The Ethics of Grief

What to doand what to avoidwhen you or a person you care about has lost someone dear

Recently my father succumbed to an eight-year battle with a rare form of dementia. Normally, I don't like to discuss my personal life in my work, but after living through this painful experience, I have some insights that may be useful to you when you find yourself dealing with the loss of a loved one, or when a co-worker or friend is going through such an ordeal.

If you have lost someone:

1. Be kind to yourself. In our overcaffeinated world, where communication is instantaneous, news and entertainment can be had at the click of a mouse, and the pressure to produce is greater than ever, it is especially hard to get off the treadmill and slow down. Yet this is just what is needed to heal the pain. "Time is the greatest healer" is a cliché for a reason: It is true.

2. It's OK if you don't want to talk. You may be used to putting others' needs ahead of your own. It may be your nature to be social. But now is the time to think of yourself, first and foremost, and if this means temporarily retreating from the world, not answering the phone, and not chatting even with those in your innermost circle, there is nothing wrong with that. All you have to do is let others know that you're not up for socializing. The rest is up to them.

3. But it's good to talk. If ever there was a time to meet with a therapist, it is now. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, just the opposite is true: It is foolish to think you can go it alone through one of the most traumatic experiences a person can have. Don't wait to make an appointment with someone right for you.

4. "Closure" doesn't exist. You can close a deal. You can close a door. But you can't put an end to the sorrow that accompanies personal loss. We never get "over" the death of a spouse, family member, close friend, or co-worker. The lingering sadness is a way of honoring what that person still means to us. We can and should, however, find a way to manage the pain and go on with our lives. The person we have lost would want that for us, just as we would want it for them.

5. Cut people some slack. You may find, as I did, that some of your colleagues and friends will say or do things that strike you as cold, callous, or insensitive. You may get an e-mail of condolence from someone you wished had picked up the phone or visited. You may want to talk about what you're going through with someone who, for whatever reason, can't deal with it. Now is the time to be gentle with those who express their sympathy in an awkward fashion.

Your loss reminds others of their own mortality, and this is simply too much for some to bear. It is true that a friend should put his or her own feelings aside and focus on your needs at the moment. It is equally true, however, that as their friend, you should understand their discomfort and not expect them to behave as you might.

By the same token, I am reminded of something Jim Bakker told a reporter who asked him if he had lost friends after his own tribulations. "I didn’t lose any friends," Bakker responded. "I found out who my real friends were."

If someone you care about has lost someone:

1. Do something rather than nothing. You may want to leave the person alone to give them time to heal—that's good—but silence on your part may be taken to mean that you don't care. It's understandable if you're uncomfortable reaching out. However, sometimes ethics, friendship, and simple human decency require us to go outside of our comfort zones. This is one of those times.

2. E-mail is O.K.—a phone call is better. When someone is going through the process of grief, he or she may not be in the mood to talk. In an age when e-mail is so widely accepted, it can be appropriate to drop your friend a line and say that you're there and you care. However, if your friend is the sort of person who prefers the phone to e-mail, or in-person communication to telecommunication, then that is the way to go.

The bottom line is to do what your friend prefers, not what you prefer. At a time like this, being a good friend should be first and foremost about your friend's needs and desires, not yours.

There is one thing you really shouldn't do in a written communication: Ask the person who is grieving to pass along your condolences to their family. Such a request is less than meaningless; it is downright hurtful. Why not contact the family yourself?

3. Do it soon. "What opportunities did we allow to flow by/Feeling like the timing wasn't quite right?" asked Sir Paul McCartney in This One, his lovely tune about seizing the moment. You may feel more comfortable putting it off until tomorrow, but as late crooner Dean Martin once sang, "Tomorrow never comes."

4. Know when to talk and when to listen. Rambling on and on is fine to do with a therapist, but your friend may find this self-serving…and can you blame him or her? Very few people will say, "Thank you for talking at me." Many, however, will say, "Thank you for listening." That may be all your friend or co-worker really wants from you.

5. Too much attention is just as bad as not enough. It is good to help someone during this difficult time, but it's possible to kill with kindness, too. Calling every day may be too much for someone to bear. Find out what your friend or colleague wants from you, and then respect those wishes.

If a subordinate has suffered a personal loss:

You might want to consider temporarily reassigning him or her to a position that will be easier to manage. For example, a salesperson might prefer desk work for a while. Some people, of course, will want to get back to their routine as soon as possible. Being flexible now is the best way for you to show your compassion.

These guidelines are applications of the five ethical principles that guide us through all of our professional and personal relationships: Do No Harm; Make Things Better; Respect Others; Be Fair; and Be Loving. Applying these principles is the best way you can help yourself, or someone you care about, cope with loss. After all, ethics isn't just about how we treat others; it's also about how we treat ourselves.

What is one of the kindest things someone did for you when you were experiencing grief? How did you rise to the occasion when someone you cared about lost someone close to them? Send me your story, and I may include it in a future column or book.

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