Here’s a great coversation that mattered that I recently had with Michelle Dickinson as part of her series of workplace Conversations That Matter. Enjoy!
Good afternoon, Kevin. So great to have you here, and thank you so much for joining me today on Michelle’s Conversations That Matter!
Thank you so much for having me on! It’s always a pleasure to get to talk about this sensitive subject.
And I’m so grateful that I met you. Kevin, I met you through a networking tool called lunch club that people are starting to learn more about. It’s a powerful networking tool. I try to say that it’s like LinkedIn on steroids because you are actually meeting people. You’re actually connecting through video chats and learning what they’re up to and they’re all about. So I was so grateful that artificial intelligence linked us up!
When I found out what you were doing, I was really inspired by it. I was thrilled that you said yes to being on Michelle’s Conversations That Matter.
What I’m trying to do with my series is really cause conversations that either inspire, educate, or just cause a dialogue that wasn’t going to happen without me. I’m committed to being that conversation starter in the world.
For people who don’t know, I have a company called Trifecta Mental Health, where to cause more compassionate work environments or organizations. Specifically I have a resilience program that I love to share with people to help them, especially during times like COVID.
So we’re here today to talk about grief and that’s something that we really can’t avoid in life. Grief happens. We lose a loved one, we lose an animal. We struggle with it and it can be very painful.
Today we’re going to talk about grief from you, Kevin, a few tips on what we can do, especially in the face of the pandemic and the loss of family members that we’ve experienced.
But before we dive right in, I want to ask you to just take a second to introduce yourself, where you are, where you live, what you do, who you are, and why you care.
Well, thank you so much. Again, my name is Kevin Ringstaff and I help companies reduce the cost of grief to the organization by creating tools and resources to better talk about grief and support employees who are going through loss.
I’m originally from Tennessee, but I’m currently sheltering in place in San Francisco. So, I currently reside in a healthy mix of locations: my bedroom, the kitchen, and this room right here, all of which happen to be in San Francisco. I moved out here to build and grow these two companies worldwide to start spreading this message about grief.
Like you said, grief is unavoidable.
Right? What was it that made you get focused on this area Kevin? Was there a specific loss or something that you experienced that had you get real connected and want to do something about it?
Well, I first got into the area of grief after I had a loss of my own, a cat of mine named Henry “Fats” Rothschild, and well, pet loss is a little bit different in that you can’t really talk about it. It’s one of those disenfranchised losses.
Like grief in general, we don’t talk about it. I was raised in this kind of environment where we never talked about loss or any of these hard subjects. We just pretended they didn’t exist and tried to get on with it, always thought of the positive side, always tried to cheer up and move past it. But you know, that that didn’t really work. What happens is that you just hold onto that grief. It just stays with you. Over time, I found better ways to manage it, to let grief out, and I learned that it doesn’t have to be this awkward uncomfortable thing.
And then that’s how you got started. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on, in addition to all the other work that you’re now doing, the thing that struck me with you when we first met was around the loss of a pet because I know so many of my friends who have lost a dear, a dear pet of theirs, me included, and it’s absolutely devastating. Some will say it’s harder to lose a pet than it is a family member. I’ve heard people say that because there’s such an integrated part of your life. So what did you do with that? I know you created a few resources for people grieving over a pet loss.
Yeah. That was my very first company, PetCloud (www.petcloud.pet). It’s a community of support with other people who are going through this kind of loss. Because what we want to do, like not everyone has people in their life they can talk with about this.
So we search out for other people for support and this is a great community where we can just come together and express that love and loss in a safe environment. And you know, and I’ve heard that too, from many, many people that the loss of the pet feels worse than a loss of a family member.
Why do you think that is?
Well, we’re more intimate with our pets. Well, let’s think about it. Like this guy (pointing to Ponce) is with me all the time, all day long. He sees me naked. And it’s like that level of intimacy that we don’t share, even with children. Because children are gonna grow up, they’re going to start talking, start talking back to us, and doing their own thing. But our pets will always be under our care. Every single thing we provide to them, their entire lives is from us. And when we lose that, we lose that connection with something that’s always there for you. Always is. And for a lot of people, especially now who are sheltering in place, who have lost, who don’t have any friends, who don’t have family members, or who are literally alone except for their pets. And when, when their dog or cat dies, they’re totally alone.
Yeah. Listen, I will tell you that my two dogs helped me a lot during this pandemic being alone and being single was really hard. I’m grateful that I had that and they truly were my companions.
