Minisode #28: What Could Go Right: Naming Grief, Surrendering, and Beginning to Create in the Age of Covid

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this minisode, Jennifer Brown reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the stages of grief. Discover two important and powerful questions that can help create a positive shift, and what organizations and leaders need to think about during and after the pandemic. Jennifer reveals why inclusive leadership and creating cultures of belonging are more crucial than ever during these tumultuous times.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The 5 stages of grief (2:00)
  • The challenges that will be facing business owners and employees (4:00)
  • How to pivot during these uncertain times (9:00)
  • Some of the changes that businesses will need to make (11:00)
  • The need for greater transparency (12:30)
  • How working virtually may accelerate inclusion (14:00)
  • Why DE&I matters more than ever (17:00)
  • Two powerful questions to shift your mindset towards positive change (18:30)
  • How to support others and be of service during this time  (23:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and of course, I’m with Jennifer Brown. And we’re going to be talking today, of course about the… we’re talking about related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re going to be talking about grief, we’re going to be talking about some hope and a lot of good things too. So Jennifer, thank you so much. Thanks for letting me join you today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. I’m glad you’re feeling better.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Yes, I’m on the mend.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay! That’s a hopeful sign.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, that’s a hopeful sign. Yeah, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thing to be happy about. Yeah, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. So yeah, let’s talk about… I mean, I know that as a departure point, there was an HBR article by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s… I don’t think people realize that there is a… Many people may not realize that she had a coauthor who also founded grief.com and he talks about stages of grief. Do you want to share a little bit with our listeners about that article?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I loved this article. So, I’ve been thinking about grief a lot and finding myself pinging back and forth between the stages, which let’s identify this as, this is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief which, by the way, aren’t linear. So, I’m pinging back and forth between many of these.

There’s denial. So, in the case that we’re living through right now, “The virus won’t affect us, right?” There’s anger, “You’re making me stay at home. I’m deprived of certain activities and comforts.” There’s bargaining, “Maybe if I social distance for a certain amount of time, tell me everything will be better. This is a nightmare and I’m going to wake up from it, right?” There’s sadness, “I don’t know when this will end.” And then there’s acceptance. So the acceptance piece is, “This is happening and I have to figure out how to proceed.”

So, I know as a business owner, lots of bargaining, lots of… certainly not denial, but I would say between bargaining and sadness about, “What’s going to be lost? And what’s going to change in what I had built? And what won’t exist anymore, or perhaps will exist in a different way?” And I mean, my whole team is going through this. Every business owner, if you all are business owners, we are having a unique pain right now, because so much of our ecosystem and our ability to bring in revenue is being impacted. And that is, if we have any expense structure besides ourselves, so if we’re more than… if we’re bigger than solo entrepreneurs, if we’ve decided to scale our teams. And perhaps if we’re breadwinners, which is true in my case. And I live in the most expensive city in the world, which doesn’t help.

It’s this catastrophic situation that we find ourselves in. And I hope this won’t be true for us at JBC, but there’s going to be mass extinction of small businesses and non-profits and advocacy organizations and conferences: conferences dedicated to the topics that we talk about so much on The Will to Change, conferences whose corporate funding dries up or their event was the one thing that they made all their money in, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So, this is a really sobering time for that community. And then I think for people who are employees who get a paycheck every two weeks, there is a stability to that right now. But that stability could change and so… right?

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right. There’s no guarantee in that either, yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, exactly. So, I think we are all effected in different ways right now. Same ways, different ways. And then when you think about hourly workers, you think about restaurants here in New York, everything is shuttered for what could be weeks. And the things that make the city vibrant, that the city is known for: the theater, restaurants, tourism, everything, it’s really… it can be very overwhelming.

So I found this article really centering and I could relate to a lot of the things in it. And I wanted to just share a couple things about it, Doug. I just wanted to highlight some aspects of it, which I think might be soothing to everybody here and maybe center us a bit, and have something to do with the grief, naming the grief, which is, this is a grieving process. We are in a grieving process for what was before, that we may never go back to. That just naming it is so empowering. And he says, “If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it,” and that’s how the article starts. So I was like, “I like this. I can name it and maybe I can manage it.”

DOUG FORESTA: So, say a little bit too about, what do you think is different? I mean, talking about naming, what do you think is different about the kind of grief that we’re experiencing now?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well he says, in addition to the ways we would normally grieve around the loss of normalcy, economic toll, loss of connection, we’re grieving collectively and so we’re not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way. And so, he names it as anticipatory grief. It’s a particular kind of grief we get when, what the future holds is, feels so uncertain.

