On Aon’s Better Being Series: Managing Loss and Grief

On Aon’s Better Being Series: Managing Loss and Grief
Aon's Better Being Podcast

04 of 07

This insight is part 04 of 07 in this Collection.

September 12, 2023 31 mins

On Aon’s Better Being Series: Managing Loss and Grief

Article by: Rachel Fellowes Julia Samuel
On Aon Podcast Hero Image

Rachel Fellowes, Aon Chief Wellbeing Officer, and guest Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author, discuss ways managers can support their grieving team members.

Key Takeaways
  1. Episode 59 defines grief and loss in both life and death
  2. They explain the individual and universal aspects of the grieving process.
  3. There is value in compiling resources to help with the grieving process.

Welcome to “On Aon,” an award-winning podcast featuring conversations between colleagues and their guests on, well, Aon. This week, in part four of a special series on resilience called Better Being, we hear from Rachel Fellowes, Aon’s chief wellbeing officer, with her guest, Julia Samuel, as they talk about something not often discussed in the context of the workplace, grief.

Rachel Fellows:
Hello and welcome to Better Being with me, Rachel Fellows. I'm the chief wellbeing officer here at Aon, and I'm passionate about resilience in the workplace and its link with performance and wellbeing.

Today, only around 30 percent of employees globally identify as being resilient. This has a huge impact on mental health, productivity, agility and our sense of belonging. In this series, I discuss what can be done about this issue with thought leaders, subject matter experts as we look at the actions we can all take to build and support each other in our resilience, both at the individual team and organizational level in today's modern workplace.

So, in this episode, I'm actually going to be talking about something not often discussed in the context of the workplace, yet something that impacts us all, and that is the subject of grief. And I'm even sitting at my desk today with many faces around really making me feel quite emotional about that topic even of the family that I've lost in the last couple of years.

So, I cannot tell you how privileged we all are to have the guest today, who is Julia Samuel. Julia is a psychotherapist, author, and podcast host in her own right. She's one of the most known psychotherapists in the UK, was a close friend of Princess Diana and is Prince George's godmother, and has been described as the person to whom the country, in this case, it's the UK, turns in times of tragedy and despair because of her understanding of this important topic, which is grief.

I'm really looking forward to this important conversation, Julia, and to learn so much from you about how do we understand this important topic and ultimately take some nuggets for our own grieving process as we go. So thank you so much for joining us, and welcome. And, before I go into the formal questions, I'd love just to help the listeners and myself understand a little bit more about yourself. So, could you kindly introduce yourself?

Julia Samuel:
Well, thank you. Very honored to be part of your podcast, and lovely to meet you, Rachel, and the team working with you. I think like with all therapists and maybe human beings, we're so influenced by our childhood and the choices we make in our life, both in the work we choose to do if we have choices and the relationships we forge. And so, I am certainly no different.

I was brought up in a household where both of my parents were very significantly bereaved, and my mom was an orphan by the time she was 25, her mother, her father, her sister, and her brother had all died suddenly and tragically, and my father, similarly, his father and his brother had died by the time he was in his mid 20s, tragically. And so, there were these black and white photographs of these incredibly significant people. All of my grandparents and all of my aunts and uncles that was never talked about.

And in our family, we talked about everything that didn't matter, and it turns out nothing that mattered. And I think that shaped me profoundly to actually unconsciously choose to be a therapist and unconsciously choose bereavement. I actually didn't fully recognize how influential it was for decades, even after lots of therapy myself.

But what it has taught me, which I hope we can find a way of connecting to here, is that often what we don't talk about, the narratives we don't have, what we don't say is often more powerful than what we do say. And, that contrary to our instincts around grief, which is very much as you say taboo, and it will be in the experience of everyone listening to this podcast, whether it's from a further distance or very significant loss, is that we need to understand what grief is so that we're able to support ourselves to manage it when it does happen to us.

Because what I've learned from all the clients I've seen is that people tend to think they're doing it wrong because they're so ignorant. And so, I hope people have a fuller understanding of it by the end of our conversation.

Rachel Fellows:
I'd love that. And wow, what a story. Thank you for sharing that, on a personal note. You've mentioned the word grief, you've mentioned the word loss. Can we just start maybe with a little bit of a lesson and what do those words actually mean?

