Quite possibly the worst thing about dealing with the loss of someone you loved is the anguish when you forget that you just can’t call or text them to tell or ask them something.
On a weekly basis, I think of things – an impossibly funny situation that happened to me on the NYC subway that morning, a question about a family recipe I am about to screw up, general family gossip or advice – that I desperately want to discuss with my mom, and then I painfully realize that I will never be able to do that again with her.
Three years ago today, I lost my mom Lucille to Multiple Myeloma, a rare blood cancer of plasma cells. It causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow, where they crowd out healthy blood cells and lead to a lot of terrible things, such as irreparable damage to the kidneys, heart, lungs and bones.
My mom had this awful cancer for many years and responded well to treatment for many years from the best oncologists in New York City – a cocktail of groundbreaking drugs, chemotherapy, even an auto stem cell transplant – but then just when she thought she was in the clear, it came back with a vengeance.
Then there is a dear friend of mine who lost her husband (who was also a close friend) at the age of 35 last summer. She is now a 32-year-old widow. They were married for less than two years. He was an accomplished law professor who graduated first in his class at law school. He was also an opera singer. For months I have been trying to make sense of his passing, and how life can be so cruel and unfair, and then so wonderful sometimes. I am in awe of my friend’s strength and cannot even imagine what she carries around with her every day.
Lately I feel as if everyone I know has experienced a personal tragedy or profound loss of some sort – the death of parent, a beloved pet, a grandparent, a miscarriage, the diagnosis of a terminal illness – maybe it’s our age. Maybe it’s bad luck. Whatever it is, it just plain sucks.
Here’s the thing though – you can choose to wallow in tragedy, or you can choose to make hardships and the worst times of your life teaching moments and turn them into something good. You’d be surprised just how resilient each of us are if we just believe it.
Also, some of us must choose to be happy at certain points in our lives in order to turn the tide around or just to carry on and not to fall into a dark hole of despair. Happiness doesn’t always come easy to everyone all the time (more on that in a bit). Sometimes a tragedy can serve as the catalyst to cause us to reevaluate what we want from our lives.
Unfortunately, time doesn’t stop just because we are going through a personal tragedy. The sun still rises and sets, and we all still must get up and put on our game faces and go to work, and take care of our families, and just keep going no matter how hard it is.
This article is intended to help those who are facing something profoundly difficult in their personal lives and those around them so that those people can hopefully become more understanding and empathetic toward others, because you just never know what someone else is going though. So many successful people are trying to hold it together when inside they are struggling with loss and grief. I just wanted them to know that it’s okay and that they weren’t alone in this feeling.
The thing with grief
Grief is a long-winded process and it comes and goes. There are unfortunately no shortcuts to it.
After my mom’s death I went through what experts call the five stages of grief and bounced back and forth between them over again repeatedly (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). I remember asking myself questions such as: “How can someone with so much life just cease to exist?”, “But why her?,” “Why did I lose my mom at such a young age?” and “How am I ever going to be okay?”
I’m still grieving, and I find that triggers – such as stumbling upon an old photo of her in happier times (that’s my mom and me as an itty bitty baby with my brother in the photo), or when the holiday season arrives each year and her absence is so greatly felt or when I wear something she gave me (most of the clothing she bought for me had a French bulldog on it because she knew how much I love them) – will cause my mood to quickly turn to sadness out of the blue.
While you eventually get used to not having your loved one around, because you simply have no other choice, you never get over the profound loss that they are just not there anymore. Those of you who have experienced the death of someone close to you will understand what I mean by this. There are many others out there like me who feel the same profound gutteral loss as you do, and I don’t know if that makes you feel any better, but please just know that you aren’t alone.
