Grieving for the Old Normal

Grieving for the Old Normal

By now, you may be rather tired of hearing about the new normal. The new normal is the term used to describe what life and work is like and will be like in the intra- and post-pandemic world.

You can probably just about remember what life was like before the lockdowns began, especially when you see television reruns or movies made beforehand; but you’ve been so preoccupied with how to deal with the unfamiliar circumstances in which you now find ourselves, that it seems like a luxury to allow yourself to reminisce in that way. In any case, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. It has a way of hiding the hardships that you felt at the time and making the ‘good times’ seem better than they were.

There is something else that’s going on, however, that few people seem to be aware of. It’s the grief they’re experiencing from the loss of the old normal. We’ve all become so busy trying to cope with the new one that we haven’t given ourselves the time or emotional space to grieve the loss of the old one. We still feel completely overwhelmed by it all. The goal in the morning is to make it to the evening, and the goal in the evening is to make it until the morning.

Life used to be simple. Millions of people commuted to work, often cheek-by-jowl on buses and trains, and spent hours in their cars traveling to meetings, visiting clients, or just going to the office. We shopped together, spent weekends and holidays together, and participated in all manner of extracurricular activities . . . together.

In a matter of weeks, all of that came to a halt. No one had time to adjust to the full effects of the lockdowns, nor did they understand what it would do to them as a result.

Only after many months of uncertainty are the effects of the restrictions starting to emerge.


Perhaps you feel that you’ve been unaffected by all of this. If so, then it simply means that you’re among the 70% or so of people who haven’t experienced the severe psychological problems that the other 30% have. When you’re in a majority that outnumbers the minority by two-to-one, it’s easy to assume that the minority doesn’t exist at all. But it does. And in all probability, those ratios are found in your workforce.

There’s more than that going on, however. Everyone is going through a grieving process to one extent or another, and that includes you.

To understand better what this means for you as a leader or manager, it’s essential remember what the grieving process looks like. You see, if you’ve never been through it, then you’re probably experiencing feelings now that you’ve never had before. These may be a combination of fear, guilt, anxiety, anger, and sadness, and all at the same time.


The Grieving Process

The Grieving Process is a psychological and emotional journey through loss; the loss of what was. The loss can be sudden or expected, though you’re never ready for it when it happens. It can be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of a way of life. But loss is personal, and each of us reacts to that loss differently.

For as long as most of us can remember, expressions of grief in British society have been considered to be signs of personal weakness. We’ve all been taught to “keep calm, and carry on.” This approach isn’t helpful. People need to be allowed to grieve, and that includes crying, even in public.

Grieving allows people to “breathe out” the huge sense of loss that they have had, and it’s wrong for any of us to expect them to hold it in just because it embarrasses us. If we’re uncomfortable with it, then it’s our problem; not theirs.


There are five distinct phases in the grieving process. Not everyone will go through all of them or experience them to the same degree. Even the length of time spent in each phase will differ from person to person.

Some people will grieve for a matter of days or weeks; others for months or even years. It’s impossible to predict how long the process will take for any one person. That means that if you cope with loss better than someone else, that you should not hold them to your standard.

Not only that, but these phases aren’t sequential necessarily. Some people may seem to be in a later phase, and then revert back to an earlier one. And there are those who will get stuck and never seem to recover.

It’s vital that you bear all this in mind when you think about your workforce.


Phase 1 - Denial

In the face of any loss, the natural response is to deny that it’s occurring. You may even hear yourself say that “this can’t be happening.” The loss can be so great as to seem impossible.

How could your life change so dramatically and so quickly?

Feelings can be surreal because nothing seems real. It’s like having a bad dream that’s incredibly vivid. You think that you’ll wake up from it at any moment and then wonder why you don’t.

Because so much of your life was wrapped up in what you lost, life itself can become meaningless to you. That means that your work seems meaningless, too. You may feel that nothing you do matters anymore because you’ve lost the one thing that did.


Phase 2 - Anger

Anger is common in the grieving process, and it’s different from any anger that you’re likely to have experienced before. It comes from that feeling that there’s nothing you can do to change the situation. You’ve been overcome by events and you’re powerless to influence the outcome. And so you’re angry not just about the event, but also by your apparent inability to fix it.