Julia Samuel:
So, grief is the emotional process that enables us to adapt to loss. And it can be a loss from death, and it can be what I term a living loss. It can be the loss of a job, it can be the end of a relationship, a divorce or a separation. It can be a move in country.

And the actual process, grief, is such a tiny word that describes a whole world of emotion. Most commonly experienced as pain, as discombobulation, as fear, and of fury and of numbness. Every hue of emotion that we have, grief embodies in a way, and it is physiological as well as emotional.

But the task of grief is to give us the information, to our brains really, that this person has died or this relationship, whatever it is, whether it's a work or an emotional one has ended because our brain is a learning machine and we're born to forge bonds and to believe and trust that the person that we love is alive because we can't believe they're going to die every day. So, in some ways, grief through the pain of it is telling us this new reality so that we begin to learn and open to this new reality that we don't want, and we didn't choose, that this person has died, or this relationship has ended.

Rachel Fellows:
There are so many sorts of almost images coming up for me, whether it's an artist, I love the way you described, it's almost just as important to take notes of the colors that aren't on the page as opposed to that are. And I'm also really interested from the stories you've just shared there, how much of this is unique to a Rachel versus a Julia? Or are there actually commonalities of how humans go through that physiological and emotional process?

Julia Samuel:
It's very subjective and also kind of normalized. I'm finding it difficult to say both. I think everybody's experience will be influenced by their psychological makeup, by their relationship with the person that died, by their history of loss, by the circumstances of the ending. And the most important of all is the support they get at the time and after the loss. So, within each of those, you have many lenses that someone will come to this experience with, but the one that probably covers all of them is that it's pain and pain is the agent of change. Pain is the thing that forces our brain, our body, our being to wake up and recognize.

As I walked through the door and I look to find my mom in the kitchen where she used to pour the kettle, my mom is no longer there and there's that whoosh of physiological pain. She's not there. And as you do that, every time you do that, you incrementally adjust a little bit more that my mom isn't there until finally your brain has learned and you walk into the kitchen, you see your mom isn't there and you may feel sad that she's not there. But you don't have the shock like, "Mom isn't there."

And then, over time, you may not even think about your mom, and then six months later you will. So, it's not about forgetting and moving on; it's about recognizing the reality that the person has died and forming a new relationship with that person because when the person dies, the love doesn't die. So, the relationship continues in our memories, which are the most precious gifts that we have, and that we can choose to connect with them through memory. And we can do that through writing, through photographs, through talking — all the ways that we connect in memory. Then we can move in and out of whether we are with the person that's died or not.

That's the big differential between a living loss and a loss by death is that some living losses, I think they always inform who we become, but they aren't necessarily remembered and always something that we want to draw on. They can be, but often they may be something that we want to, in some ways, put behind us and not choose to revisit.

Rachel Fellows:
I think what I'm hearing, I've read, you probably phrased it as the pop culture of grieving and these steps that you go through and then miraculous at the end you're sorted and solved, but what I'm hearing is it's far messier and there is no linear journey, and it's circular, and it's almost like a rehearsal that turns into a practice that turns into whatever you might want to frame it as the fourth event. I'm not quite sure?

Julia Samuel:
A way of being.

Rachel Fellows:
A new way of being. I love that. But I can imagine that's sort of almost how you could frame, there's commonalities in the process you go through, but the unpredictability of how and when and for how long is probably individual. Is that a fair way of summarizing?

Julia Samuel:
I think there's a beautiful way of saying it, and I think Kübler-Ross' stages and phases, I think, is helpful, and it is the one that in popular culture is most recognized. I think, as you've said, is that what is unhelpful is that people think it's you do one step, you do the kind of feeling numb, and then you go to bargaining and then to anger. And that it is much more. You can feel all of those things at the same time, and that it has a kind of natural momentum and process of its own.

And my message is by allowing those feelings to come through you, and they often feel like weather, and they hit you, finding support so that you can weather them, and they can come through you is how you heal. And through that healing, you can release some of your knowledge and understanding, but also open yourself to daring to live and love again.