How to cope with grief
- Your way is the right way. The death of a loved one is an incredibly personal journey and no two people go through it the same way. Some people internalize their emotions and work through it quietly and alone. Others crave the company of others and want to talk about it or jus be in the company of others. Regardless of how you navigate the stages of grief, the way you choose to do it is the right way, for you. For me, I have been working through it both privately and I have also needed to talk and be around people quite often. Do what makes you feel better and don’t think twice about it. It’s okay to cancel plans and be flaky or to be high maintenance and tell your family and friends that you need to see them.
- Give yourself a break professionally. Be okay with the fact that this likely will not be your best year at work. It is okay to not be perfect all of the time. On this one, do what you need to do to ensure that you have a job (meaning do you work and do it well) but realize that you have suffered extreme emotional trauma, and you are likely not yourself, so it’s okay if you are not on the top of your game this year. You don’t always have to be climbing to the top of the corporate ladder – sometimes good is just good enough. Just make sure that your employer knows what is going on with you – be transparent about how you’re doing. If you need to take time off, do it. And while it’s okay to be sad at work, try not to publicly sob. Go into your office or into the bathroom – don’t give anyone the chance to use your personal tragedy against you (unfortunately there are mean girls who will). Be as calm, cool and composed as you can and save the waterworks for after work.
- Let the feelings come (and go). The overwhelming feelings of grief will come and go because it is part of the healing process, and as I mentioned, something will often trigger it. All you can do is just go with it. Be sad for the moment and let the grief ebb and flow – I promise that it will. Avoiding it will only make it worse. Keep tissues with you at all times. I am promised that it does get better as the years go on.
- Do what feels right. Two days after my mom’s funeral, I returned to work. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, but being at work and getting back to my normal daily routine turned out to be a blessing because it kept me busy during those raw first few weeks of profound loss. If I hadn’t had a place to go during the day, I don’t know what I would have done. I would have had too much time on my hands to perhaps fall into a depression. I knew that I needed to go through the motions at that moment and find as much normalcy as possible during a time when absolutely nothing was normal.
- Give people a break/cut people slack. One other thing I wanted to say on the point above was that some of my colleagues who were supposed to be supportive during this time actually negatively judged me for coming back to work so soon after my mom passed away, and that really hurt and was the very last thing that I needed on top of the immense sadness I was experiencing. They thought that I was callous or odd in some way for not taking more time off. Being judged for coming back to work “too soon” was something that didn’t I just need to deal with when I was coping with the death of my mom. How someone grieves is no one else’s business, period and what works for someone else might not work for you and that’s okay – but there’s no need to make someone feel bad about it. The grief process is incredibly personal and unique for each person. Empathy and kindness go a long way here.
- Assume good intent and don’t take things personally. The topic of death makes some people uncomfortable and they just don’t know what to say when a friend or colleague experiences a loss of a loved one. Even worse, sometimes they wind up saying something stupid as a result. I call this the “foot in mouth” syndrome. To cope with it, just brush it off, forgive them and realize they aren’t the best people to lean on at this moment and find others who have demonstrated they can deal with tough issues like this.
- Don’t treat someone who has experienced a loss too differently but don’t treat them the same either. I remember that when my mom died, some people around me treated me with kid gloves, some treated me like I was the subject of a museum exhibition and others acted like nothing had happened at all, which was the most bizarre of all. There’s a happy medium between the two in both your personal and professional lives. If someone around you has experienced a loss, try and strike the right balance by asking if they are okay and letting them know that you are there for them. Don’t pretend like nothing happened in their lives and don’t smother them either.
- Get busy, productive and selfish. After my mom died, I decided to channel some of my free time and anxiety by setting positive goals for myself. I wanted to stop procrastinating on all of the things on my personal branding “to-do” list, such as writing more articles (hey mom, you’d be proud of me if you could see me now!), speaking at conferences more (check!) and then on a totally separate note, I wanted to have more fulfilling experiences in life. While nice things are, well, nice, I’ve never been one for fancy stuff – I’d much rather spend money on concerts or a vacation with the people I love (more on this a bit later). So that’s exactly what I did. I saw the Dave Matthews Band for the 39th time, I went to U2 and Coldplay two nights in a row. I saw Billy Joel yet again. I went to Napa and Sonoma because it is my happy place, and I just think the air smells better there. I stopped putting off things that I wanted to do because I just wanted to live. Please try this too.