It leads me to the next thing I want to talk to you about. And that is around the fact that during the pandemic, so many people lost a loved one and they were withheld the opportunity to properly grieve, to have an opportunity to honor their lives through a wake, funeral, or a gathering with their families. And I guess, because of that, they were withheld the feeling of closure that you get when you lose someone. As you work with companies and you’ve sort of witnessed what has been happening, can you tell us about the work that you’re doing with companies and what are you doing to get them to pay attention to their employees that may be grieving and suffering?
Well two or there was a, there’s a lot to unpack there, but for companies to connect with their employees who are going through grief, the best thing to do is just to talk with them and to acknowledge it. What memorials give us is validation from our community. When you have a loved one who dies, you go to a funeral and everyone else comes together, they all share those stories. They also provide you that support and validation. And you get to hear things like, I know you’re suffering and I’m sorry for your loss.
We don’t have that for other losses outside of death. We don’t have that for other losses. You know, losses that aren’t family members. We can have friends who die, but we don’t have that sort of validation. And then, especially now, since everyone’s so isolated, we can’t do memorials and funerals. Or, if we can, there’s only 10 people who legally can show up in some places.
Right. Right. Yeah. Tell us about the online Memorial service idea that you’ve been sharing with your, with your, you know, with your people.
One thing I started to do is online Memorial ceremonies. And, I do them specifically for pets because there’s an integral part of our lives. It’s a way for every single person who knows that animal, who has stories, and who wants to support you to come together all at once online to talk about it. We run those just like a human memorial.
- You have a main message,
- Perhaps some music,
- A part where everyone can share stories and memories,
- Maybe a tribute video,
And that’s it. It’s that validation and that comfort from our communities that we really need. And that we’re really lacking.
Right. Right. Tell us about the work that you’re doing with companies. You and I are aligned in so many ways in that you want to bring more compassion to the workplace. That’s something I’m committed to doing. Cause I think we’ve gotten away from being human beings at work. We’re very much focused on deliverables, and leaving your emotions at the door. I am such an advocate for really cultivating more compassion in the workplace. I think it can serve productivity and deliverables. So tell us about what you’re doing to elevate compassion.
Well, that’s the company that you see on the little ticker down at the bottom, www.grievingatwork.com. I’ve created an online video course to teach management how to deal with this issue.
- Talk about grief,
- To learn about grief,
- To learn that everyone grieves
- To dispel all these myths that we have about grief
- To teach people what to say about it
- To teach management how to manage the risks that grief brings.
Because when you have an employee who has had a terrible loss and they come back after three days of bereavement leave, they’re not over that loss. It’s still 100% there with them. They’re not a 100% present at their desk, and in some cases, they’re just a warm body.
This really matters if your company does business in risky environments, where catastrophic accidents can happen. Things like machinery, law enforcement, air traffic controllers, or other jobs where severe injuries and death can happen if you’re not 100% focused on the job.
I teach ways to manage that grief using different means other than replacing that employee.
For example, I like to recommend employers allow their employees to take mental health breaks; I call them grief breaks. Just 15 minutes. Because we think about our loved ones at work. We still think about our losses and troubles while on the job. Especially towards the end of the day. Because the end of the day is when you home to that empty house, to that empty space where they used to be you.
Right? I think it’s uncomfortable. And for employers to address it, I think it is a very courageous thing to do. So I applaud organizations that address mental health, who address grieving employees. I think that we need more compassionate leadership within companies that really get it.
What do you say to someone who just doesn’t know what to say or doesn’t know how to address grief? If they know someone just lost a loved one or even lost a pet? What do you recommend?
Well, first there’s nothing that you can say that’s going to undo the loss. So it’s not about as much as what you say, it’s about what you do and how you show up for them. What you can say is “I’m so sorry”. That’s it! And then you listen for them, just be there for them. That can be an uncomfortable and awkward silence. Grief is uncomfortable. It is. But it’s not hard to support someone going through it.
You said it best when you said, “It’s who you’re being FOR them”. So it’s creating the space for them to express themselves if they choose to and for them to receive your love by simply saying, “I’m sorry”.
Yeah. It’s just like being that silent presence with them and what I like to remind people over and over again is that there’s no finish line for grief. We grieve like as long as it takes. And that takes months and months for some people, and for a business this can mean months and months of lowered productivity, lower attention and concentration, lowered attendance, higher sick leave, and even employee turnover. All this affects your whole culture at work.