And it's the things that you do that block the pain can be working. Working is an anesthetic. It can be alcohol or drugs or sex or any food, shopping. All of the things that we do to block how we feel, it's the things that you do to block what you feel that over time does you harm and narrows your emotional bandwidth. And sometimes in families that can be through generations because we learn how to grieve by observing the adults around us and those who are around us. And so we might pass down those behaviors to the generations that come after us.

Rachel Fellows:
So, I'm going to a very specific place now. We're obviously having a conversation that is not about, it's more about of a human experience as opposed to a colleague or a workplace experience, but the day that I joined Aon about a year and a half ago was the day that I also lost my cousin. And I remember my mom calling me on the phone, I thought she was calling me to congratulate me on my first day and standing at the top of the escalators and hearing just all the blood drains out of your face and I'm hearing you and I'm going exactly what you said not to do.

I'm going, "I don't think I'm very good at grieving. I don't think I've fully allowed myself to go through that process," and I used the excuse of having a new job to block things out. So, I'd love to dive into that a little bit more if that's okay, because I can understand how this guilt or "Am I doing it right?" concept is quite real, isn't it?

Julia Samuel:
That is really interesting. And I think what I understand for all of us and you in particular is that at the moment you hear the news, all of us will have you are on the top of the stairs. You remember that like it was yesterday. It's kind of in your body, the smell, the sound, how your body felt. You can go back there like a video, and you can go back there anytime you choose. And all of us, when we hear the news, have our default mode of coping, what we tend to do, which we learned from those around us and from our culture. And we will have internal external pressures that either support us or block us.

I think work and structure is actually a really useful and important part of how we manage grief. Because in the model that I think is most useful is loss orientation, which is when you allow yourself to emote and grieve and feel the pain, do the things I've been talking about, when it comes and hits you cry, rage, stamp, do what you need to do. Frees you then to be restorative, to get on with life, to go to work, to have structure, to recognize your agency, to know that this is a priority, "I've got a new job," and that you can focus on that. And that the process of grief is the movement, the oscillation between the two.

So, if you are in a particular phase of your life where it isn't the most significant loss that you have no choice, it's a cousin. So, it's a slightly more distant one that you can choose to put... Where you put your tension is where you get your emotional outcome. So, you put your tension on work and less on loss. But as you can trust and find your feet in your job, my suggestion, and that's a priority, that's important. You need to get the food on the table, pay your mortgage. It is important. It's part of our whole story, we're so many different pieces of the pie, is I would, as you feel more secure, I would suggest that now you may choose to create a structure where you give yourself the space and time to allow yourself what you need to feel.

And that may include talking to family members. It may include writing her a letter, it may be making a little book, photograph book, that you have memories of her, and you can have this book that's a memorial book — many different ways. It may be finding a stone that represents her and putting it in your pocket and having it in your pocket or lighting a candle, whatever it is.

Because as you said earlier, "This isn't a tidy process." It's messy and chaotic, it's personal. I was talking to someone the other day whose husband died, I think 12 years ago, and she was a young mom with young children and she thinks she's only really given herself permission to grieve his death now because she had to keep going, she had to get a job, she had to move house, she had to survive for her children.

Ideally, you would allow space for both, but life isn't ideal, life is complicated and grief is complicated. So, my message is to people listening who are working hard, it is creating little moments of safety where they can remember, little moments of safety where they can allow themselves to emotionally feel. And that can literally be 10 minutes, or it could be a morning, but if you completely block it, shut it down, and never revisit then if you narrow your capacity to feel pain, you also narrow your capacity to feel joy. So, your emotional bandwidth is narrowed and that costs you, it costs you in your relationship, it costs you in your relationship with yourself and in your life.

Rachel Fellows:
That's really helpful, and I loved how much you're using the word support. So, what's the sort of expectation of this workplace human? It's almost like it's another body or a cultural. And what's been really interesting listening to you is that actually it can be hugely positive because often we sort of almost dismiss that the workplace wouldn't understand and it's actually a significantly negative experience as you're trying to transition back to whatever a new normal might look like.

I'd love to — either as a manager of this so-called workplace persona — a little bit better understand what expectation could we have and also how do we help educate those who are trying to welcome someone back after an experience like that?

