Had the audience enthralled

CEO Tonkin Australia

All numbers seem impersonal, until they’re not. As I watch the numbers of Covid-19 cases fall in our country, and see them increase in others, I am grateful that I don’t live in those countries who have lost thousands of people. I am grateful that I no longer live in Madrid, a city which was home for five years, which has been one of the hardest hit.

A few weeks ago on a Monday, I was chatting with my colleague about the numbers in his home country of Scotland. He said that his brother had had Covid-19, but was recovering well. On Thursday of that week, he announced a little pale-faced with no explanation that he would be working from home the next day. When I returned to work on Monday, it was to the news that his mum had contracted coronavirus and had died within three days. As he was reeling from his mum’s death, the news came that his Dad had also tested positive, and just two weeks later, his dad also passed. Unable to return home due to lockdown, he has to manage his grief here, on the other side of the world, apart from his family. He has taken several weeks off work, and when he popped in to the office a few days ago, he looked dishevelled, sleep deprived and desperate.

Suddenly, the numbers are personal. Suddenly, it is not an objective conversation, but the sickening feeling of loss and grief for my colleague. Now, because I know someone directly affected, I can put myself in his shoes – what if that were my parents? What if I was on the other side of the world and I couldn’t get home? What if someone I love dies from Covid-19?

While we may not have all been impacted by the death of a loved one from Covid here in Australia, we are all facing loss to some degree – loss of employment, loss of financial security, loss of freedom, loss of purpose to name a few. The security we thought we had was threatened or taken away overnight. We were prevented from doing the things that define us – lattes and long commutes, breakfast by the beach, sport and sunbaking, feasts with the family. We were forced to confront our shadows, and ask bigger questions of identity and purpose. The world as we knew it has changed, and we are grieving that loss both individually and collectively.

Everyone knows someone who has been affected – from the local café with excellent coffee which shut, to our spouse who lost their jobs, to those who have lost loved ones and were not allowed to grieve for them in numbers greater than ten. Those who had thriving businesses which have collapsed, those who cannot pay their rent, those families who have struggled through the stress of home-schooling, those migrant workers, international students and artists who do not qualify for Job Keeper payments. We need to acknowledge this narrative of grief that has touched the nation in 2020.

A friend told me last week that she wept when she walked through the deserted CBD during lockdown, at the numbers of small businesses, cafes and service providers which have closed and may never recover. She told me the story of a single lady on her team who lived by herself, and in the middle of lockdown, confessed on a Zoom meeting that she had not been touched by another human in six weeks. Her loneliness and lack of physical touch are causing her deep grief.

Many of us did not know what to do with these feelings of grief, fear and uncertainty when they sprang at us unexpectedly. And so we fought over toilet paper, and bought pasta and rice, hoping that would be enough to protect us from this invisible enemy.

Although things are gradually returning to “normal” again, and we can find toilet paper when we need it, we will miss an opportunity to support those in our teams if we do not acknowledge the loss so many have faced in this time, and the grief which comes with it.

What can we do then to help those around us?
1.Stand with those who are grieving
Acknowledge grief in our workplaces and stand with those who are grieving without trying to give answers or solutions.

2.Acknowledge that for each person, grief is different.
For one person, not being able to go to the gym is a welcome relief, and an excuse to stay home in their trackies. For another, the gym might be the place where they find their centre, and their commitment to staying fit is of the highest priority. For someone else, it’s not just the gym itself, but the chat they have with the receptionist on the way in, and the banter with the barrister next door as they grab a coffee on their way out, which may be the only things which stand between them and a great void of secret loneliness.

3.Don’t try and compare grief.
I must acknowledge that my seven year-old daughter’s grief over not seeing her friends at school and playing games in the playground, is just as valid as the grief I feel over the loss of an income in our household, or the loss of momentum in my business.

4.Understand that grief presents itself in different ways.
In children, it can often present as anger and tantrums or silent withdrawal. In adults we may notice that our colleagues are more vague than usual, and unable to make decisions quickly, or are more snappy. In ourselves, in the quietness of our bedrooms away from the zoom calls and home-schooling madness, we become teary, exhausted, unable to complete simple tasks or prioritise.

5.Ask ourselves if we can lead our teams out of grief to greater sense of purpose.
When we acknowledge our grief, and allow ourselves and those around us to grieve, we can gain a new perspective. We are able to empathise more with others, and identify with their suffering. When we see a homeless person on the street, we realise that instead of being a hundred steps away, it could have been us who lost our home. We remember that there was a time when we were out of work, when we couldn’t care for our children in the way we wanted. There was a time when we saw the fear in our partner’s eyes, and didn’t know what we would do.

Like beauty from ashes, our pain makes us resilient. It can also make us kind as we give out of our own pain. It can make us grateful. Grateful for the food on our plates, for our families who we missed even though they drive us crazy, and for our kids who we hold extra tight and kiss their noses as they sleep. It makes us grateful for fresh air, exercise and sun, the commute to work, to be around people. It makes us grateful for that job we managed to keep.

And so, as we begin to emerge from lockdown here in Australia, what if it were as a butterfly from a cocoon – changed to be sure, but more beautiful in the process? What if from our grief, beauty emerged, and we were able to become more resilient, kind and grateful people with restored purpose and humanity? What if we asked ourselves “what is the world we want to create?” and then we set about creating it?

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