The deaths of Sam Johnson and Frank Perdue, two notable patriarchs of family businesses, are a reminder that all of us no matter how much we’ve accomplished and what we’ve built for ourselves, our families, and society are mortal. Knowing this, of course, helps only a little in dealing with the grief and with the business decisions that must be made when a family member dies. Whether it’s the head of the family or another relative who’s only indirectly connected to the business, any death can disrupt the normal family orbit, causing the family business to wobble off course. Like joy, the exact opposite emotion, grief swamps our rational decision making and overturns our daily routines; but unlike joy, grief can linger long. How should family businesses deal with such a powerful emotional event?
First, plan for death well in advance, when everyone can think more rationally. It may be human nature to deny our mortality and to delay planning, but it’s bad business practice. Living wills, powers of attorney, plans for succession, and matters of estate should be prepared long before a dreaded diagnosis, medical event, or terrible accident occurs. Have written succession and responsibility plans. Consider estate and buyout insurance. Pay attention to the smallest details. Who will sign the checks if someone has a fatal accident tomorrow? Under what circumstances would the survivors consider selling the business? Some companies have actually had the head of the business sit down in front of a video camera and record his plans and his vision for the company after he dies.
Many people hold off making such plans, not wanting to think about death or trigger possible familial conflicts until they absolutely have to, but planning for death is like any other kind of planning: it’s better to do the difficult work up front rather than to keep shuffling it to the bottom of the pile. And once the planning is done, it’s easier to amend it at a later date than have to start from scratch during times of high stress or time pressure. When doing this advance planning, consider each family member, including those tangentially connected to the business through marriage, and ask whether and how the death of each member could conceivably affect the business. By taking care of the necessary details ahead of time, you and your family will be able to deal more forthrightly with the grief when death occurs. We can best honor the deceased and our families by turning our attention to the deceased and to each other during grieving, not by turning away to deal with business matters that could have been taken care of much earlier.
Of course, no matter how well we prepare ourselves for grieving, we still have to go through it. In the last decade, researchers have discovered a surprising fact about how people grieve that has overturned our traditional notion of healthy grieving. It turns out that there’s no one best way to grieve. The old idea that everyone must go through the same five stages of grieving denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has been thoroughly disproved, and the notion that it’s healthier to let your feelings out has absolutely no empirical support. Does that mean you shouldn’t be emotional or shouldn’t feel each of the five stages of grieving? Absolutely not. It merely means that each person finds his or her own healthy way of grieving. Some people find it’s helpful to cry or get angry, while others prefer to keep their emotions to themselves. Some people focus on work, and some can’t work at all. Some people seek out support from groups, friends, or relatives, while others retreat inwardly. Nothing appears to hurry the process. So the important lesson is that each person should respect his or her own method of dealing with grief and respect others methods as well. Find what comforts you, and help others find what comforts them, recognizing that what works for you may not be what works for someone else.
The one exception is something called complicated mourning, which occurs in about 15 percent of bereaved people. Because the signs of complicated mourning look like the signs of normal intense mourning, it’s difficult to identify. Some possible markers include showing no signs, after six or more months, of accepting that the deceased is really gone, or mourning in ways that seem to endanger the person’s physical safety or the safety of others. In family businesses, the health of the company must also be protected, so watch for signs of poor decision making. Professional help is needed for complicated mourning. If the person’s complicated mourning is adversely affecting his or her personal life, seek out a therapist. And if it’s affecting the company, it may be time to call in a consultant.
Because each person grieves in his or her own way, there are really very few rules to follow for individual mourning. But where the family business is concerned, a few commonsense rules will help guide the business through the difficult transition. First, it’s best to make no major decisions for a while. This is another reason why planning for death should be done well before the event occurs. Allow sufficient time for mourning and digesting the loss, recognizing that some people may need more time than others. The family that has made business decisions ahead of time can get together solely to support each other and to remember and honor the deceased, without having to deal with business matters. If your family has done its planning ahead of time, a death is not a business crisis that calls for immediate actions, so important decisions can be postponed until emotions settle down.
Second, acknowledge the death in a way that genuinely reflects the effect the deceased had on the company. The effects of a death ripple across a family business and stir feelings in every employee, whether it’s genuine mourning for the family and the deceased, a personal sense of loss, or uncertainty about the future direction of the company. When Frank Purdue died, the company issued a statement that explained who he was, what he was like, and what he stood for. The statement said that honesty and hard work were values Frank learned from his father. It stressed his integrity and unwavering commitment to quality and concluded that the greatest testament to Frank is that the associates of Purdue Farms will continue to be guided by the values he learned on his father’s farm. Acknowledging a death openly and soulfully draws the family and employees together, reassuring employees fears about the future of the company, and is actually an opportunity for rededicating everyone to the family business’s future success.
Grief researchers find that most people eventually regain their equilibrium when they are able to find some kind of meaning in the deceased person’s life and death. This is especially true of traumatic, sudden loss. Families have set up foundations, endowed scholarships, donated to organizations, and written biographies. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded by Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver. Family businesses should consider honoring a deceased family member in some way that both resonates with the business and reflects the person’s values.
Often people feel uncomfortable around those who are grieving, because they feel helpless. If you’re in this position, remember that you don’t have to do or say anything; merely being there shows you care, and that’s usually sufficient. Be flexible and creative in finding ways to provide more time off or to ease the pressure for people whose grieving is more intense.
For both the family and the family business, death is an occasion for sorrow and for celebration of the deceased’s life, as well as an opportunity for everyone to draw closer together. It helps to think of grieving as the beginning of healing. As with a serious physical injury, at first there’s numbness, shock, and pain. Discomfort is often part of the gradual process of both physical and emotional healing; as scars heal and nerves regenerate, sometimes we’re even aware of increased discomfort or a different kind of discomfort. But eventually, as the healing continues, the discomfort disappears and we resume our normal lives.