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How To Grieve Like a Boss: A Coping Guide for School Leaders

You’re alone in your office. Amidst students in a buzzing hallway.  Serving as a ref for the four square game on the yard.  Hosting a parent meeting.  You’re the school principal – you could be anywhere on campus doing anything when it hits you.  Brought on by a thought, a familiar smell, a gentle reminder. That unmistakable wave of emotion. 

Grief.  It can find you in the least convenient times.  You put it away and tell yourself, not now.  You’re supposed to be in charge. 

School leaders devote so much of their time to supporting and serving others, it can be overwhelming when we, ourselves, need. . . well, anything. There’s a sense of guilt that accompanies even taking a short break.

If you find yourself in the throes of grieving while at work, knowing healthy strategies to handle it can help you to better cope and lead through it.

Be Transparent

My grandmother died suddenly while I was on my honeymoon.  She was aging, but not sick or weak (she was dancing at my wedding!), so it was very unexpected.  When I returned to work, I didn’t know how to act. Happy about my recent nuptials? Or sad about losing someone I love?

Did people know?  Did those who did know spread the word?  What was I supposed to say when colleagues asked me about my wedding or honeymoon?  Should I mention my grandmother’s death or just focus on the positive?  

Having had almost no prior experience with losing close family members or loved ones, I didn’t know the answers to these questions.  

What I wish I would have done is told people I work with before I returned. Getting this knowledge directly from me would have allowed them to respond appropriately. It also would have possibly avoided any awkward conversations that triggered my sadness. Most people have felt the loss of a loved one at one time or another and can empathize.

Transparency builds trust.

When you are upfront and clear with teachers and staff, they can better understand your actions and decisions. They can relate to you and even support you.

Be Okay With Vulnerability

When I received the news that I lost my youngest brother tragically, I was sitting at my desk.  The dismissal bell rang just then and all I could do was sit there alone and cry until the parking lot emptied so I could hurry to my car and leave.

You’re never prepared to experience something devastating. This time, I was transparent about my loss. Even if I hadn’t been, for many weeks to follow it was clear that something was going on in my life. I found myself tearing up throughout the day or needing to excuse myself from a conversation, or even from a meeting I was in. Just to breathe and regroup.

Months later I was presenting to school leaders in my district and mentioned something about speaking at my brother’s funeral, only to find myself choking up in front of everyone. It surprised me. I wasn’t expecting grief to show up like that.

The thing about grief is that it is not linear.

It’s not a box to check or season to get through and put behind you. It sometimes shows up when you least expect it. It remembers birthdays and anniversaries too, making those days especially more difficult to focus at work. As a friend of mine, who also lost his brother, wisely put it, “It doesn’t ever go away, you just get more used to it.”

When school leaders are okay with showing emotion or being a little unpolished, it allows for empathy, connection, and safety to be cultivated.

School leaders are the conscience of the campus. We have the influence to create the weather in our buildings and if we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable, then how can we expect teachers or students to do the same? It takes vulnerability to take risks in the classroom and to feel safe and seen. When school leaders are okay with showing emotion or being a little unpolished, it allows for empathy, connection, and safety to be cultivated.

Choking up in front of my colleagues was a perfect example of this. After that meeting several people reached out to me and I learned that three other principals lost their siblings as well. It’s not the kind of connection I desire, but it’s comforting to know this and relate to people that I work with on a deeper level.

Recognize It As Grief

Self-Awareness is a key component of Emotional Intelligence, which is critical to being an effective school principal. When emotions can be recognized as grief, it’s easier to understand the best way to move through them.

Grief often gets pigeon-holed as the realm of emotions that surround death. While the deep sorrow that defines grief is usually caused by the death of someone to whom we’re attached, other loss can cause grief as well.

You may grieve the loss of a pet, or the break-up of a serious relationship or divorce. The home you raised your children in, friends or family who move away, receiving a diagnosis. There may be circumstances that you prefer not to openly acknowledge with staff and colleagues and this is when it’s best to simply seek connection.

  • Get into the classrooms and connect with students
  • Eat lunch in the staff room for a day or two,
  • Linger in the hallway conversation a few minutes longer.

Grief coupled with isolation will not serve you or your school community.

Collective Grief

In addition to mourning death and other personal loss, we experience and manage collective grief with our school communities, and find ways to support the navigation of difficult emotions.

Whether it’s the sudden death of a beloved hero and sports icon like Kobe Bryant, or the unjust killing of innocent people like Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, our schools are not immune to the collective grief that ripples through communities.

Mass shootings, violent political acts, dehumanizing immigration policies all create stress and fear as well. When there is loss, tragedy, and injustice in the news, students bring in their own emotions and perspectives. They seek to be understood and they want permission to feel.

School leaders are beacons, guiding teachers and staff to lean on us, and each other, while modeling courage and strength through grief and uncertainty.

Wherever you find yourself in the grief cycle, give yourself a break. Grieving at work is a tremendous opportunity to practice self-compassion. Allow yourself to loosen the grip of control a little and let the wave wash over. It might be difficult for a while, but as you learn to live with grief, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and others.

Jenay Enna

Jenay Enna

The goal of The Principal Support is to create and curate resources to help principals and school leaders dial in your work flow and empower your teams so you can accomplish big goals and leave your leadership legacy.

This is where we, as leaders, improve our collective capacity to do great work because, as the saying goes, better leaders make better schools!

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