It’s funny how something that is superficially a given can, in reality, be quite fluid.
Something like a leadership curriculum, for instance. It might seem etched in stone. But it really represents an ongoing conversation shaped by research, analysis, discussions, debates and thoughtful choices.
A few years ago, the Kansas Leadership Center launched a curriculum renewal process wherein teachers and staff identified potential changes to its leadership principles and competencies. You might not have noticed. The shifts were subtle.
“Speak to the heart” became “speak from the heart to the heart,” because it better captured the essence of the skill. “Engage unusual voices” became “engage new voices,” to eliminate an off-putting word.
Lately I’ve been thinking about a proposed change that didn’t get adopted. It’s come to mind as I’ve joined other staff members at KLC in reckoning with the sudden death of our co-worker Thane Chastain. Thane, a decade-long fixture at our office, died in his sleep at the age of 62 in late February. In addition to being a technology guru, he thought deeply about KLC’s leadership ideas and worked to live them.
During the curriculum discussions, Thane championed a reframing of the concept of “speaking to loss.” The idea resonates with many participants in KLC programs. But even though acknowledging loss is crucial for leading, it’s also challenging.
Wouldn’t it be better sometimes, Thane proposed, to simply let loss speak? The rephrasing suggested that conversations about loss are not a box to be checked. They have to come from a place of empathy and compassion. People must work through the process of absorbing loss in different ways and often at different speeds.
In the weeks since Thane’s death, the idea of letting loss speak has taken on new significance for me. I’ve realized that no one can say the right thing to help me move on. There’s no one moment where grief or confusion alleviates.
What’s helped is that there’s been a process to let loss speak. I’ve been able to gather with my co-workers to laugh and cry together. I attended a visitation. Celebrated Thane’s life with his family and his many friends. Each moment allows loss to speak a little more.
To its credit, KLC is an exceptionally supportive place to grieve. What’s heartbreaking is how well-practiced we are becoming at it. The death of Thomas Stanley, a co-worker who died in 2019, still stings. Our family has lost Steve Coen and Reggie Robinson, both of whom championed our organization while leading our chief funder, the Kansas Health Foundation.
Less visible is the incessant drumbeat of loss that periodically touches us all. Loved ones of staff members – mothers, fathers, nephews, grandparents, cousins, mentors – have passed away over the years. Some of us lost treasured pets. A few grappled with private losses even as they mourned Thane in public.
Though losses are inescapable, many groups and organizations still struggle to deal with them communally. The tendency to make grief a burden to be shouldered privately is hard to shake. We also fall into the trap of comparing our grief, succumbing to the notion that the loss we’ve experienced isn’t significant enough to be recognized.
We should be reassured that, over the course of 300,000 years, humankind has developed powerful rituals to help us mourn. As hard as death is to grapple with, there’s a process to stabilize the shaky ground beneath our feet.
But what of less visible losses than death? They are unavoidable in making progress on adaptive challenges. We don’t, it seems, have time-tested ways of attending to that sort of grief. Just being able to recognize losses remains a stretch for many of us. Knowing how to work through them often remains a bridge too far.
It’s OK to not know how to speak to loss in such difficult moments. It might be enough to just let loss speak.
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.