Leading through grief

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Melissa Dombrock, 76th Airlift Squadron commander
  • 76th Airlift Squadron

“Why am I so sad today?” a leader remarked in the middle of a meeting.  We were discussing the updated pandemic restrictions, how to lead in this challenging environment and how to instill some hope.  His comment reflected a common emotion; this feeling of sadness and hopelessness, despite that everything seemed fine.

There is grief.  It is heavy.  Grief for racial injustices, grief for misunderstandings in our society and the world, grief for political churn, grief for global turmoil and conflicts, grief for the loss of “normal life” due to the pandemic, and especially grief for the acute personal losses of family members and friends felt by so many.  How do we lead when we, ourselves, are grieving?  What if it is challenging to remain full of hope?  Even if you have not personally experienced loss, you definitely know someone who has, and you are likely grieving in other ways about bigger changes in our world over the past year. 

I recently experienced significant grief.  Six months into squadron command, on Dec. 3, 2020, a fellow Airman and friend took his own life.  I dissolved into a puddle of tears.  My emotional bucket was tipped.  I felt shock, loss, sadness and anger.  He and I were close because we are both probably “too caring.”  He was always smiling and asking people how they really are doing.  He was the heart of that team.  I was mad at him because he was always lifting others up.  I had so many questions.  Why didn’t he reach out or why couldn’t we save him?   What had I missed?  I then had a thought: how many of us are going through grief with all the darkness in the world right now and NOT talking about it? 

In order to lead through grief, we must be able to find the emotional, mental and spiritual strength to overcome what is uncomfortable and be willing to open up.  Choose to be vulnerable.  Brave leaders are real about whatever they are going through, but also, they see the positive and can be hopeful.  When you are personally grieving, or holding onto the burden of support for others, it is important to take time for yourself; be confident that the vulnerability of sharing your grief will make you stronger.  I still feel this loss immensely.  I spent the last two months attempting to process grief and translate it into ACTION I can take as a leader; I keep thinking I must truly connect with every single Airman and in every interaction.  All of us are responsible for the culture of our organizations.  Do you show up with a smile?  Do you strive to find the positive?  Are you fostering safe spaces for conversations?  Being available, present and effectively communicating are trademarks of genuine leadership at any level.  But how? 

In my experience, it helps to strive for authentic leadership and be willing to personally connect. One way I open up is via virtual “broadcasts.”  I am able to say thank you, give kudos, address hot topics, and re-iterate my support.  It is certainly not perfect.  Most of the time I make a mistake or realize I look goofy, but, it is me.  In the absence of being able to gather in large groups, this is something that works.  As leaders, we must be true to ourselves and share who we are.  The day after we lost our fellow Airman to suicide, I recorded a broadcast.  It was important, because the squadron needed to know that I was not ok, and I needed to remind them that I am always here for every single one of them, no matter what is going on, and no matter how dark life might seem.  In the days that followed, some folks reached out to check on me and we had supportive, healing discussions, reminding me of the importance of meaningful connection. 

Another way to connect is “eyeball-to-eyeball” checks via individual or small-group sessions.  I try to do this as much as possible, and encourage other leaders to do the same.  You can stand six feet away, with a mask on, and still have an engaging conversation, or you can create a virtual space to do the same.   If you are not sure how to start, check out our USAFE-AFAFRICA’s GRIT initiative (www.usafe.af.mil/GRIT).  In the toolkit, there are topics outlined for each month, with commentary to help guide you.  Sometimes, GRIT is what breaks the ice, allowing us to open up what we really need to talk about beneath the surface.  Here are few tips for authentic and active engagement:

  1. Create a safe space for conversation.  Find a time, make a plan, encourage participation.  If you are able to physically-distance and follow current rules, then meet in person.  If not, then use a platform: Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx, FaceTime, Signal video, Google teams meetup; the list goes on for virtual options.
  2. Prepare yourself.  Take a look at GRIT resources, do some self-reflection: are you ready to share how you are really doing and be vulnerable?  How do you lift yourself up when you are sad?  We are all COVID weary and grieving at some level; how are you processing it and remaining hopeful?  You must personally be open in order to connect.
  3. Break the ice.  Open the conversation with, “I’m looking forward to hearing your story” and “I’m willing to share my experiences too.”
  4. Be present and actively listen.  Asking “how are you” is not enough.  Be honest and say “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling, but I’m here for you” or “I need to learn more about your perspective” or “how can I help and what can I do to support you?”  

We must create safe spaces to foster openness, actively listen to one another, address differences, cultivate mutual respect and express empathy for what others are going through.  Every day, I strive to be courageous and authentic.  I am going through grief and carrying grief intimately felt by others.  Nothing can explain the impact of unexpectedly losing a beloved friend and teammate.  It left me with a hole in my heart.  I can only strive to patch it up by actively engaging with others.  I honor his memory and carry forward that we all have a story to share, and we all need support.  We must recognize our own grief and in the Airman we lead.  We cannot retreat from how we are affected by events- may they be personal, professional, political, racial, global or otherwise.  We can choose to lead in a way that is true to ourselves and expressive of strength, hope and positivity, while also being very real about our own challenges, even in seasons of grief. 

I dedicate this commentary to the loving memory of my friend and fellow Airman, Darius McLin.  May you all read this and be inspired to be there for each other in times of joy and grief…and be authentic and brave leaders in every way.