It's Hard For People
Grief is one of those uncomfortable topics that most of us would rather avoid. It’s unpleasant, and it brings up feelings of loss, sadness, uncertainty, even fear. But as the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross applied to change management has shown us, understanding grief is an important part of any change or transition.
Not everyone grieves in the same way, at the same speed, or for the same reasons. Pre-grievers grieve in anticipation of the loss. Post-grievers grieve after the loss has taken place. Some grievers grieve out loud with shouts and bursts of emotion; some grievers grieve in isolation with silent tears.
Funerals are one of those places where grief is to be expected. People cry at funerals because they have experienced loss. And some churches take special care to put tissues in easy reach of every seat at a funeral, to allow anyone whose emotion is streaming down their cheeks to feel that emotion, to know that it’s okay.
So what about the grief people feel during a change or transition? If a beloved team member has moved away, there may be patience as those who worked closest with them grieve. But when the loss we are grieving is less tangible, less obvious, less clearly on the "list of approved reasons to grieve", those around us can get unsure, uncomfortable, even impatient.
During a period of change or transition, it’s important to note that every single person impacted by the loss will experience some sort of emotional response to that loss (look for signs of fear, grief, or anger).
- One person may be shedding that old hymnbook with the same joy they have when they shed a few unwanted pounds they’ve been carrying around
- One person may have quickly considered the tactical implications, gotten momentarily annoyed at the inconvenience of learning a new habit, and already run forward to embrace the new Wednesday Night lineup
- One person may have equated this transition to a new, blended service – with some folks on-line and some in person – to the evidence that there are members of the congregation they simply won’t get to see anymore.
- One person may have had an emotional attachment to an object, a paint color, or a particular tangible thing within the church that was as strong as if it was indeed a person who was being moved or removed.
Here’s what we know for sure. More than any platitudes or trite words, when someone is experiencing - however deep or for however long – a sense of grief, what they need is for someone to sit alongside them in their grief. I don’t need you to tell me how to feel or what to do. I don’t need you to find the right words to say. I just need you to sit next to me, and offer me a tissue while I grieve.
Certainly, when someone says “I’m hurting from this”, we wouldn’t respond with “No you’re not!” In the same way, pushing someone forward through a transition without giving them the chance to name and mourn the thing they are losing is like saying “it doesn’t hurt, you're fine.” That’s neither kind nor productive.
In a period of transition, especially if we’re in this together, the most helpful thing we can do is go out of our way to understand how other people are feeling, and if their feelings are of grief, to let them know that we are here to support them in any way we can. Here are some steps forward to get you started:
- Not sure why this person is so worked up about the upcoming change? Ask them.
- Not convinced that their reason for grieving aligns with why you would grieve? So what? Love them. You don’t have to feel what they feel to demonstrate that you care.
- Not sure what the right words are for this moment? You’re in good company. Many of us struggle to find the right words. Instead of words, try silence.
- Not clear on why the person in front of you is still sad, after all this time? Ask them, and really, really listen to their answer.
- Not sure how long this grieving thing will go on? Sit tight, it’s going to be longer than you think.
In an organizational change-in any change really-the grief period will begin with the earliest tear of the earliest pre-griever, and ends with the last tear of the last post-griever. That doesn’t mean that everyone will be sad the whole time, but that does mean that during the entire transition, we need to be diligent about understanding and empathizing where others are coming from.
For those coming from a Christian perspective, such as those handling transition in a church, we have the assurance of an unchanging God, and the promise of a hope and a future that He has planned. Yet, even with those truths, we also have moments that we know will be sad – and each will be sad in their own way, in their own time. For those moments, we have the model of John 11:35, where Jesus wept alongside those who were grieving as an example to follow of empathy and compassion.
What about you? How do you help those around you work through transition? What can you do even better?
If you're looking for tools and tips to help your church through change, check out Transitioning Well: Best Practices for Churches, Pastors, and Ministry Leaders.