by Clarissa Moll
“I’ve been having hot flashes, and I might cry in class from time to time,” my professor admitted as she stood before the lecture hall on the first day of class. “I’m going through menopause, and sometimes it’s hard for me.” I cringed a little as she spoke. Twenty-one-year-old me wasn’t used to such transparency, such willingness to show weakness or sadness in front of others.
Two decades later, I’ve often thought of that professor as I’ve walked through grief after the loss of my husband. As she wrestled with the realities of aging, my professor offered me a wise and winsome pattern as I coped with my own trials, a beautiful picture of what it means to lead and love as we shoulder life’s burdens. Though the griefs we endured were different, the lessons I learned from her example are timeless.
When my husband died, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t do it all. Work and parenthood would rest on my shoulders in ways they’d never done before. If I was to lead with grace, like my professor from long ago, I’d need to admit that I wasn’t a superwoman. I was—and always would be—simply human.
Whether we want to admit it, we bring all of our real life into our work and ministry. Our sorrows, health difficulties, and relational struggles join us in the classroom, in the boardroom, and in the pulpit. Rather than hide the bad night of sleep or the ugly cry, we can embrace our humanity as God’s gift to us—the place he meets us in our frailty and shows his strength when we feel we have little left to give (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we let ourselves be human, we also can discover the great connection available with those we serve. We disarm the belief that leaders are invincible, and we invite others to be human too.
At the front of my college classroom sat a girl who often assisted the professor when a menopausal moment overtook her. Wisely, my professor knew that letting go could actually be a form of leadership. She knew there were moments where, if she was going to lead well, she’d need to ask someone else to share the work.
One of the greatest fallacies of leadership is that we’re indispensable. Many times, we struggle to embrace our humanity in suffering because we feel we can’t step away from our work, that the whole building would crumble without us there to hold it up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you’re wrestling with sorrow or suffering, learning to let go of the need to do it all yourself may be one of the most powerful ways you can lead through your grief. As you learn to lean on others, you can commission new leaders, empowering them to grow and do the work God has called them to do. Throughout his letters, Paul refers to the churches as partners in the gospel (Philippians 1:5). As you model this kind of collaborative spirit, you’ll find that it offers you rest in your sorrow and teaches important lessons about interdependence in times of need.
I quit my teaching job after my husband died. His unexpected death had upended my life, and I needed space and time to figure out what to do next. It was hard to watch someone take over the classroom I’d hoped to occupy, even though I knew I didn’t have the strength to do the work myself. It was difficult to let this particular job go and admit my humanity.
Over time, I found that even though the grief didn’t end, it eventually felt good to dive back fully into leadership again. Like my professor, I could wipe away the tears for a moment and dig in deep, finding new life and a renewed sense of purpose in the work before me.
Compartmentalization may not be a healthy long-term strategy for dealing with suffering, but setting aside grief for a time offers you space to do the important work of rebuilding. For each of us, leadership in the midst of sorrow will mean both times to mourn and rejoice and times to tear down and build up (Ecclesiastes 3). Digging deep into work that we find rewarding can offer relief from the upheaval of sorrow and remind us of God’s goodness as we chart a new path forward.
It isn’t easy to lead through tears. Thanks be to God that he has given us the greatest model in Jesus, who, fully human, engaged in his work and commissioned others to share in it. By God’s grace, as we walk with grief, we can do the same.
Clarissa Moll is an award-winning writer and the author of Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide for Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss. She cohosts Christianity Today’s Surprised by Grief podcast, and her writing appears in Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, RELEVANT, Modern Loss, Grief Digest, and more. Clarissa holds a master's degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and delights in God’s good creation with her four children from their home along the New England seacoast.