And normally, this kind of grief might happen, perhaps the expected death of a loved one or a diagnosis or losing a parent, for example. But the anticipatory grief is also about these broadly-imagined futures, of a storm coming. And it’s confusing because our primitive mind knows something bad has happened, but we can’t see it and it breaks our sense of safety. So, we’re feeling the loss of safety. And he talks about how we collectively, we haven’t gone through this, per se, collectively. We’ve felt it individually in our lives, so it’s grieving on a micro- and a macro-level. So, just describing it that way.

And then, he points out the five stages and says, “These aren’t linear,” which I thought was also really powerful. So for me, it’s depending on the day, it depends on… I’m getting good news and bad news constantly. I’m finding that I can put grief at bay by being productive and creative right now. And also, finding solace and community. So Doug, you know I’ve been having daily calls at noon and saying, “Come one, come all.”

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And we’re getting this really interesting combination of people that come. And these are folks in organizational contexts, those employees I was talking about earlier, but they’re also business owners and consultants and authors who are launching books right now, if you can believe it. Please support your authors and any author you know right now who’s doing a launch; it’s an incredibly difficult time to do that.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: But I loved also that he said, “There’s a sixth stage of grief that actually…” he asked Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, or the family of Elisabeth actually, to write a book about, which is called Finding the Meaning of Grief. And then, The Sixth Stage of Grief. And he’s defining that as meaning and I loved that. And for me, if I can sit in acceptance, which is one of the five stages, the meaning piece is coming through very strongly. And for me, that’s taken the shape of focusing on being in the flow, being present; a lot of surrender; a lot of giving up attachment.

So for me, that means, what did we do in the past? What did we sell in the past? What did people want in the past from us? Not knowing what they may want and need, in terms of our support as a small business in the future. And being okay with not having those answers, which I think is really hard for Americans. We had some Italians join us on our community call on Monday and they said, “Oh, we’re feeling for America.”

This is a real cultural difference, that I think that whether it’s the social safety net, whether it’s community, whether it’s the different way that we interpret the achievement mindset and our own type-A-ness and perfectionism and competitiveness and individualism in our society. This is very humbling for us, that we need each other, that we can’t all build our own thing in parallel because whatever the market is, couldn’t sustain all of the thousand flowers blooming. And maybe it wasn’t even sustainable before this happened.

When we used to sit around in the LGBTQ community and look at all the non-profits that exist, if we were really being honest… One time we held this meeting and it just has always stuck with me. And we had all the heads of all of these groups in the room and we said, “We’re all competing for these dollars. Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Why are all competing for resources? Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Why are we doing this? And that was in flush times. And I remember when Empire State Pride Agenda literally shut its doors when marriage equality was won. And I thought to myself, it was startling at the time, I thought, “What do you mean they’re shutting their doors? They’re an institution. I’m on all their lists. I go to their dinners. You just cease to exist when something is accomplished?” I just thought that was so interesting. And as a business owner, I thought, “What does this mean for me? Is there a point when we should sunset a business and move into something else?” I was very curious. So I think that consolidation piece.

Now we’re being forced to do things that we are all probably thinking to ourselves, “We needed to do this before, we knew that we needed to. We didn’t take our medicine. We didn’t trim the fat. We didn’t become ruthlessly efficient when we could have, we had the technology.” Or we were just lazy about people getting on planes and coming to our conferences and paying a lot for dinners. And it was so, what’s the word? Decadent? Are we going to-

DOUG FORESTA: It does seem that way now, in hindsight, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And maybe that’s a harsh word, but thinking about what’s going to become more accessible for people after this is done, particularly when it comes to diverse talent, which is what we focus on so much on The Will to Change, that’s what’s giving me life right now. Thinking about, who’s going to have the opportunity for the first time not to have to code switch every day in the physical workplace? Who’s going to have the opportunity to be heard as a voice on the phone and be judged for just their work output, instead of being judged for our visible diversity and all that that triggers in others?

And the microaggressions that we have to deal with every single day. And the hiding of our true lives and our true selves and our true families and our true lives that we’re living, behind the smokescreen of the physical workplace. Imagine if all that has… we have an opportunity to drop all of that and really be real with each other. I mean, and that’s harder for some of us than others, because bias isn’t just going away during this pandemic, it’s still with us.

And so, on my community calls, I see a lot of people not turning on their videos and it’s interesting. I wonder if people’s employers are saying, “Video, video, video. You have to show your face. We need that for community engagement and team productivity or whatever.” But showing ourselves comes with risk for some of us.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. It’s not always in everyone’s best interest, right, to turn on that video? There’s so much that goes into that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. So much. And I know that we can laugh about it and say, “Oh, we’re going to get used to seeing each other with dirty hair and in sweats and kids crawling all over us.”

