GRIEF HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT CHANGE; CHANGE TAUGHT ME ABOUT BELONGING

Grief work and change work have become inextricably intertwined for me over the last three years. 

My father died December 16, 2016. I would have walked the stage to collect my diploma in organization development five days later: December 21.

I have used my knowledge of change work to process my grief and to work through it—because there is no way to walk around something as large as grief: The only way to the other side is through. 

Still, there are many everyday changes we attempt to scoot around. And there are many transitions we lose sight of or choose to ignore, or shame away from. 

It’s no wonder the stages of grief and the stages of change are one and the same. 

Denial.

Anger. 

Bargaining. 

Depression. 

Anxiety. 

Acceptance. 

As the change process progresses, people find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster as they cycle through a series of stages from initial awareness to either acceptance and commitment or withdrawal. / The Burnie Group

I see this every day.  Multiple times daily. 

I see it at cafes and in office places and at my dinner table. In relationships and in my own brain. 

Maybe the worst part of change (or best?) is that it isn’t linear. When I lost my dad, I’d find myself at once accepting it—then moments later going back to the deepest depression ever experienced. I would again brush up against acceptance, then dance violently with anger. 

Acceptance and I would embrace only to find myself back in bed with anxiety. That old wretch. 

Back to graze fingers with acceptance. Nay, grasp hands, and no sooner I would saunter off to play a game of chess with bargaining. 

Change is and likely will be my most complex love affair: The relationship I never knew I would explore the most, love the deepest and fear all at once. 

A New Loss

And now, I am transitioning into a new phase of life. A new grief. A new loss. 

Losing guilt. 

For many years, I have studied racial justice, systems and criminal “justice” reform. I’ve sat in circles and learned to listen.. And I have learned more about what it actually means to be called white. 

Denial.

Anger. 

Bargaining. 

Depression. 

Anxiety. 

Acceptance. 

I have gone through all of these stages—through them, not around. Because the only way to is through

And, as I will continue to grieve my very favorite human, I will continue to grieve my guilt. Because my guilt serves me. Everything we hold onto serves us in some way. 

Still, if guilt is the glue that holds racism in its place, I have to replace it. With what, you ask? Courage? Action? I am not always sure what it will look like each day or each moment. It’s different for everyone and differs for me in various moments. 

I spend a lot of time in private conversations talking to people about race—especially white people. 

In the privacy of my own home, over cards or pot roast, I see how ineffective it is to tell my family members that we are ALL racists. And every time we discuss race, my mom still brings up that I once said I am unsure if people of color can be racist. (“THEY CAN’T—YOU SAID!”)

This, like the day I learned to write my own name, will remain a frozen memory that cannot develop past itself. 

I speak to colleagues and acquaintances. Friends and love interests.  

We have the same conversations. … you know the ones. 

About best friends who are black. Or my one friend “Barbara” who doesn’t act that way. Or never treating anyone differently or being good people. Or the guilt we feel. Or moving past this. Or never getting it right. Or being scared to offend. Or not wanting to ever get ‘chewed out’ that way again.

This, I suppose, is how we bargain with ourselves. Really, it’s all of the stages wrapped up in one. We do all of our stages when we are together and when we are apart. 

What is most fascinating to me though, considering we are and what we know about everything in this country,  is when you put us all together FOR A TRAINING.

Adherents of white nationalist groups believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization. Their appeals are often disingenuously couched in proclamations of love for members of their own race—rather than hatred for others. / Southern Poverty Law Group

Let’s talk about Race, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

When I mention the words diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, privilege (amongst others), many people—of any race—tense or tire. When we put people from organizations in a room to talk about race, diversity, inclusion, and equity, the results are often bad news bears. 

And why?

Denial.

Anger. 

Bargaining. 

Depression. 

Anxiety. 

Acceptance. 

Here is a typical situation I’ve found myself in: I am in a training room (or restaurant or ballpark) and ‘race’ is mentioned to a white male who has not done his work to learn what the meaning behind these words is and why that changes for different people. Often times, I see denial and defensiveness—the first stage of both grief and change.

Then,  rather than let him work through his denial, others typically attack him. Instead of being able to work his way down the stages from denial to acceptance, he moves the opposite way, repelling backwards.

This is dangerous.

If we shift these stages to think about racial justice work, we are now looking at a set of stages that could look something like this:

White Nationalism.

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

Disengaged.

Denial.

Anger. 

Bargaining. 

Depression. 

Anxiety. 

Acceptance. 

Allyship.

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

..

Actualized Belonging. 

So, why can we not allow folks to sit with their denial? Or, whatever stage they are in? What makes us so impatient?

I recognize my own identities and privileges as I pose these questions. Meeting people where they are is important. So whose work is it? 

I also wonder about meeting people who are angry where they are—who have lived experiences that do not afford them the luxury of working through the stages of change. They may have to rush to accept that the systems we have created function in a way that does not serve them equitably. 

When we have a training and a white male says something harmful, there also needs to be accountability. 

We so often discuss intent and impact in this work, but we also often forget to separate the
doer from the deed. Though the words or the act may be negative, this does not define the
person as such, and we need to remember this if we want to move anyone through the stages
of change.

Actualized Belonging

If we want to live together in equitable, inclusive, diverse spaces where folks are their full selves, each of us has to do our own work to understand how our biases, life experiences and unique lenses color how we show up in the world. 

This “use of self” practice is more important for those of us doing the modeling and teaching than it is for those in the process of learning. 

After all, change is the only constant. 

Still confused? Or want to talk this through a bit more? I’d love to; this stuff is my specialty. To set up a 30-minute phone chat with a member of our team, sign up here or email ahilb@graymake.com.

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