That night, Reagan was every American’s president. I was in my early 20s, and I wasn’t a Reagan fan, but I hung on every word. I clipped a copy of “High Flight” from somewhere and pinned it up at my desk.
I didn’t know it until recently, but what Reagan was displaying was something called “grief leadership.” Psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein introduced me to the term when I interviewed him in June for a story about how to handle anger during the pandemic.
Anger, Morganstein said, is often a response to grief, and with the triple disasters of the pandemic, economic downturn and civil unrest, “there is more than enough grief to go around.” Grief leadership helps ease pain by communicating effectively, acknowledging grief has occurred, recognizing and honoring losses, and eventually, supporting those affected in finding meaning and beginning to move forward.
Critics have noted that President Trump — unlike Reagan or, more recently, George W. Bush after 9/11 or Barack Obama after the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Charleston, S.C. — has not taken on the mantle of mourner in chief. But such leadership doesn’t have to come from an elected official, noted Morganstein, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster.
“We’re not simply talking about one person in this country, that high person,” Morganstein said. Bosses, medical personnel, spiritual leaders, heads of community organizations, coaches or neighbors can fill the role. Morganstein added that leaders often emerge in times of crisis and disaster, exerting influence through their position or by virtue of their character.
“To the degree that those in positions of influence practice effective grief leadership,” he said, “this will support the well-being of our society. ”
The term “grief leadership” was coined by researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s neuropsychiatry department who were studying the aftermath of the December 1985 crash of a military transport jet in Gander, Newfoundland. The air disaster killed 248 members of the historic 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Ky., as well as the crew. It left the families, the surviving “Screaming Eagles,” Fort Campbell and the surrounding community reeling.
In that case, the team said in its report, exemplary leadership helped ease the stress of the grieving families and comrades. “Leaders who can express their sorrow, fear and sadness while continuing to function will provide a model for others to feel it acceptable to do the same,” the team wrote, adding that it hoped the lessons it had gleaned from the Gander crash would outline “consistent, appropriate responses in mass casualty situations.”
Though the report was aimed at the military community in the aftermath of an air disaster, the elements of grief leadership can be applied to any group of people and to any catastrophe. Susan Bartel, an associate professor of higher education leadership at Maryville University in St. Louis who has conducted research on the grief of individuals, thinks it’s a subject that needs to come up more. “Frankly, in all my years of teaching leadership courses, rarely, if ever, have I seen any discussion about leaders’ role in grief,” she said.
That’s a weakness, said David Kessler, who co-wrote two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who developed the concept of the five stages of dying and later adapted them with Kessler as the five stages of grief. “To miss grief,” he said, “is to miss a vital part of leadership.”
Why is consoling the grief-stricken such a tough job? Bartel thinks it’s because most people in our society, including leaders, are uncomfortable with sadness and pain. (As Kessler puts it, our society is “grief illiterate.”) Because we don’t know what to say, we often don’t say anything. “And that makes it worse for the people, because you can feel very isolated, uncared for,” Bartel said.
This discomfort is especially apparent at work, Bartel added. “The culture and the policies of most organizations reflect an attitude of buck up and deal, keep busy, don’t feel, just, you know, ignore it and keep going.”
And, unfortunately, the pandemic is only compounding America’s inadequacies in dealing with grief. “Part of the problem of this world right now is we’re all in grief,” said Kessler. “It’s like there’s so much grief to go around, we can’t even get out of our own to help people the way we normally would.”
But for those who have the wherewithal to put elements of grief leadership into practice, whether you consider yourself a leader or want to help console someone who has suffered a loss, Bartel and Kessler have some suggestions.
Acknowledge and name it. “First and foremost, we have to acknowledge the grief is there,” Bartel said. “Whether I am a coach, whether I’m a teacher, whether I am a supervisor of a food service, it doesn’t matter. I can acknowledge that this is hard.”
Kessler thinks it’s important to use the term “grief” to name all the losses people are suffering. “With this pandemic, we have big losses and little losses. I call them macro and micro,” he said. “We have everything from people dying all the way to proms being canceled and weddings being canceled and graduations being canceled.” But when it comes to those smaller losses, he said, “people don’t realize that discomfort they’re feeling is grief.”
Be there. “To me, when we talk about grief leadership, that’s telling the other person, ‘You’re not alone in what you’re going through. I don’t know what it’s like. It hasn’t happened to me. But I can be by your side,’ ” Kessler said.
Showing up is especially important during the pandemic, Kessler added, when grief is even more isolating. It can take any form: a phone call, FaceTime, a Zoom session, even taking a walk with someone.
In organizations, Bartel said, leaders should create a culture of openness and communication that tells those who have suffered a loss, “I’m available to you if you would like to talk about this.” By modeling this behavior, leaders encourage others to feel more comfortable reaching out. And though reaching out now may have to be done through technology, that might not be a bad thing, said Bartel. “It gives the person a chance to get composed or say, ‘I’m not ready,’ or whatever.”
What if the person you reach out to isn’t receptive? Don’t feel bad, Bartel said. “If you never reach out, then they never have an opportunity to feel cared about at a time like now. We need to feel care more than any other time in our history.”
Be vulnerable. Fox sportscaster Skip Bayless recently criticized Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for openly discussing his mental health challenges while occupying what Bayless calls “the ultimate leadership position in sports.” But that kind of vulnerability is important, Bartel said.
In the strongest organization, Bartel said, “the president or the leader of the group is able to be vulnerable him or herself. They are able to say, ‘This is really hard. I’m really sorry about this.’ ” And this, in turn, allows others to express vulnerability. She cites as an example faculty training at her college on the grief caused by the coronavirus, which was initiated by a staff member. “That was not an institutional mandate. It was one faculty member who said, ‘We need to talk about this.’ But she could not have done that if she felt like the institution would not have supported it.”
Help find meaning. When Kessler’s younger son died four years ago, he realized that acceptance, the fifth stage of grief in the original Kübler-Ross model, wasn’t enough. “I wanted to find more,” he said. “And that was meaning.” His experience led to his most recent book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”
Meaning can come in many forms, Kessler said: realizing the brevity of life and making the most of it; starting a foundation or charity; or, if it was a preventable death, trying to ensure others don’t die in the same way.
In March, when his book tour was interrupted by the pandemic, Kessler started hearing from people who had no way to share their grief in a quarantined world. So he started a Facebook group where people can talk about their loved ones. “Having our grief witnessed by another, having someone see our pain,” Kessler said, “that’s what creates meaning.”