This is especially true of men who have a predisposition to solve problems. When something catastrophic occurs such that the grieving process is initiated, they can feel that they aren’t being allowed to try; that their hands have been tied.

That, too, can generate a lot of anger.

Anger can be both internal and external. You may hate yourself, as well as your circumstances, but then take it out on inanimate objects, or even people that you love. Of course, this puts even more strain on relationships, whether at home or at work.


Phase 3 - If only

In the “if only” phase, you may question your past behavior - what you did or failed to do.

If only you had done X, then this wouldn’t have happened. It’s easy to blame yourself entirely, which adds to the guilt that you may already feel for what you have done and the regret for not acting sooner.

If-onlys will torment you. You can’t change the past and, as cold as that may sound. Instead, you have to somehow push past it. You have to recognize that you can’t undo what you’ve said or done, or failed to say or do.

If the loss hasn’t been caused by you - the pandemic, for instance - then this phase may affect you less, though you shouldn’t automatically assume that if someone you know was infected that it was because of you. You do yourself and those around you no favours by assuming unproven blame, nor is it helpful to blame others without the facts to support it.

In any case, it doesn’t matter.

If-onlys solve nothing.


Phase 4 - Deep sadness

Deep sadness can be symptomatic of depression, though to be properly diagnosed you need to seek the opinion of a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

Clinical depression can cause despair and can even make you feel numb to everything. If you’ve never had it, then you’ll never understand what it can do to you.

As a manager, you must avoid the temptation to tell people to just “pull up their socks” or to be “mentally tough.”

True depression is debilitating.

It’s possible, however, for those who are grieving to experience deep sadness without slipping into clinical depression. And while it’s not your job to try to distinguish between the two, it is worth remembering how similar they are.

Grieving will cause sadness, and some people will feel it much more acutely than others.


Phase 5 - Acceptance

This is the phase we hope everyone who grieves will reach.

At this stage, people aren’t happy, but they accept that what they once denied is in fact a reality that they will have to live with and, as a result, they are now able to engage in the normal activities of life that had eluded them earlier.

It’s likely that they will feel that calmness has returned to their lives. That doesn’t mean that they no longer feel the pain of loss; only that their thoughts about it don’t seem like as scab being ripped from an old wound. There’s scarring, but there’s healing.

Life goes on.


What does this mean for you as a leader or manager?

The first thing is that when significant loss is experienced, it’s normal for people to feel afraid. Their fear comes from the perception that all that they’ve known is at risk. Nothing is what it was because something central to their lives has changed. This is one reason why redundancy can be so devastating. It immediately raises the prospect of losing more than the job itself. For many, it’s a loss of identity, not to mention a place to live and the ability to feed themselves and their families.

In the workplace, people are afraid and take fewer risks. That doesn’t mean that when they’re happy, they’ll take risks that they had no business ever taking. Instead, it means that they will consolidate their resources and protect what they have at all costs. And when people act like that, they often make matters worse. Pessimism like that feeds on itself. Just think about how your strategic decisions change according to your view of economic trends.

In the workplace, if you reflect the fear that society feels and that the government promulgates, then you’ll perpetuate that pessimism.

People who feel safe will offer ideas, seek feedback and collaborate. Those who are frightened won’t do any of those things. This will make them ineffective at problem solving.


The second thing is that people may feel that they lost more than just the control of their lives; that they’ve lost control of their work, too.

There will be those who feel that they can better manage their workload from home, but that because they’re not in the office, that they can’t manage other things. This will cause them to be anxious and to worry. And that will mean that they can’t focus on their work the way they should or the way that they and you want them to. And because of the greater productivity that often comes with working from home, they may simply run out of things to do.

All of these things can generate and perpetuate negative emotions.


The third thing is that you have to give people the tools they need to become more resilient. Remember that 30% of your workforce will have suffered from severe psychological problems as a result of losing the old normal, and that means that, among other things, they don’t know how to cope with it. You have to help them to do so. The pre-pandemic and post-pandemic tools are different. If you fail to help them, then they’ll feel isolated, or even abandoned by you.


If you want your workforce to be productive in the new normal, then you have to minimize their fears, give them the tools to cope with the new normal, and give them space to grieve for the loss of the old.


Want to know more about grieving for the Old Normal? Contact me here

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