Some of you might already know that my father passed away in December last year. He struggled with ALS with a drastic course of the disease. Within a bit over a year, he went from climbing on the roof to being almost entirely paralysed. Acknowledging that at the end he was unable to eat or speak, his death was almost a release for him and in part also for us.
Nevertheless, since this day, I am finding myself struggling with missing him in all parts of my life. That also affected my work, both on the more administrative project management side and on the facilitation side. Especially about the later one I was worrying a lot. My father is a significant factor behind my approach to education, and I was not sure if and how I could manage to do this work, knowing he would not be there anymore.
So a couple of weeks ago, I was travelling to the European Youth Centre in Budapest with a giant pit in the stomach to facilitate a Study Session with youth. What followed were seven intense days, in which I led a facilitator team of six amazing, strong and passionate women hosting an emotionally tiring five-day seminar on the feminist struggle. The overall lesson I took from it was that I can still do the work I love so much even though I am still grieving one of the most important people in my life. I also identified many small tips and practices that made it easier to juggle both – facilitation and grief.
The first tip is both simple and really hard at the same times: Be honest to your team if you work with one. It sounds so simple, but it is actually tough to be so open and share that you are struggling with grief. You do not want to appear as you are not up to the task, as you could be a burden or be at risk to break into tears in the middle of a session. You do not want them to pity you or give you too much of a break.
In my experience during the project in Budapest, it helped me and the team to be honest about:
- how much I could put into the facilitation. – With that I do not mean, that I skipped sessions or parts that I was responsible for, but about how personal I can be in the facilitation, how much capacity for flexibility or intervention I had.
- my needs on a situation base. – Like many other similar circumstances, grief comes and goes in waves. On one day, I might have the need to be more supported or withdrawn in team meetings, on others I can take the lead.
- when I need to take a break. – The most important about it was that I let the others on the team know when I needed to step out.
- when they supported me too much. – Sometimes support can be too much, and that is okay. And it is also okay to let the person helping know. It is crucial that you still feel self-sufficient.
One practice we developed as a team together was to check-ion each morning before the following two questions:
- How are you coming into the space today?
- How can we as a team support you today?
This simple routine allowed us to be in touch with how every person on the team – so, not just me – was feeling that day and to adjust our support system daily.
Concerning participants, the situation is way more delicate. As there is no preexisting relationship beyond the authority you have as the facilitator, it can be really harmful if you open with ‘my father died recently’. You do not want this to overshadow the event and distract from the actual content. With labelling yourself, you are creating an extra distance between you and the participants, which can make it hard for them to open up and fully engage. They might even worry about you and hurting your feelings.
The following things worked well for me during our event in Budapest:
- Selectively engaging during social times. – This time I was really cautious of how I showed up during social times. Often I stayed in the seminar room during coffee breaks or did not join the evening activities.
- Keeping it professional. – I limited what I shared about myself to more professional facts. Usually, I am someone who leads through vulnerability but this time, being vulnerable felt too much.
- Bringing conversations to the content of the sessions. – Often when I was in a conversation with a participant, I used it as an opportunity to make them reflect about the session before or ahead. That made it easier to stay away from the personal but also add value to the process.
- Sitting with a team member. – Especially during the shared meals, I was trying to sit as often as possible with one of my team members. This way, I could strike up a conversation with them or they could direct a conversation with a participant on my behalf.
Using these small tricks, I was able to hold my situation as far as I needed from the participants. But on the other side, in this seminar, I made only a minimal connection with the participants compared to how I usually work. I had to accept this bargain to keep both myself and my participants in a comfortable space and to not transfer my grief.
Similarly delicate to your relationship with your participants is your relationship with the facilitation space itself. The energy we bring into this space can shift an entire session. It has an impact on the safer brave space you and the group aiming to establish and how emotions are going to be displayed.
Some practices I used to manage this relationship and my grief were the following:
- Grounding myself before entering the room. – A couple of deep breaths before I entered the seminar or meeting room helped me to leave my grieving self as much as possible outside.
- Deciding on a role before each session. – For all those sessions in which I was not actively facilitating, I consciously picked another role/task before their start. That could have been Communications, Note-taking or any other responsibility that would support those facilitating.
- Stepping out when needed. – When I was feeling the grief coming up, and I had not an active role during the session, I simply stepped outside the room after informing the team. These small breathers helped in maintaining my energy levels.
The base of all the tips above is that you need to be honest to yourself. After a loss, you do not return as the same person. Make sure you do things because you can and not because you think you should do them. You are at the core of your practice, so take care of yourself. Only then you will be able to show up and serve your group.
Many of these tips I will continue in my regular practice. They have connected me deeper with my co-facilitators and me. I felt less physically tired after the seminar and actually felt setup for healing and growing out of my current state of grief. It is immensely empowering to know that I can do this work I love most no matter what is going on in my life.
The only aspect, I won’t carry on is the distancing from participants. I never felt so in the unknow about a group that I worked an entire week with. This disconnect also had an impact during the sessions. To affectively hold the space, I need to connect to the people in the room on a personal level. That was missing in this Study Session.
What is your experience with working while grieving? I am curious to know if you would use similar practices in a completely different work context. What are other methods you use to cope with grief?
Please let me know in the comments below. Also, indicate any other difficult personal situation you want me to explore and write about. And as always, like, subscribe and share this post!
Love and appreciation,