Portland's Grief Warrior: Mourning in America
Leslie Barber has a Master's in Business Administration from the world-renowned Kellogg School of Management outside Chicago, and she ran a pregnancy vitamin company for nine years called NutraBella. But when in June 2015 her 46-year-old husband Steve died of esophageal cancer just five months after his diagnosis, she was floored. Aside from her own shock and loss at what she calls an "out of order" death, she was suddenly a single mom. At their daughter's seventh birthday, two weeks later, Barber watched as her child negotiated the good and the bad, the loss of her daddy and the joys of cake, trampoline and posthumous presents. Barber herself went into a deep trough of depressive mourning, during which a few things became apparent:
People don't know what to say to a mourning person. She started wearing a small badge that says "IN MOURNING." It saved her from explaining if she cries in the supermarket, or from small talk, like the doctor's receptionist who asks everyone if they are "having a super, super day?"
People want to show deep sympathy but they send flowers, which soon go brown and smell bad.
People don't know what to say, so they either keep their distance, or try to hurry mourners through the process, often using the outdated "At least it's not as bad as…" construction.
After four years Barber's entrepreneurial instinct kicked in and she decided to join the market for gift boxes. Hers is named Grief Warrior because she felt she had to put on emotional armor to get through the day. "Also, warriors keep moving forward, and I thought of the warrior pose in yoga, one of the strongest poses."
She even wrote a note to herself with a sharpie on her hand, "Keep going."
"In this culture, we don't recognize grief," Barber said, surrounded by boxes at her dining table in Northeast Portland.
"We don't know what to do with it. In fact, Brené Brown says it's the most feared emotion. We avert our eyes. And when we do that, we say stupid, well-intentioned things to people about grief, like 'move on' or 'Time will heal' or 'you should be happy you had the time with him that you did.' It's almost like we have to, as grieving people, put armor on."
"People ask you 'What can I do to help you?' And you know what my response was? You can bring my husband back from the dead."
Outside the Box
Grief Warrior is a classic self-funded domestic startup: the goods are assembled at home, assisted by friends, shipped by USPS.
Living in Mountain View, California, she ran the online community for accounting software QuickBooks. Her boss was accommodating. And they had a vacation donation policy. Her colleagues anonymously donated five and a half months of vacation to Barber. After five months she went back to work and they gave her an office with a door so she could cry.
"The average bereavement leave in the US is three days. My husband died on a Sunday. I would have been expected back at work on Thursday. Fortunately, I had a manager who was really accommodating."
Later QuickBooks let her move to Portland, where her brother lives, and work remotely.
Unlike the fashion in a box, makeup in a box or art supplies in a box (or food, electronics, books, wines etc.) Grief Warrior's business model is limited to one time purchases rather than subscriptions. Your friend is in mourning, you buy the box on agriefwarrior.com, Barber writes a note by hand and the mourner receives it. It's very much a one-off (or once in a while as you hit upper middle age) transaction.
There are three levels of box. Essentials ($60), Premium ($90) and Deluxe ($120).
"I have an MBA. So, I was expecting an Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint on what my grief was going to look like."
There was no formula to grieving.
She trained to be a professional and business coach last year at the CTI Co-active Training Institute in San Rafael, to help people in transition, people who maybe didn't know what they want to do with their life.
Finding she was good at talking about grief, she tried to understand the economics behind it.
"15 years ago, companies were losing $75 billion in grief-related losses annually, according to the Grief Recovery Institute. That's $100 billion in today's dollars.That number stopped me in my tracks. Could these companies really be losing that much money because they're so afraid of grief?"
While training to be a business coach she started getting a female entrepreneur subscription box, which always has a book, some online training and some nice office supplies.
"I'd signed up for just a few of these. And I thought what if there's a market for sending a box? The floral sympathy business is a $500 million annual business. Because the flower industry has convinced us that it's the thought that counts. Well, talk to a grieving person about what flowers feel like to receive. It feels like the funeral's in your home. I don't want to be happy. And then they die. And then flowers smell. And then I'm barely showering. And now you want me to do something with the flowers?"
Her top form of marketing now is appearing on and buying advertisements on podcasts. For Google ads she buys phrases such as "support a grieving friend" and "support a
loved one." Mostly she's up against big flower companies.
"Those flower companies don't have people going on podcasts. Whereas I have a story to tell."
The goal is to capture and support the supporters around the grieving person.
She found the grieving most wanted a way to capture stories about their loved one.
She designed the "ways to help" notepad as a way to say 'I don't know what I need help with. But these are all the things that happen in my house. Let me check off a few. Even if it's just write me to tell me your favorite story about my person."
She learned a lot about her husband Steve, a high school teacher, after he died.
"The kids would send me stories like 'Mr. Barber brought us all lunch.' I didn't know he did that. He was just a humble guy and didn't tell me these things."
A blending company made a grief and anxiety blend of essential oils including bergamot, chamomile and cypress marjoram. "We worked with an essential oils blending company to develop the right blend using their expertise."
Not everything is saleable, but intangibles can be useful.
Another thing she needed help with was running interference with difficult friends or relatives, the big personalities.
"I needed support with certain people. In grief, you don't have the emotional energy that you normally to do manage big personalities…We often don't have our emotional diplomacy skills."
She has heard from some mourning people that relatives show up and stay at their house for weeks, but they're not necessarily helpful.
"When you're grieving it is a time to be completely self-focused, especially if you're the center of the grief circle. In our case, it was me and Emily. She was six So everything in my world became the two of us. How do I make sure she'll be okay?"
"I always say put your hand on your heart and ask yourself, What do you need? Because no one can fix you. This isn't something that needs fixing. We just need to figure out what do you need in this moment? It's an unusual time in a person's life when everything slows down."
"I didn't want to market to somebody in grief. I wanted the people who love them to be my market. Yeah. Flowers are $500 million market. It's an interesting business opportunity."
Th eproduct is out there but research is constant. "I am constantly talking to customers to find out what is working and what we can improve. What does it feel like to receive the box? What does it feel like to gift the box?"
But she trusts what people do more than what people say. In her first business, selling prenatal vitamins and snack bars, "Women told us overwhelmingly that they wanted a replacement for their prenatal vitamin. And that wasn't their behavior. Overwhelmingly, their behavior was, well, they would eat our bar on top of the prenatal. They just wanted a snack. But that's a nice to have, not a must have. And it's hard to build businesses off of nice to have."
The first box shipped in September 2019. Customers were getting stuck on the website at the point where they could type a note to go with the box, so Barber added the suggestions.
It's been almost five years but Barber still wears her In Mourning badge occasionally.
"People look at it and then they look at me and smile. And I've never had anyone ask me why are you mourning. They don't want details, they don't want to know. And luckily enough, I've had no one ask me if I'm having a super, super day."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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