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. The one I’ve heard is like, “We’re all going to get to know each other’s real hair color.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, exactly. Yeah. But I just want to acknowledge, for some of us this carries a lot more risk because we didn’t feel we could bring our full selves to work even before this happened. And so, I just wonder, I want some sympathy/empathy. I want greater transparency. I want those of us who… I want an acknowledgement that being real and not being able to hide your life is going to be harder for some of us because of the stigma that comes along with who we really are.

And then I want to also, on the flip side, I want to celebrate what might be different and better for some of us if this new way of working continues, which I have to say, I believe companies are companies, right? They’re going to look at this new world of working. They’re going to see that, I think, diverse teams are actually probably incredibly productive.

I know for me, I’ve only known running a diverse team. We’ve never had office at JBC. When clients come to town they say, “Oh, Jennifer, can we meet you and your team in your offices? Just let us know where to come.” And I’m like, “That’s not happening.” Mainly because I’m like, “I don’t want to get dressed up to meet you when I can… we could get the same amount done over the phone.” And I’ve always known this and I’ve been able to attract amazing talent to my team, I think because that wasn’t a factor. I was just able to say, “Hey, if you’re a voice on the phone and you’re a good communicator in a virtual environment, that is what we need. That’s what we’ve always needed at the company.”

And so, we’ve been able to really broaden the net around who we can attract. And this is one of the things that’s going to happen when we don’t need to… If I’m in Silicon Valley, 2% of the population in Silicon Valley is black, for example. So if I say I can only recruit from a talent pool that can physically come into an office, look at the limitation of that, that doesn’t reflect the world. Look at how expensive it is to live in certain urban places that… which literally screens out so many people. And then the commute time and the expense of that, the-

DOUG FORESTA: Right, I can’t afford to live in the neighborhood-

JENNIFER BROWN: Literally.

DOUG FORESTA: … where I’m going to be working. So, I mean, one of the things that I hear you saying in that, that could really accelerate for inclusion is virtual workspaces might include more people. Would that be fair to say?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, think about relocating to a town that has no people in it that look like you. So, you talk about difficult.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, why would I want to do that?

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re literally uprooting your life. You’re moving to Arkansas or something and you lack services, community, at work and also outside of work. And that prevents, I think, a lot of companies from diversifying in a really real way. And so, if that’s relaxed and changed and we see that whole process through a different lens, we’re going to be able to address, I think, that workforce diversity piece in a really real way, if we do the right thing with this opportunity, right?

I’m loving this question, Doug, that I’m sitting with: Why did this happen, not to me, but for me? Why did this happen for me?

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question.

JENNIFER BROWN: Why did this happen for us? I just, I love that. And so, we didn’t want to take the steps that were available to us, but nobody was breathing down our neck to do them. And I think business is always slow, I mean, it’s sort of famous for being… It’s like the giant ocean liner where you turn the… you spin the wheel as you steer it and 20 minutes later, the liner starts to slowly move. We can’t move slowly anymore. We have to move quickly in order to even just keep our talent productive in this new configuration, let alone engender a feeling of belonging. This is a lens we have to have on these changes that we’re making and these decisions we’re making.

So yeah, I wanted to also bring up some points about what’s happening for people with disabilities in the workforce right now. So, 19% of those with self-identified disabilities are employed right now, 19% percent, and that is a… There are so many barriers. The commute is a huge barrier with people, for people with some kinds of disabilities. So, you eradicate the commute, you up your inclusion of people with disabilities in your workplace. You have flex, you enable people, caregivers, to give care. And that applies for women and men as well, particularly women, 6 in 10 caregivers are women and that’s… As the population ages, is that just going to increase?

So, the balancing of our lives, we’ve all known this forever, but the ability to balance our lives is going to be enhanced by what’s happening right now. The home environment for people with disabilities is already designed for our needs. So, not having to look at the workplace to retrofit that workplace, if the commute is possible and it’s just tremendously onerous, but for those of us that can get in, how has the workplace truly built accommodations that work? Versus our home environment, which is set up for our success?

So, there’s so many of these kinds of benefits for women. If women are the disproportionate number of caregivers, and we can argue about why that should change and why that needs to change and all that, but let’s just sit with that reality for a moment. When we return to work, do we return in a reduced schedule? Do we return to service and support roles more often, in that past configuration? What could we return to now that that’s been more democratized?

And anyway, there’s just so many things to think about that are, “Why is this happening for us?” And the other question I’m asking now is, what could go right?

DOUG FORESTA: Yep, I love that one.

JENNIFER BROWN: What could go right? And so, I’m having these community calls, everybody is welcome to join me. I think I’m going to continue them into next week, which is already the week of March 30th. I know this is a snail’s pace, every day feels like a lifetime right now. So please join us at noon Eastern, and we’ll include the link in the show notes. But come, and I’ll be on camera.

