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Everyday Grief: How Endings Can Cause Conflict in the Workplace

Warning: there are a couple of Crabb and Sales “clang” name-dropping moments in this blog.

In July 2008, my son Tom travelled for 7 weeks all around the Flinders Ranges, filming Last Ride, his first feature film. He had a lead role and he was the only child on set. Tom was very fortunate to have his big sister, Lucy, on set to chaperone him. Last Ride had a small (read lean) cast and crew and they were a tight bunch. They all worked very hard for seven weeks straight and Tom had an absolute ball. This experience, to this day, would be one of the highlights of his life (and ours).

However the wheels started to fall off for Tom in the last week of filming. He was having a great time, he loved the people he was working with, his team, and he knew it was all about to come to an end. He was overwhelmed with emotions and he started to act out. At times he was moody and aggressive; other times he would be quite sad and needy. Tom was a 10 year old dealing with big emotions; he was grieving.

They filmed the last scene of the shoot at the skateboard ramp at Port Gawler. The cast and crew had worked hard all day filming the final scenes at various locations and it was very late when they filmed that last scene. We were all there huddled around the action in the car – a scene where Tom and his stage dad, Hugo Weaving (clang), were preparing to go to sleep in their car. Glendyn Ivin (clang), the director, got them to film the scene a couple more times than was probably necessary. No-one wanted the experience to end.

But then he called out “Cut. That’s a wrap” and there was cheering and hugging and tears and sparklers and celebrations. It was a hugely emotional experience for everyone but particularly for us. This had been an extraordinarily positive and rewarding experience not only for Tom but for the whole family.

Tom said his goodbyes. He hugged and kissed everyone and finally we took him home.

It was hard; he had to adapt to being an ordinary kid again. He had to go back to school. To do chores and homework. It took a few weeks before he was “back to normal”.  

During this time we were (in the main) understanding and tolerant of Tom’s sometimes moody behaviour. We had lots of hugs and a few tears, we spent a lot of time on the couch, just being with him. We looked after him and were there for him. Letting him feel his feelings in a safe environment.

Grief is a normal part of life. We can’t have the ups without some downs.  As a family that has a lot to do with the arts, we have had to deal with lots of ups and downs. It is a normal part of a performing artist’s life. Every show must end and the set is bumped out as soon as that last curtain call is over; every film director calls “That’s a wrap”.  It is the same in team sports. Football teams change every year; no two premiership teams are exactly the same.  The experience of working on a special project, of creating a new tool or technology, of building something special must eventually come to an end. The more special, the more enjoyable the experience, the more there is to grieve.  It’s not bad or wrong. It just is. We miss the experience, we miss the camaraderie, the joy and thrill of the moment. We will never have that exact experience again with those people.

What do we do when someone we know is grieving the loss of a family member or someone close to them? We are kind to them, we give them time out, we let them be in the moment, we take them meals, we take care of them.

However we are often less caring when the grief is about the letting go of an experience, or a team or of a fellow worker. We expect people to just get on with life, the job; to move on.

But grief is grief and we need to respect it. We need to acknowledge it and feel it and talk about it.  We need to understand that people are sometimes going to act out, behave badly, be rude, act selfishly. We need to be there for people and not take any inappropriate behaviour personally. It’s not about us; it’s about them feeling overwhelmed by their feelings.

There will be a lot of grief in a workplace where teams come to an abrupt end due to retrenchment or the end of a great project. School teachers have to say goodbye to their favourite students at the end of every year. Inspirational leaders retire and the culture of a workplace can change dramatically.

Some people’s behaviour when dealing with grief will be inappropriate or difficult; and it can easily lead to conflict.  The mood of a workplace can suddenly feel “toxic” due to high levels of stress. Some staff members may become more self absorbed and demanding. It can be a tough time.

This is when leaders need to demonstrate generosity and caring for everyone in their team. For teams to be more tolerant and understanding of their fellow team members. For those people in leadership roles to be their best and most generous selves. It will be difficult at times; but the consequences of not being kind and generous at this time will aggravate the stress levels of those most at risk.

PS: Tom is OK. He went on to make other films and he’s now studying drama at University.

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