining health, I might occasionally be absent from work at short notice. I did this for three reasons:

  • I’m more confident in my work when my team has an awareness of my personal context (I think they call this “bringing your whole self to work”). 
  • To give my team an opportunity to develop their sense of autonomy. They knew that at any point they might have to make a decision without me to defer to. 
  • To model a good work life balance. By acknowledging – as a leader – that our personal lives are sometimes more important than work, we give our team permission to do the same.

2. Make space for grief (watch out for presenteeism in yourself and others)

My workplace was extremely supportive and accommodating of my needs as I went through my first significant loss. I appreciate that not everyone is so fortunate. My role exists in a flexible working environment without daily, mission-critical deadlines (in contrast to my colleagues in the broadcast side of the business). Given this environment, and the agreement I had made with my team, I was able to take the time I needed to process the grief I experienced both before and after my dad’s death. If you’re supporting a grieving colleague, watch out for them and check that they’re taking the time they need. Presenteeism needs to be called out, particularly around the taboo areas of mental health and loss.

3. Work is a welcome distraction, don’t write anyone off

Conversely, if you are in the position of making accommodations for your team, be careful not to inadvertently leave someone out. Don’t assume a colleague won’t be responding to emails or won’t participate in a work event because they’re supporting an ill family member. I have fond memories of certain work events around the time of my dad’s death because it was a distraction from the sadness and apprehension I was feeling. 

4. Loss is a lonely place, keep checking-in

If your colleague has confided in you about their personal circumstances, do acknowledge it regularly. There’s such a taboo around illness and death in our culture, people are usually afraid to say anything, not least in the workplace. But when a life changing experience goes unacknowledged by colleagues, you can feel lonely and isolated. I welcomed open questions from colleagues like “how are you feeling?” and “how is your dad this week?”. If you’re worried that you won’t know how to respond appropriately, know that “I’m feeling care for you right now” or simply “I’m sorry to hear that” is enough. 

5. Give the gift of listening, you’ll be touched by what you hear

Be aware too that the end of life (or bereavement) period can be long and unpredictable, and includes good days and bad, so don’t avoid asking for fear of hearing ‘bad news’. I have some beautiful and touching memories from the last few months of my dad’s life, and it felt like a gift to be able to share these moments with anyone brave enough to listen.

I published a shorter version of this article on LinkedIn shortly after the death of HRH Queen Elizabeth

Leading through grief