This is the most personal post I’ve written. I thought it was important to share for two reasons: 1) To explain why I’ve been quiet for a long time. 2) The events of the past few years have dramatically shaped my story and have made it even more clear to me that I’m called to help people understand and share their authentic stories.
Out of necessity, for the first time in 25 years, I took a year-long work sabbatical, and now I’m relaunched and back 100%. Many of you have patiently understood, and for that, I’m very thankful. In late December 2013, my mother became seriously and inexplicably ill. She declined quickly, and I eventually became her full-time caregiver. Last summer we finally received a conclusive diagnosis (amyloidosis, an incurable, very rare disease) and a few weeks later she died.
For the most part, I handled the crisis of my Mom’s illness and dying well; I stepped up and honored her wishes to make her last days the best they could be. The experience tested me in unforeseen ways, and I feel I passed with flying colors. But nonetheless, when she died it hit me very, very hard.
Mom was my rock, and her only other child (my brother) had died 16 years prior. Half of my family of origin was gone, and as a result, I felt I would have to be solely responsible for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I also felt abandoned: I had gotten divorced two years prior, and my next love ended our relationship by text and refused to have a conversation. I was experiencing loss upon loss, and the grief was almost paralyzing.
Although functional, I was in a fog. I couldn’t focus on anything complex (my work demands a sharp mind), and I had to be there for my two teenage daughters. So I threw myself into less mentally-demanding projects such as renovating the interior of my home (my mother had lived with us for half a year). I needed to exert some control over my environment again and adopt a fresh approach to work and to life.
My mother was on hospice (at home) the last 10 days of her life. To say I’m grateful for our hospice team would be a huge understatement, and I still can’t express what they mean to me without getting a lump in my throat. I learned that their work extends well past the death of the patient; bereavement coordinators and volunteers will reach out to the deceased’s family through phone calls (which, amazingly, happened almost exactly when I needed them the most), visits, and support groups. Last fall, I realized I needed such a group.
One of the lessons I learned last year was how to allow people to help. I better understood how helping helps the helper too. Going through the tougher part of my grief journey in a formal way with a group of people who were walking a similar path was one of the more enlightening experiences of my life. I learned there is no “fixing” someone who is grieving, and that the simple act of “bearing witness” is powerful. I learned that the level of my grief was in direct proportion to how much I had loved. The grief process is far from linear, and there’s no set timetable, “getting over it,” nor “closure.” The only way to get to being able to fully live with loss is to deal with it head on.
Trying to circumvent the grieving process just means the pain will eventually manifest in other ways. For example, for various reasons (such as wanting to be strong for my mother, and because I had recently had my first child) I hadn’t “properly” grieved my brother’s death. It was so unexpected that I was stuck in denial, so I locked the pain in a tight box which I stored in the recesses of my mind (only to have it open up after my mother died 16 years later). It also didn’t help, at the time, when the well-meaning minister asked about anyone else who might join in the planning of my mother’s memorial service (because there wasn’t).
I held Mom’s service 10 weeks after she died. She was a retired teacher, and I wanted to have the service in Bronxville, New York where she had taught and in the church she had loved. Having it the fall made sense, and that gave me a buffer of time to get beyond the shock and create something meaningful to celebrate her life. Anyone who’s written a thoughtful obituary, put together a memorial service, and/or given a eulogy can appreciate how healing those actions can be.
To come out the other side of all this, I needed to go inward in order to process the ways I felt so changed by the challenges I’ve faced in the past few years. I also needed to go outward and develop a sense of community (my mainstay local relationships had gone, and I knew I couldn’t be an island). So I set out to meet like-minded people by joining the Unitarian Universalist church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and getting more involved with the local food movement here on the Seacoast. Through these wellness and spiritual activities, I realized that I kept waiting for things to change in my life. Waiting for life to settle down so I could get to the other stuff on my agenda. Waiting for a partner to fill me up.
Although I had heard it many times, I now truly understood nothing lasts (especially if we try to hang on to it tightly) and that I alone am responsible for my happiness, even when my outer world is falling apart. No savior would be appearing on a white stallion; I’d have to save myself instead, using the resources I already had to “saddle up my own donkey.” I’d have to spend less time in overdrive and more time just appreciating the peace and joy of the present moment. I’d need to balance my strong future-orientation and desire to influence how my story will end with being open to possibilities I hadn’t even imagined.
I’ve thought and thought and thought about what my happiness will look like for the rest of the time I have on this earth. How could I best leverage the personal and professional experiences (that have honed my natural gifts) to continue to grow and serve others? I’ve been fortunate to achieve some significant career milestones (that made me feel like, maybe, I had reached my peak), but what was going to be my next “big thing,” and how could that be even more meaningful?
When I taught the personal branding certification program for Reach, we used a Purpose exercise that involved envisioning and reflecting upon what would be said at your own funeral. After taking stock of my mother’s life and hearing the impact she had on friends, family, colleagues, and students, I realized my own purpose has changed. I now have a greater opportunity to touch peoples’ lives when they are experiencing significant change – to better integrate all of who I am with how I earn my living – and I feel far from reaching my peak.
In my work, I will continue the trend of the past few years, which is to focus my personal branding business on writing branded bios. As my “sweet spot,” branded bios have been a key component of my deliverables and something I’ve championed for many years, but they haven’t been the main offering. I’ve always most loved helping people to write their stories, including mapping out their legacies, and simplifying my business around branded bios is going to be important to my future growth.
In my bereavement group, I made a good friend. She and I have had many conversations about all the unanticipated ways losing a loved one has affected us. We both want to give back, to support others through their grief, so we’ve enrolled in a program to become certified grief facilitators this summer. I’m also training to become a hospice volunteer. As someone who went out of her way to avoid anything death-related, I’m amazed to feel that I have to be doing this. If you would have told me that this would be the focus of my volunteer work, I would have called you crazy.
This week, I’m going to a conference in Colorado. My Dad will be picking me up in Denver and taking me to Vail, where I will scatter the remainder of my mother’s ashes in the same place we scattered my brother’s ashes (also in May, 17 years ago). Doing this will symbolize how I’m moving forward, always remembering her and all she taught me, and how I’m moving beyond her death to mindfully invest my energy in others.
A recent sermon at South Church was about how we’re like perennials. Every year, I’m in awe of the first blooms and buds of springtime (and after this past New Hampshire winter, it feels even more like a miracle!) Even the harshest conditions are followed by the opportunity to re-emerge. I’d like to think that those flowers return stronger and healthier after their dormancy, just like I’m not the person I was before taking the time out to rediscover what I value most and what I want my legacy to be.
My life will always be a work in progress, but I’m ready and re-energized to give my very best and take on the future. Instead of starting a new chapter, I feel like I’m starting a whole new story. Second half of my life, watch out – here I come!