Exactly. What do you say about bereavement policies that are, like you said earlier, three days? What should they be? Should you be good to go, to get right back to work?
I mean three days is better than nothing, but I like to make the case of giving employees unlimited bereavement. Take what you really need. And that will pay off in the long run too, because if you give your employee a day if they need it, they’re likely to return with a higher motivation and more enthusiasm to work because they want to work for you. Because you’re there to support them.
If they know they have that support at work, they’re not going to be afraid to go into work if they’re having a bad day because they know they can take a break in the middle of the day if they need. They know that they can go home, if they need. They know that their job is going to be there. It takes all that stress and anxiety out and they can then focus more on their healing, which is better for you, the employer. And it saves you a ton of money!
What is the role of the people leader in an instance like this, because that’s sort of my sticking point, right? Because your people leader is the face of the organization. And how I feel about my company is how my people leader interacts with me, extends compassion to me, cultivates trust with me. So how do you feel about the role in your eyes of a people leader around those ideas?
I have a whole lesson dedicated to this. When an employee has a loss, I recommend that the senior most person in that organization personally write them a letter and call them to tell them:
- We’re here for you.
- So sorry for your loss.
- Your job’s here for you.
- When you come back, here’s all the support we’re going to be offering you.
- And I want you to take that time and space that you need right now and put that pupil leader to do that.
When people leaders do that, it sends a message to all the upper management and all the other employees that should something happen, they too will be supported.
I think it’s moments like that that are pivotal that can cultivate long lasting loyalty. People will never forget how they were treated in the most challenging moments. I mean, I’ve read articles around COVID. How vital it is what companies are doing for their people during a time like COVID that can make or break their success in loyalty and cultivating loyalty. So it’s really important what companies are doing in those moments. You know that an employee will always remember how they were treated and how it felt to work for that company.
You know, one of the suggestions I make is to call every single one of your employees. Call every single one of them and spend about 15 minutes on the phone to ask how they’re doing. Even if you haven’t had to lay employees off, they could still be experiencing grief outside of the workplace that could be greatly impacting them. For example,
- Their kids are at home, so they’ve lost their peace of mind (and quiet),
- The loss of freedom,
- The loss of lifestyle,
- Financial worries,
- Medical worries,
- COVID, fires, hurricanes, race riots, presidential elections, layoffs.
All of this affects your employees. So, just spending 15 minutes to acknowledge some of the things they could be going through can help tremendously across your organization.
Yeah. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t.
So talk to us about your Elephant in the room website, which we have on the ticker at the bottom, which is GrievingAtWork. Tell us about that. We go there, what do we get? How do we work with you?
So I talk about the elephant in the room, which is grief. It’s something that we don’t like to talk about, but it’s a giant thing that exists and impacts us all. This is an online video course, including tools and resources that are designed to help companies manage any kind of these grieving situations that we can find ourselves in.
Every industry is different. Every business operates differently and grief affects them all differently.
- It’s about learning about grief.
- It’s all about figuring out the best ways to support your employees,
- The best ways to modify your bereavement policies at work, and
- Mental health policies in general
This is one of the things that’s fastly changing in the business environment of this country. We’re having less emphasis on IQ and more on EQ, Emotional Equivalence. Being compassionate with your employees. Because if you don’t support your employees, if you treat them badly, they’re going to work somewhere else.
Right. It’s so true. People don’t remember what you say, they remember how you made them feel, and I think that’s so important. It’s really a no brainer.
For example, I remember a story a woman told me about how she had suffered the loss of an unthinkable thing. She had suffered the loss of her baby. And she took some time off and came back to work and was judged on her level of enthusiasm in front of the room after giving a presentation. She was mortified, just mortified. And I was mortified for her, that you would be judged on your energy level or your level of enthusiasm and you had just buried your baby. That’s the kind of environment we need to eradicate. Those types of cultures just don’t work anymore.
I think it comes down to simple education. Take me for example. I wasn’t raised knowing how to do this. I’ve been doing this for about four years, but about six years ago, I would be one of those people to say some of these things. Many of us are raised with myths about grief, for example,
- It’s been six months like, are you still sad about that?
- It’s time to get back out there.
- Move on with your life.
It’s what we’ve taught our whole lives, and that’s okay. That’s what we’re taught. But you know, we can learn differently.
It is a personal process. What might take you three months might take someone else six months. So when you’re looking at your watch going it’s six months you should be fine, shame on you. There are so many things that come into play on how people heal, what they’re doing for themselves, past traumas, past experiences that have them relive the same pain. There are just too many variables for us to be putting people in boxes around grief.
