Death, a Teachable Moment, and the Power of a Simple Message

Simple messages can have powerful results. That lesson was reinforced for me recently, and in a decidedly non-business environment. 

My mother was in the hospital; when things took a final turn I needed to quickly travel from a client site in China to my hometown in Georgia to be with her, my Dad, my brother and the extended family. Economy class between Hong Kong and the States gives you plenty of time to think and enough discomfort to ensure major chunks of sleep don’t interrupt. 

I mostly thought about our boys. They were young, ranging in age from seven to 11, and lacked any experience with a grandparent passing. They and my wife would be meeting me in an emotionally charged atmosphere and in a place other than home. They needed context and comfort, even moreso than I would. 

Any leader–of a family, team, or entire organization–bears responsibility for thinking of others first, making the bigger picture clear, showing the path of change and providing the right example. This was going to be one of those “teachable moments,” and I knew that I should draw upon my professional experience with change programs and message management in order to teach well in an important moment that went far beyond business. 

So, I used the hours in row 32 of a Cathay Pacific flight to think about the takeaways I wanted the boys to have–and a simple, clear message to help them get there. It would be three points, max. I came up with these: 

It’s okay if you feel sad. In fact, it’s okay if you’re not sure what you feel. You might see your Daddy cry and, if that happens, then a simple hug or high-five will help. I’ll be just fine. Everyone reacts a little differently so don’t worry about feeling the “right” way. 

You’re going to see how brothers pull together. Sure, my brother and I aggravated each other regularly when we were kids. But we are adults and we’re in this together for our entire lives. We will be working for the good of the family at the funeral and beyond. 

You will see the impact of a life well-lived, but this isn’t the end. Lots of people (some you know, many you don’t) will come to the funeral and tell you how special your grandmother was. She helped a lot of people. She also was saved many years ago, so her passing isn’t the end forever. Know that she got a lot out of her 82 years, she loved you, and we will see her again someday. 

One of my consulting colleagues was asking me about the roller-coaster that has been the past few weeks. When I shared some of this with him, he asked, “Jim, have you written this down? You should.” He was right. 

As a leader, any training and practice you can get in crafting and delivering simple messages for the benefit of others is time well spent. You never know when that skill will be needed the most.

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