I speak often with colleagues who are planning conferences or trainings for the upcoming year, and many have asked me which topics are surfacing as most pressing in the field. We discuss the varying states of “reopening” across different types of organizations, the changing needs in the field, the desire for effective recruitment strategies, as well as the level of continued interest in some of the fundamentals of volunteer engagement. All that is true – but in the last two weeks, something else has become very clear: Many volunteer engagement professionals are struggling with grief and loss. While colleagues have mentioned this at various points since the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, something has really shifted recently according my recent conversations.

In the last two weeks alone, six different people said to me, “I am still grieving,” “I am mourning,” or “I am still dealing with feelings of loss.” Nearly all these comments were made in different conversations. It was notable after the second occurrence, but by the sixth, it was un-ignorable.

I explored a bit with each, trying to identify what they are grieving. The loss of many volunteers from their community. Some have died, while others have chosen not to continue volunteering. All these individuals are missed. Some are mourning the departure of trusted colleagues. I think we all are also grieving the loss of our ability to do our work the way we used to. Even as a person who loves innovation and new things, I recognize that we have lost the comfort of old habits and ways of doing business.

With grief and loss is intertwined exhaustion. We are tired. Studies have shown that being on camera through virtual meetings is more tiring than meeting with people in person – and even simple tasks have become more draining than they were back in 2019, before concerns about COVID-19 dominated work and media and such. After drafting this blog, I hopped on a call with a colleague who had just begun working back in her office and she (unsolicited!) started the call by sharing how tiring it is not only to commute to work but to work amid the “lovely” distractions of being social again.

So, what’s the answer? Sadly, I don’t have the solution. But there are strategies to help us understand and deal with emotions such as these, and to embrace our role as leaders by supporting those around us in understanding their emotions – helping colleagues, your team, or the volunteers whom you support. According to Harvard Medical School’s Susan David, here are three tactics to help you understand your emotions – and, in turn, process them.

  1. Broaden your emotional vocabulary.

As David notes, “words matter.” By naming your feelings, whether negative or positive, we have the power to identify them and validate them – then, decide if and how we want to work through them. Are you sad? Mournful? Disillusioned? Are you feeling a little embarrassed or proud that, for you, these months have been refreshing? Are you grateful or relieved that you are able to try new things or simply that you still have meaningful work?

2. Consider the intensity of the emotion.

After naming the emotion, rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 to identify its strength and urgency. Doing so may also enable you to see the complexity of our emotions – we may be feeling a sense of loss at a level 5, but can acknowledge that we also feel grateful to some degree.

3. Write it out.

Writing about your emotions is a proven tactic to help us address and learn from them. Doing so can also help us gain empathy for the emotions that those around us may be experiencing.

When I think of the six people who mentioned to me in the last week that they have been struggling with loss and grief, it’s hard not to consider the many others who are also struggling, but weren’t brave enough, comfortable enough, or simply able to articulate that. I suspect that there are many others. We can support them by modeling these tactics and helping them do the same.