Grief – From the Desk of the Chief Happiness Officer

Ed wasn’t usually the “quiet one” on our team, but ever since his wife passed, we had seen a marked downturn in not only his demeanor but his performance, as well. Our supervisor wasn’t sure how to manage the situation. Unwilling to write him up for poor performance, and equally unwilling to crack open the emotional (and possibly legal) can of worms by trying to get involved. It wasn’t long before the performance on the team as a whole was suffering, and that led to a variety of additional frustration, resentment, and general “yuckiness” that nobody could figure their way through.

Grief isn’t usually in my professional wheelhouse. It is, however, something that directly impacts happiness, and as a radical positivity activist, I believe the way our society approaches grief while creating job security for people like me, is causing undue trauma to pretty much everyone, and that needs to stop.

And while grief may be triggered by something in our personal lives, I think most of us have finally acknowledged that the boundary between “personal life” and “work-life” is about as porous as cheesecloth, and we can’t turn a blind eye if we want to keep people engaged, focused, and if we’re being honest, productive. As the child of radical hippies – and yes, that’s twice I’ve used the word radical, no accident —my primary motivation isn’t in seeing marked improvement in financial performance, although I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to make a reasonable profit.

I am highly motivated by finding ways for people to live fuller, happier, more fulfilling lives at work, and NOT going home and kicking their dog (or their family), or keeling over from a heart attack or stroke prematurely. Good news for those who are focused on the financial metrics – your organizations will perform better on just about every metric when your people are happy. So before the cries of “Take this claptrap to FaceBook or Instagram!”, I want to point out that well-being, engagement, and happiness are intricately intertwined and have a direct, immediate, and lasting impact on your profits, too.  The ROI is actually breathtaking, my friends.

Back to grief. In case you haven’t noticed (and you’ve missed the HBR, Forbes, etc. articles about how we’re ALL impacted by grief right now, directly or indirectly), we’re all impacted by grief right now, and many of us have zero tools for dealing with it personally or as a support system for our friends, colleagues, customers, and so on.

I’ve been talking with some friends who have gone through recent losses, and we essentially realized that society expects us to take that age-old (garbage) advice, “Girl, go wash your face.” We’re taught (gender-agnostic) that grief should be something we deal within the 2 days of bereavement leave (if we’re lucky enough to have such a luxury…) AND only in the privacy of our home.  “Oh, how stoic” we exclaim as we watch someone pretend they’re not emotionally gutted.  We turn a blind eye to the very real experience of loss because it makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us that we, too, are vulnerable to loss, and that freaks us out.

Rather than acknowledge the experience of loss as part of the Human Condition and allowing the wound left in its wake to heal with care and gentleness and grace, we try to slap an air-tight cover on it, bottling up all the difficult, messy pieces, and instead of healing, we allow those emotions to fester and in the process, we almost guarantee permanent emotional scar tissue. We actively traumatize ourselves, and those around us, by engaging in this denial of grief, and then we wonder why our culture is so dysfunctional.

And in a world where everyone is on some level impacted by grief, whether it’s loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or simply loss of our imaginary secure lifestyles which have been replaced by chaos and uncertainty, this is part of bringing our authentic selves to work.

Whether you lead, live with, or love other people or you are a person yourself, this is something we need to get a grip on. I’m not saying we should wear black for 12 months or wail and gnash our teeth and rub ashes into our hair for months and months and months on end, but acknowledging the very real impact that grief has on us gives us an opportunity to recover in a far healthier, more holistic way, and in that process, find happiness as well.

Happiness is courage, and changing an entire social narrative around something so pervasive as how we deal with loss? That’s going to take some brave souls. Are you up for the challenge?


Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.

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  1. Experiencing a significant loss (such as the death of a special person, a love that goes away, a friendship that ends) leaves us helpless, with a great void inside. In that moment, we feel sadness, anger, fear and we experience constant emotional ups and downs; it is a state of suffering in which everyone lives their own personal process.
    Over the course of a lifetime, we often face losses. Overcoming a loss is a lesson that everyone should learn sooner or later. The problem arises when resistance is resisted instead of accepting that losses are part of life, that they are inevitable, that they are necessary steps to grow.

    • Aldo, this is so, so true. We’re going to have to deal with it eventually – how grand to do so from a place of self-awareness, rather than kicking, screaming, and panicking.

  2. Hi, Sarah.
    Love it, love it, love it.
    I had a sudden, devastating loss a few years ago. It literally knocked me on my tuchus. I have a good friend who was further along in the process after his own loss, and his advice was always the same: “It takes time.” Patience is part of the medicine.
    The one question I rapidly tired of was, “Are you keeping busy?” which was the opening line for too many phone calls. Argghhh!
    And you’re right – we’re all grieving right now. Here is one of my favorite quotes, from C. S. Lewis (A Grief Observed): “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”
    Let’s all cut each other, and ourselves, a little extra wiggle room for feelings that appear in odd, disconnected moments as our grief finds its way out.
    Be well.

    • AUGGGHHHHHhhhh that &$@(&$%& “busyness”. What a horrid thing we do to ourselves, and each other, when we insist we fill that space with ANYTHING but the breathing room to manage things in a nurturing way. Big hugs, my friend!

  3. I loved this piece and the package of the heartfelt wisdom and being an unapologetic truth teller dear Sarah!

    What you’re stipulating is simply the work some enlightnened servant leaders have already started a while ago. Fortunately, more and more similar kind-hearted individuals who paid the price of their transformation are joining the emerging wisdom era to re-write all the invasive narratives coming from the distorted global subconscious program full of the limiting beliefs installed by the narcissists and manipulators in the first place.

    Re-humanizing the households– caregivers who unconditionally love their kids instead of disconnecting them from their intrinsic worth and making them build biased centers and shields to protect themselves from their invasive “never enough” shame– is the starting point. This means character-disturbed abusive parents should not be granted the right to raise children. It is simply not possible for them to love. Their kids are nothing but an extension of them and a supply for their sick ego. So many psychological deep scars and mental health are created by the parents. The next step is re-humanizing schools again. I tried to explore this topic here: “What If We Could Re-humanize School Again?” de Myriam Ben Salem

    When the narratives are changed from our very young age; when the kids remain connected to the original great being and servant leader we all were at the moment of our conception; and when the empowerment is reinforced at school, it goes without saying showing vulnerability becomes the norm and a strength. Honoring all our feelings– especially those which are currently having a bad reputation and which we learned to suppress– becomes the way of living.

    So to answer your question my dear friend: I have already accepted the challenge and committed to it with all my being a while ago! I have you back 💙

  4. Good read here Sarah,
    Grief is something we can all relate to in one way or another.
    I’m quite at ease allowing others to grieve. It’s important. We can’t ignore it and belittle it.
    Acknowledgement alone is supportive. The whole idea of work being separate from life is malarkey! Always was. People have a hard time compartmentalizing and when we try to box separate parts.. we divide ourselves and our mental health suffers. The work place suffers. Everything suffers. If someone in any of my circles is suffering.. then approach and acknowledge. A little pow wow might generate the healing and that’s when you get to the bottom of the issue. Happy people are better contributors to the living. We all take turns. Compassion, empathy, leadership? If they demand this in the work place..then they pretty well better practice it too.
    There’s my take today Sarah.. got me in the mood to express this. Thank you for that!

    • OOoooo Paula, I really like that nugget. Practicing what we preach is always valuable, and I think in this space, especially, people WILL NOT change until they see a viable path for their own careers as empathetic, compassionate leaders. Until then, we get the same old same old, and THAT is not fabulous. Thank you!