When Is “Strength” Not a Strength?
Author’s Note: Some of you have noticed that I haven’t blogged in months. Although I hate excuses—mine or anyone else’s—this post may help my readers understand.
My mother died in October after a summer-long illness. Her death came only a few weeks after my father-in-law had passed away suddenly. I thought I was handling everything quite well; I made the funeral arrangements, delivered the tribute at her memorial service and served as executor of her estate. For months I had been doing my best to keep my business running while going to the hospital or nursing home every day to ensure that my mother was well cared for. I wrote most of my blog posts and client reports in those sterile rooms, to the hum of my mother’s oxygen tank.
Even during the December holidays I was able to suck it up, shop, clean, cook dinners, entertain guests and play keyboards for several church musical events. I had quit writing anything; I was too tired, not interested and considered it a low priority. During this time I heard frequent comments from friends and colleagues along the lines of “You’re so strong” or “You’re the strongest person I know” or my favorite “You look great for all you’ve been through”. I wondered if they expected me to dress in black and wear no makeup. Unfortunately, their expectations fueled my desire to keep going and not disappoint them.
So it was quite a shock to buttoned-up and busy me when, after the holidays, the sneaky grief I had been holding back suddenly hit me during a remembrance service at church. At the end of the service I sat sobbing, unable to even get out of the pew, and upset that these strong emotions had hit me in a public place where I serve as a leader (Board chair). What would my team members think of this meltdown? After all, they were counting on me to help lead the way during a very difficult period for the church, a year in which 9 members had died. For the next few days I could barely get out of bed or pajamas.
Then a curious thing happened: I became energized and productive again, wanted to write and knew exactly what the topic of my next post would be. It had dawned on me during my grief meltdown that holding back that torrent of emotion in the interest of showing “strength” was not a strength at all. It also occurred to me that a lot of leaders in our organizations do exactly what I did, lest their followers perceive them as weak, ineffective or “too emotional”. The only thing any of us accomplishes by showing that kind of strength when we’re not feeling strong is for others to see us as “human doings”—going, going, busy, busy until we inevitably collapse in a heap as I did.
Most of our organizational policies and practices allow for a few days to a week of “acceptable” grieving for a loved one and then it’s back to business—or is it? Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, writes: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” A friend of mine whose sister and mother died a few years ago said that because we’ve come to expect instant everything in our world, people want and expect quick healing, whether from a physical illness or grief.
How many walking wounded are pretending to be OK as they go about their daily business? And how many grieving leaders keep it all inside so that their followers will admire their “strength”? Perhaps it’s time for us to treat both leaders and followers as human beings rather than human doings. I’m not suggesting that we lower our expectations about performance and productivity, or encourage people to indiscriminately spill their guts about personal issues, or return to a time when mourners wore black for a year. But maybe we need to allow for those waves of grief or sadness to wash over us occasionally so that we can regain our true strength. Sometimes a “fallow time”—or a pj day—can work wonders in restoring our energy and sense of purpose.