Wakanda Forever: Acknowledging Grief and Loss at Work

Writer/director Ryan Coogler faced a nearly impossible task in creating Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The sequel to the 2018 Black Panther movie needed to acknowledge and honor the shocking death of the franchise’s lead actor Chadwick Boseman while also finding ways to move on, for the story’s characters, for the hundreds of actors and behind-the-camera crew, and also for the worldwide audience who had been deeply affected by Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa of Wakanda. Without spoiling anything, Wakanda Forever creates a powerful in-world space to recognize and honor real-world grief and appreciation. It chooses not to name T’Challa’s illness, leaving room for it to be something other than cancer and quietly honoring Boseman’s choice to be private. As such, it becomes a study of grief on so many levels. This was a brave choice for the filmmakers to pursue; they could have opted to recast the role and move forward as if nothing happened. While most of us don’t work on a multi-million dollar film set, I wonder if this choice to face and honor loss has something to offer our workplaces as well.

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked with a few people and organizations undergoing significant “reductions in workforce” – a diplomatic term for layoffs – in biotech, software development, and other fields. Notably, of course, significant layoffs and contractor cuts have taken place in the ongoing Twitter debacle, and it appears that Amazon is laying off 10,000 workers also. Layoffs are not deaths, but they carry many of the same feelings of shock, loss, and pain, both for those who are laid off but also for those who remain. When layoffs happened during my time working at Harvard University, the shockwaves of unease were palpable for months – maybe even years – to come. To help us grieve and honor those who had left, I placed one labeled poster board for each laid off colleague in our lunch room; over the coming weeks dozens and dozens of people wrote notes of gratitude, support and love personalized to each one. We then mailed the full poster boards to our former colleagues to let them know they were loved and appreciated.

Loss at work doesn’t always come in such dramatic ways. Sometimes it might be as simple as a failed project. An experiment gone wrong. Disappointing sales figures. The loss of a client to a competitor. Months of work needing to be redone or seemingly amounting to nothing. But all too often we don’t mark those losses; we do the equivalent of recasting our lead actor and moving forward with the next project as if nothing had happened. What would happen if we chose the more confronting task of acknowledging grief and loss as a regular part of our work life?

This Week’s Tip:

Reflect on recent losses, both individual and communal, and find ways to face them honestly.

  • If you’ve faced layoffs recently – on either side of the equation – consider that you may be holding some grief, and look for resources to support you and your team through that grief. Consider ways you can mark the loss you feel, in ways that honor those who are still here and those who were laid off.
  • If you’ve had other kinds of losses, find ways to mark those too. This could be a physical representation – I’ve seen a full-size paper tree on a wall with each green leaf representing a success, with “dead” brown leaves on the ground representing failures. It could simply be a “lamenting session” during a meeting; time to express disappointment and sadness in earnest ways rather than sweeping the loss under the rug and pretending it never happened.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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