Recently I had a spontaneous lunch with two girlfriends who lead their own businesses like I do. The three of us run wildly different enterprises in wildly different ways, but that day we found out that we had a lot in common: we were weary.

We were tired of being 24/7 cheerleaders and were in need of some new hope. Over delicious food and pre-noon bubbly, we entered into each other’s worlds, sharing our woes, our worries, and our wishes. By the end of that empathic and soulful conversation, we left lighter, lifted by each other’s stories of grief and growth. Of realness and resilience. We felt less alone.

Soon after that lunch, my artist friend, Renee Reese, sent me this beautiful watercolor card she painted:

Credit: Renee Reese

It’s been front and center on my desk ever since, like a visual parable, and it keeps me pondering: Am I really believing that flowers will indeed bloom this spring when I’m in what feels like the thick of the dirt? Do I believe that grief will lead to growth?

Let’s first look at each separately.

The Long and Often Hidden Work of Grief

“Grief is a long story.” This short sentence in Kate Bowler’s new book, “Good Enough: 40ish Devotions for a Life of Imperfection, stopped me in my tracks as I read it this week. As anyone who has grappled with grief knows, she’s spot-on. You simply cannot rush the process of grief. It has its own fickle timetable. Kate’s profoundly accurate declaration saddened me because I’m certain that our times don’t allow for long stories. We’re a one-way, often pre-packaged, sound byte culture. When we do actually take the time to engage in a two-way talk, it’s often “combat conversation” (as my husband calls it) — everyone talking at one another, awaiting their chance to respond, but no one truly listening. This alone is cause for grieving.

Our work-related grief lists can be many: people losses, financial losses, failures, closures, collective burnout, health worries, risks not taken, the fierce conversations that didn’t go as planned, strategies that backfired, dreams that didn’t materialize. Grief simply cannot be contended with in the short spurts that occur during most of our harried days. You can’t Zoom grief.

So where and with whom do leaders get to process their grief? With whom can they lay down their poms-poms and not be perky? Grief needs time and space. Grief can last for a longer season than we’d prefer. Like the loamy soil in this painting, grief needs its own quiet and safe place to do its hidden work.

I know that perky can be some of our defaults — mine included. I’ve boldly encouraged leaders “to dare yourself and your brand” in my book, “BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.” It’s rather easy to cheerlead around failure. You’ve no doubt seen that rah-rah paperweight: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Well, what happens after that question? What if failure truly happens? We never seem to discuss or allow for the fallout of failure. For the pain and the pathos underneath the attempts, the tries, the risks, the regrets, the try-some-mores. For the exhaustion.

There’s a lot to learn from the dirt and the grit if we don’t rush too quickly into the next thing. If we can sit with ourselves and dig a bit deeper. If we can find trustworthy companions to mourn and grieve aloud with. Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, writes: “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”

Wise leaders give themselves the grace to learn the lessons of the grief going on inside.

And Still, Growth Will Push its Way Upward

From the dirt springs new life. We know that. We can count on it.

My gardening-aficionado friend hunts for the first pasqueflower each season on her forested property and then joyfully photographs it for her friends and our community newspaper (she wins the contest almost every year). “Look!” she texts, “It’s here! Finally!!” We’re all thrilled with her as we share in this joy. Yet another parable: Green hope!

Growth does come. Sometimes fitfully. Sometimes much later than we thought. But those bulbs of new beginnings do indeed push their way forward into our work lives. Thankfully, new people come on board, gains are made, risks get rewarded, doors get opened, conversations lead to renewed relationships, projects finally get greenlighted, partnerships form, dreams start to seem like they have a chance of materializing.

Wise leaders give themselves the grace to learn the lessons of their growth, too, especially being patient for it.

Forever Intertwined

Like the dynamic duo of this dark soil and the bright blossoms painted here, grief and growth are their own thresholds. These liminal processes are intertwined and multilayered and require patience and trust. In a way, grief and growth are like their own proverb of “iron sharpening iron.”

That’s why my lunch was so memorable and heartwarming. We three took the time to share our dirt and blossoms with one another, slowly and soulfully. We talked about our misses and our gains. Our frustrations and our frivolities. Our laments and our laughs/leaps. We watered our sorrows and joys together. There was no chastising, simply witnessing. We grieved. We grew. That was enough.

“All our beginnings happen in the middle of things,” author Marilyn McEntyre reminds us.

“Here’s to Spring,” we toasted, and went forth stronger.

So, why not gather a couple of other leaders you can be real with and have your own heart-to-heart lunch. Share your own dark soil and bright blossom moments. Bear witness. Toast to green hope. Then go forth … stronger.