Grieving After the Elections; Tips for Leaders

Many of my clients have asked me some version of this over the last week;

“I know our organization needs to grieve this giant loss and hurt, to process the results of the elections, but I am in such a state of despair, I don’t know where to start.”

After careful thought, support from my mentors and peers to process my own emotions, as well as some research, here are a few suggestions. 

First and foremost make a public statement of support for those who are now being targeted.

If you are in a leadership position in your organization, bring your staff together and share with them out-loud, in person (and follow up in writing), that your organization is committed to fighting for, standing with, and protecting people of color, women and girls, immigrants regardless of legal status, those of the Muslim faith or Islamic background, and those of LGBT community.  (You may want to adapt this list and speak even more specifically to groups being targeted).  

Do not fall into the trap of saying to yourself, well, we are an immigrant rights organization or a multi-cultural community service organization – and assume people already know that you support those targeted. Maybe they do – AND they need to hear it from leadership.  They need to see you take a stand in some sort of public way.  It’s a way of acknowledging their fear, of saying that you “get it” and their safety matters to you. You take this seriously. It’s also a way taking a stand within a realm over which you have some control.

Set aside some time, for your staff to share their emotions with each other.  

The five stages of grief; denial/numbness, anger, bargaining/analyzing, depression, and acceptance can serve as a container for your staff to share their emotions.  These phases are part of a normal human response to great loss. 

Let me jump to the last one first and say right away, acceptance is most commonly misunderstood.  Acceptance is not – everything is ok now.  Acceptance is the acknowledgement that this is the new reality, right here, right now.  It’s a letting go of manically analyzing the past and attempting to solve the future right now! It is the ability to be in the present, to be with what is, so that whatever action steps we take in the future are solid, strategic, and meet and respond to the real needs of now in new and creative ways. 

Acceptance is usually last, but the other four stages do not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion.  In fact, you may start with bargaining and then get overwhelmed and turn to numbness.  You might feel trapped in anger for days, or so depressed you wonder if you will ever be able to take action again.  You will.  Feeling the anger, or the depression, is part of the process and none of these stages are permanent. 

Set up a Space, Acknowledge Systemic Racism and Oppression

Acknowledge that our identity groups, (gender, race, class, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation) impact how we process the hate that is permeating our government, our media, and our communities.  You might consider breaking up into small groups based on social identities to begin to process each of these stages of grief and then choose someone from each of the smaller identity groups to report back to the full staff.  You may want to work in small mixed identity groups but do not pass over stating out loud that your identity group impacts how you share and how you listen.  (At the end of this piece I will share some process guidelines for setting up an anti-racist space).

Once you have divided up your staff in small groups (if you are a staff of over 12 for example).  Share a short description of the five stages of grief.  I have summarized and in some cases re-interpreted the five stages of grief from this resource.

Denial

Denial helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb.” 

Anger

Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger.  The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.”

Bargaining

While this stage is commonly called the bargaining – often with God or the universe, (i.e. I will be the best daughter ever, if you let my mother live).  I will offer a slight re-interpretation. This stage can look like, an overwhelming desire to FIGURE IT OUT.  Who voted for him and why?  Could I have done more? What will I do next?  How can I make this better? In the bargaining stage, we are usually anywhere but the present.  We are both analyzing the past as well as formulating a better future.  The manic nature of this stage halts most of our ability to actually take any conscious steps forward. 

Depression

Often after bargaining, “our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief [or sadness] enters our lives on a deeper level. It’s important to understand that this depression [or deep sadness] is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss.”

Acceptance

Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.”  And certainly there is nothing to be gained from accepting racism, sexism, or other forms of hate.  This stage is about taking the long view.  This stage is about accepting that this new reality is the current reality. “We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it.”  And while we can’t go back, we can make new connections and illuminate new inter-dependencies. “Instead of denying our feelings, when we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve.”

After sharing each of the phases with your staff, give them some questions to stimulate their discussion such as the following:

1.  Which of these phases have you experienced so far?  Let people notice which of these phases they have felt and which ones they might not have yet.  Normalize each of the phases.  Remind people none of them are permanent and all of them are useful.  

2.  Go through each phase asking the following questions:

a.  What is your experience of this phase? (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness Acceptance)? 

b.  How does your body feel/react in this phase? (trouble sleeping, tightness, lethargy)

c. What happens in your mind?  (racing, spacing, analyzing, planning)

d. What behaviors show up when you are in this phase? (paralysis, taking on too much, yelling, hiding).  

Close with asking people to reflect on how they feel now that they have had a chance to share and to listen. 

Give people the opportunity to make requests.  Support them to say things like, i.e. I would like to request for it to be ok that I am more quiet than usual for a while. 

Come back periodically to re-assess where people are, notice and celebrate healing and any shifts in energy as you move through all five of these phases individually and as an organization.

Some Guidelines for Supporting Conversations that Transcend Racism and Oppression*

1.  Speak from our own social identity memberships about our own experience

2.  Be curious and let go of judgment

3.  Remember this conversation isn't about "solving" anything - its about witnessing each other and giving each other the gift of listening

4.  Ground our conversation in honesty

5.  Go Slow

6.  Right to pass, only share what we want or need to

7.  Make specific requests of how others can help us

8.  Maintain confidentiality.  Don't share others' experiences unless given permission.  

*These are inspired from numerous places including but not limited to Leadership that Works & Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training