Julia Samuel:
I think the first step is acknowledging that they're bereaved, that they are experiencing a significant loss. So, I think in the first place, write, if you're the manager, to write the person who's in your team and say, "I'm so sorry," and say the name of the person that's died, not just an object like, "I'm so sorry so and so has died. We really want to support you. And when you're ready," or you can say a date, "I'd love to book some time for us to talk about what that might look like for you."

And the main thing is that, for instance, practical things, does this person want the whole team to know what happened? Say their husband died by suicide, does she want, or he want everyone to know that it was a suicide? My experience has taught me that the truth is honestly the best policy, that in some ways everybody needs to know because otherwise there becomes this sort of split off those that know and those that don't know and that creates fracture in the workplace.

So, I'd encourage you, but you could do it in different ways. How do you want us to manage this? Do you want us to speak to your team? Do you want to speak to them yourself? Do you want to write them an email? Do you want me to help you to write an email? How are we going to look about you coming back to work? Do you want to come in for an afternoon?

What I do know is that when workplaces are really supportive, the people are very, very loyal and that you'll get more from them. And so, support, I think, looks like acknowledgement. I think it looks practical about how much work to do, what do they need, recognizing that when you are grieving, you really don't have the same brain capacity because your brain is a learning machine and a lot of it is used up adjusting to this reality that this person has died. So, to expect your colleague or your employee to work at the same roads as they've always done is simply not possible.

But the thing that is good about work is that it takes you into a place of agency. It takes you into a place where you can influence, where you know what you're doing, you know what your remit is and grief throws you into this alien place where you don't have a clue, you are not in the driving seat, you are completely powerless. So, I think the structure of work and this fact that it goes into a part of you that is knowledgeable, I think is very supportive.

Rachel Fellows:
That's incredibly helpful. That felt like there's actual really meaningful things that anyone who's welcoming someone back in can actually take on as top tips from that, Julia, so thank you.

Julia Samuel:
I would also add that any team that develops a list of resources that they could offer people that work for them, and that would also be voluntary organizations like crews. It would be resources like an app or podcasts or books. Or I imagine that Aon has emotional support so that you back it up with other things that show that you've thought about this before, and it isn't just an out of the blue.

I think the more that you can have in the kind of bereavement drawer that shows that you are prepared, that shows that you are sensitive, that shows that you know what you are doing, then you'll be trusted by the employee. I think often what happens, it's like, "Oh, they're bereaved," as if this is something that doesn't happen to anybody when it happens to everybody. And so, I think preparation really helps too.

Rachel Fellows:
So, Julia, I was really interested in light of how much trauma there is going on in the world at the moment about this concept of collective grief, when there's maybe more than one of us going through the same experience. Can we touch on that a little bit more, please?

Julia Samuel:
Yes. I think it's a really important and under-discussed subject in that emotions are contagious, so that we affect each other. So, if you are working with a colleague who's grieving, you would pick up their pain and it would ping into your body, and you might want to turn away and avoid it or you will want to move towards them and support them.

Where there's a collective experience of grief, and that can be from a natural disaster, it can be from war, it can be from someone that is significant to millions of people even if they haven't met them. There are so many different, it can be COVID, it's so many different experiences of collective grief.

All of us in some ways are affected and I think there is a contagion that happens and connects us with each other. And sometimes that can bond us, and sometimes it can fragment us because you can feel like, "They know what I'm feeling because they're in it too." And you can feel a kind of connection that you want to talk about it and you can support each other and give each other a hug and make each other tea. And that can be very compassionate and supportive and you kind of go away feeling known a little bit more and that your burden of loss is a little bit less.

But at other times, there can be a kind of hierarchy, or there can be different ways of coping that can feel fracturing and complex and create difficulty between the relationships. And so, what I think is important in collective grief is to allow difference. And if you are in an organization to find ways of discussing that we all may be feeling. If you could do a kind of MRI and see what we look like on the inside, there will be this part of us that's very sore and hurting and grieving, but how we show it, how we say it, what we wear, what we look like will be uniquely us and that we need to allow this collective difference although the experience might be very similar.

Rachel Fellows:
I appreciate you've just written a new book called Every Family Has Its Story, and this is one of many, including other books such as This Too Shall Pass. And there's a couple of themes that are coming out and one I really resonated with me in a previous book was around the concept that you can actually learn to adapt and thrive within these difficult and transformative experiences, which is almost contradictory.

So, I was just wondering from your latest book, is there anything else you might be able to offer us that would hopefully resonate with our listeners today?

Julia Samuel:
I think this is a theme actually that comes through all of my books and yeah, I hate plugging my own stuff. It sounds so kind of like a blunt instrument, but my first one is Grief Works and what the research shows, and all of my books are case studies, and so what they also demonstrate is that as human beings we have this incredible capacity to change. We are wired to change.

And when, as I keep saying in some ways, when love dies, when someone has died, the thing that matters to us most and supports us most is the love of others, the love, and connection to others. And I would use love in its broadest sense. So also love by warmth, empathy, compassion at work is the key thing that enables us to survive. And if we receive that and can feel it, it allows us to feel the pain and let the pain come through us.

And what people actually talk about and what has been well researched in the evidence is post-traumatic growth. That in some ways the depth that the pain took them to also opened them. And in that opening they are changed, irreversibly changed, and that change means that their perception of what matters is changed. And often that's for the better, their capacity to love and their investment in how important love is changes. And that influences their choices and their behaviors, that people feel and recognize they can survive what they never thought they could survive, "I wasn't someone who would be able to survive the death of this person and I have," and through that they feel more robust.

Not in a sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger way, but in a way that you recognize your resilience and your capacity to live and love is greater than you ever imagined.

Rachel Fellows:
I just sort of want to pause on that. The way you've described that it's really affected me. I've got goosebumps going up and down my arms. Thank you. I know we've only got a few minutes left, so I'll give you another accidental plug because I know that we have a wonderful youthful population at Aon and within our clients as well who also love podcasts and apps. And I'd love just to understand if there are any more resources that you've put out there around those two things that we can learn from. And then maybe I'll do a final question after that around this gold and final juicy, something you could offer us all having had our conversation today, what might that be?

Julia Samuel:
So yes, I have made an app, it's called the Grief Works app, and it's more than an app. It's a 28 day course. So, it's 28 sessions with me and it also has a journal. It has 60 resources, so it has breathing exercises, yoga, physical exercises, it has connection to grief chat so people could talk to therapists. So, it's everything that you need to support you in one place.

Often, you feel very chaotic, you can't find your left hand, let alone where you put. So, it's all that you need in one place, and it's had incredible reviews. I am really proud of that.

And my podcasts often talk about, so I did a Grief Works podcast, I think it's about eight, but also my new podcast, which has been out for the last year, Therapy Works has a number of the guests, both known voices and unknown voices have talked about their experience of grief. So, if people want to hear other people's personal experiences, it's on there.

And I do think there is something when you can hear yourself in the voice of another, it kind of enables you to trust yourself more. You don't feel, because often grief, you feel like you're going mad and when you recognize other people are feeling it too, you kind of go, "Okay, maybe I'm not so mad. Maybe what I'm feeling is, mad as it feels, is actually normal."

Rachel Fellows:
Thank you so much. It's really interesting to understand how much slower we've spoken today than many of our other podcasts. So, it's often what happens when you learn, and you really slow down and you get affected by what someone's trying to share. So very grateful for your wisdom, your insights, and your stories. So, thank you so much for your time, Julia.

Julia Samuel:
Pleasure. Absolute pleasure. Can I add one more topic, which is good for work as well?

Rachel Fellows:

Julia Samuel:
Which is that grief often feels like fear and that sense of overwhelm and as unsexy as this sounds, the thing that most helps that is exercise. Get outside. What I talk about is JFDI, just effing do it. That getting outside, moving your body, whether it is pouring with rain, whether it's dark, whether it's a sunny day, whatever it is, if you get outside and move your body, when you come back you always feel calmer and then you have more of a brain and emotional self available to deal with the complexity of grief.

Rachel Fellows:
Perfect place to end our chat today. So, thank you very much.

Julia Samuel:
Well, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

This has been a conversation “On Aon” and dealing with grief. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, you can get more insights on wellbeing in the workplace and information on future podcasts by following Rachel Fellowes on LinkedIn. To learn more about Aon, its colleagues, solutions and news, check out our show notes, and visit our website at Aon.com.

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