So many types of losses too, such as divorce. There’s no memorial ceremony for a breakup, there’s no public acknowledgement of this loss. It’s “why don’t you just get back out in the dating world” and those sorts of comments. Just trying to replace a loss, but that doesn’t work because we still hold onto our grief.
Say more about the fact that society expects us to just sort of get up on the horse again or get going.
Society expects that as well, because society wants happiness. It feels good to be happy and jolly and all that, but no one is happy all the time or they are, they’re faking it. Society wants that because society is uncomfortable with feelings other than happiness. You’ve probably heard the expression,
Laugh and the world laughs with you,
Cry, and you cry alone.
I like to flip that saying around. How ludicrous would it be if every time that you laughed you had to get up and leave the room, to go laugh privately, to go be happy privately so that you don’t infect everyone else with these emotions. We have a plethora of emotion and it’s not all happiness.
Hmm. You’re absolutely right. What other nuggets can you share with us, from your teachings, from your videos, or what are some of the nuggets that you can share with us about this? I feel like you are a wealth of knowledge and I want to pump you for more nuggets.
Well, this is something that anyone can do. When you learn this, when you go through this course that I offer, you’re not only able to support everyone in the office, but you can support your loved ones too. Like, if a friend of yours goes through something, how do you support them? Because you care about your friends.
It’s all about continuing to show up, over and over again, for months down the line. I like to tell people to do specific things for people. One of the things I tell people not to say is:
- “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”,
Because when you’re grieving, you don’t know what you want. You don’t know what you need. This question just adds extra burden on the griever.
- “Call me if you need anything”.
Do you really mean this? If they need something at 3am, if they’re just a mess, crying, or despondent, and they call you, are you going to be available for them?
So be more specific. For example,
- This Friday night, I know you don’t want to go out (because you just had a breakup or you don’t feel like it), so I’ll come over, I’ll cook or order something, we’ll split a bottle of wine and just hang out or watch Netflix.
- I’ll mow your lawn this Saturday.
- I’ll pick your kids up from soccer practice because I know you’re stuck at work.
- I’ll handle this client for you because I know they’re a pain in the butt and I know you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to manage that right now.
You know, just like little thoughtful things. And a lot of it is to require us to think back on our own losses. Everyone has grieved something in their life. So we can think back to that time, we can put ourselves in that situation again.
- What worked for us?
- Did people show up for us?
- What did they say or do?
- What would we have wanted them to say?
Let’s remember what we’ve witnessed that has helped so we can replicate it for other people.
I can reflect on the loss of my parents and the gestures that were extended to me and that my girlfriend who just came and sat with me and she didn’t say anything. She just sat there and she was just there with me when I was crying. I remember those gestures and therefore I would tune into that if I didn’t know what to do with someone, to your point, you reach back into what worked with you and what helped you feel better.
I love it. Now again, you just show up; you don’t have to know what to say because there is nothing really you can say, but it’s just listening.
It’s uncomfortable. Kevin, you said that before, you said our society is uncomfortable with emotions and feelings and it’s uncomfortable to extend yourself in a situation that maybe you even have issues with, that you haven’t even figured out for yourself. So to put yourself out there to someone else isn’t comfortable, but it’s so important as human beings to really just care for one another. And like you said, just show up for them.
It’s so basic.
It’s so basic. Amazing, right?
Thank you so much for sharing what you have! Any final words of wisdom you want to leave with our audience?
Well, with COVID right now, people are going through what I call double isolation. Grief is normally isolating, but now you have the absence of everyone physically in your life. You can’t go up and give someone a hug who has had a loss. If you have someone in your life who has gone through something in the past, within the last 6 months, reach out to them. Just pick up the phone and be like:
- Hey, I heard this redhead talking on Conversations that Matter about how I should just call and ask how you’re doing.
- I was thinking about you and you know, I was just checking in on you to see how you’re doing.
So easy, but such a very important reminder. Thank you so much for that. If people are interested in getting in touch with you Kevin they can reach you on Grieving@Work (www.grievingatwork.com) or PetCloud (www.petcloud.pet).
Thank you for the great work you’re doing in the world and for helping people navigate pain and grief. I think you’re amazing with all the work you’re doing and I look forward to continuing to follow you.
Yes! Thank you too Michelle for having me on and for all the conversations you have about mental health in the workplace, because it’s so important.
Thank you, Kevin. All right. Take care.