I, as an extrovert, am very much thriving in this new reality, but I’m very interested in the introvert experience right now. Somebody on the chat yesterday said, I think this is introverts’ time to shine. And the isolation piece, it might work a little better for some of us right now. So, the diversity on our teams, there’s so much opportunity right now to check in with each other; to afford a lot of different kinds and ways and times to communicate with each other before, during, after meetings; to check in one-on-one; to be asking personal questions and inquiring and being curious about those.

So if you’re sitting in a place of comfort right now, I mean honestly, not having to balance my job with homeschooling my kids right now is a privilege, because I don’t have human children. So, I think that those of us who can make space for that because we have more bandwidth, we have more attention, we have more focus, we might have more quiet, we might have bigger apartments or houses where we can find quiet space. Any of those things, I think, have become a privilege. I think having a job right now is a privilege. I think-

DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right? We have to also really focus our philanthropic giving right now. If you’re in a place where you have a job, and even for those of us who are entrepreneurs, I think we’re still donating. We’re still digging deep. Even though we’re terrified about what’s going to happen to our businesses, we are still donating money. And so, I would implore those of us who have relative stability, think about the non-profits you support and focus on… dig deep, be extra generous and think about the direct… those that give direct care, like food and shelter.

And so we’ve been, I think, very… I think we’ve been privileged in terms of the nonprofits and support organizations that we support, which might have suited our needs. Famously, the LGBTQ community, I mean, we’re pretty honest about the fact that marriage equality was a battle fought by people with certain means and certain demographics, honestly. And yeah, yes it was important to fight for in the question… There were many people that, once marriage equality was won, said, “Okay, we’re done.”

Like I told the story earlier about Empire State Pride Agenda, “Okay, closing our doors now.” Or not wanting to close our doors, but not pivoting and not having paid attention to the most vulnerable in our community all along. The lens that we had on our needs versus everybody else’s needs in the LGBTQ community is heartbreaking. And to me, that’s what that showed, that we, as a movement, were only attending to the needs of a certain part of our community. And I think that all of that is being laid bare right now in a painful and true way that we will never be able to un-see.

And of course, some of us know that if we had always geared our strategies towards the most vulnerable amongst us, then all of us will benefit. If we start with that, then we will make a better world and we will have the discipline to build systems that attend to every link in the chain, and not just those of us who need a little leg up.

So I’m just really mindful of that right now too, to say, back to being a business owner, getting down to basics right now. Saying, “Who’s going to need what? What do I know how to do? How can I be of service?” Right now, it’s not about products and money and revenue, because I just don’t think we know what’s going to… who we are all going to need to be when we come through this.

But what I do think we can focus on is, like he says in the article, be present, pay attention right now, listen a lot, stay close to community, be of service and focus on the abundance we have. My friend said yesterday, “Look at my community, and the people I know is my abundance right now.” There is wisdom in that. There are opportunities in that. And we may not be able to articulate them right now, take off that American hat right now and say, “I don’t always have to do something with everything. I don’t have to know. I don’t have to be able to plan.” I think it’s just, focus on the meditation practice right now, the knowable world, the simple, the beautiful amongst us right now. That piece, I hope, will bring you all some peace.

And we’ll include this HBR article in the show notes. I bought a lot of books lately on surrender and I think that’s a word I’m sitting with a lot. And if I can surrender, then I can… If I can get in some kind of flow after surrender, then I can be really creative. I’m finding myself actually being very, very resourceful, very creative right now. Doing more with less. What can I produce? What can I get into every day that interests me, that educates me? What am I learning? How am I pivoting to be of service? Not pivoting as a business, because I don’t think we can do that quite yet, but pivoting to just, honestly hold some space for us as we learned through this.

So, I hope that’s helpful, Doug, and for everybody out there listening. We have some great guests coming up for next week. I think everyone is going to really, really love the people.

DOUG FORESTA: We do.

JENNIFER BROWN: We totally rejiggered the people that we’re inviting on the show.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So we’re going to focus on self care. We’re going to focus on futurists. We’re going to focus on… I think next week’s episode, correct me if I’m wrong, Doug, is Dave from the Center for Autism and Innovation. And we’re going to take a deep dive into neuro-diversity and the experience of neuro-diverse and neuro-typical people right now, and how we’re reacting to that and what we can learn from all of us right now. Because actually, it’s not what people think. Believe me, it’s not what we think. In fact, neuro-typicals may be struggling a heck of a lot more right now with what’s going on, and that’s just a little teaser.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. So yeah, we’ve got some really important and relevant episodes coming up, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much, Jennifer, this has been… I think what I take away from it is, it’s okay to feel the grief and to allow ourselves to go through it. And that we can get to a place, when we allow ourselves to do that, we can get to a place where we can ask ourselves those questions about, what could go right and why is this happening for us? But we have to allow ourselves to also, to feel and name that grief.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, exactly. Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.

USEFUL LINKS

That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief