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Getting through Grief with Gratitude and Grace

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My executive coach, Amy Douglas, once told me that acting on my instincts to help, expressing compassion, or showing kindness, regardless of the circumstance or likelihood of reciprocity, would never leave me feeling inadequate. Failing to do so, however, would always make me miserable. One of the critical principles behind The Arbinger Institute's book Outward Mindset, which I discovered with Amy's help, is that when we refuse these instincts, we find ourselves and our relationships falling into a self-perpetuating and a negative cycle that is counterproductive - because it is untrue to who we are.

So, when I was driving to the store with my husband on Friday and felt the impulse to do something quite paradoxical to how I was feeling, I knew that I had to find a way to embrace the idea. But sometimes, these better instincts force us to face a fear, embrace a relationship, or do something quite contrary to where our emotional state may be leading us. And that was certainly the case for me at that moment. Was I going to act on this crazy idea? Could I do it genuinely and adequately, given how I was feeling?

On the Wednesday before that, I had been notified officially that my position had been eliminated due to the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on my company, a replication of what many of us have read about on LinkedIn.  I knew that it was coming. I saw the trajectory of the industry. I was prepared mentally. I had spent months grieving for my company, colleagues, and career. I had talked others through the grieving process. I had written about it in my article "Healing Professional Heartbreak" I thought I was okay. I thought the only thing I was missing was a certainty, like a loved one who knows a family member will die from a severe and incurable disease. I had been making funeral arrangements for my job for a while. I thought the only thing still concerning me was my worry for my team and friends, who might also be impacted. And, I was worried about the stress and pressure on those left to manage the process and the mess that COVID-19 had made.

I was wrong. I managed a brave and cheerful tone on the call that ended my career with the company. I told my husband how relieved I was that I finally knew and could make decisions and plans with greater certainty. But it stung - more than I thought it would. All the self-doubt (Was I not good enough to keep?), anger (Why me instead of others?), fear (What's next? Can I recover?), and regret (Why did I take this job?) came washing right back over me. And that's where I was, emotionally, in the car on the way to the store with my husband on that fated Friday.

A thought I couldn't ignore came to me. I've ended my time with nearly every company by handing out thank you notes. Usually, during my last week of work, I've taken the time to make sure that those I was leaving behind understood their positive impact on me. And the instinct to write thank you notes to my current boss, the boss who hired me, the executive who supported me, the peer who collaborated with me, and the friend who trusted me was overwhelming.

I must be crazy. Who writes thank you notes when their job is eliminated? But I knew right away that this was the right thing to do. I understood that being on the receiving end of the note, amidst all the heartbreaking decisions that must be made, might provide some comfort. I reluctantly opened a new thank you card box that Friday and placed them on my desk. Saturday, I made two lists of names: one for the leaders I knew were still there, managing through the mess, and one for a group of people who were also in my situation. Sunday, I dragged myself to the office and started to write, unsure if the notes would reach their recipients, unsure of how to start, but somehow understanding that this process was about more than just who would get a letter.

I didn't realize how healing the process would be for me. I didn't recognize, at first, that as I reflected on my relationship with each person and what I could uniquely express gratefulness to them for, the bitterness and sorrow in my heart were being replaced by gratitude and grace. I began to consider how they were doing and who offered these people comfort as they were making these agonizing decisions. I realized that my instinct not only to express gratitude but also to offer some small measure of compassion in my time of grief was a reflection of my own need for comfort and reassurance - not from others but from within.

Yes, this was an actual loss that I had to process and grieve. However, as I wrote short thank you notes and reflected on all I learned and experienced, remembered those who impacted me and whom I impacted, and closed out my time in the way I chose to, I was purged of any bitterness or fear and regret. I allowed myself to leave the job the same way I had left many others - secure in the legacy I was leaving behind, assured about the people I had helped, and confident about what lies ahead. After cleaning out my office, Monday, I left the notes with my boss to be delivered – I will never know if they were read, but that isn't the point. I realized as I rode the elevator down for the last time, boxes in hand, that expressing gratitude for those I had worked with and showing grace to those whose decisions impacted me had propelled me through my grief to a peaceful acceptance – and I am now ready for what's next.

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