How to use happiness to get over grief
Rather than just making this an article about grief, which is very Debbie Downer and not like me at all, I wanted to give you (and me) some actionable tips for how to move past grief, and last year, I learned just how important it is to incorporate happiness in our lives and how it can help us overcome the toughest times in our lives.
I loved the 2018 Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference keynote speaker, University of Amherst “Science of Happiness” professor Catherine A. Sanderson who spoke about how to incorporate more happiness into your life and the science behind why you should (studies show that it leads to more success and fulfillment in your personal and professional lives – score!). Dr. Sanderson provided practical ways that each of us can incorporate happiness into our professional and personal lives. She left such a positive impression on me, that I often refer to my notes from her keynote.
Here are Dr. Sanderson’s top strategies to increase happiness (they work even if you aren’t the most happy person by nature):
- Change little things in your daily life such as getting more sleep, regularly exercising, enjoying nature and meditating. All of these are mood boosters.
- Find your match personally and professionally. You must love what you do and who you’re with to be truly happy and successful. Period.
- Read books you love. Books are a great escape from your everyday life. (A note from me: reading is great but please don’t read anything depressing, self-help books that make you feel like you are the worst person in the universe or twisted, creepy horror books. Those would defeat the purpose of making you happy!)
- Be grateful. Do two things to become more grateful: 1.) Keep a gratitude journal. Regularly write down for what you are most thankful. 2.) Make a gratitude visit to someone who has made a profound impact on your life. Do this before it’s too late for them and for you.
- Smile even when you aren’t happy. Studies have shown that the act of smiling can trick your brain into happiness.
- Savor the everyday moments. Relishing the little things – such as a sunny day, when your dog finally catches the Frisbee (my dog did this just once, but it was a great moment for both us), an ice cream sandwich (who doesn’t like ice cream? Okay, maybe lactose intolerant people don’t…), the flowers on your desk or the way your baby smiles at you – teaches you to be more grateful and appreciative of what you have, especially when things go wrong in life, which they will.
- Perform random acts of kindness. Do good things for people without expecting anything in return. Give to charity. Compliment someone just because. Volunteer for a cause that is meaningful to you. Buy gifts for others (like for me, for example, wink wink).
- Spend money on experiences vs. things such as travel, concerts, cooking classes, a Broadway show and the like. It’s the idea of investing in experiences to which you can look forward with the people you care about most. Sanderson described it as the idea of “anticipation,” which she said, in turn, creates happiness rather than buying material things. I think we can all relate to this – the feeling of excitement as you count down the days until a big vacation or seeing your favorite band in concert. Buying a fancy electronic gadget or handbag just doesn’t achieve the same lasting feeling of joy. But doing things you find meaningful will make you happier.
- Avoid comparisons. They just make you feel bad. This is the idea of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” First off, I guarantee you that the Joneses’ life isn’t all that great when you peel back their curtains. Be thankful for what you have and your crazy, imperfect life.
- Build and maintain close relationships. I agree with Sanderson that building and maintaining high-quality relationships both personally and professionally is the most important thing you can do to be happy. (Unless you are a hermit. Then by all means, don’t do this.) Relationships are so important to our happiness and they can be frustrating because most of the time, the people in our lives don’t do what we want them to do when we want them to do it (how dare they!). But care about and love your imperfectly perfect favorite people anyway.
According to Dr. Sanderson, engaging in everyday activities such as the ones noted above will enable anyone to bring more happiness into their lives. I was certainly convinced of this after listening to her keynote talk and having the opportunity to interview her afterwards as part of my role as Facebook Live reporter for the #LMA18 Conference (you can watch my interview with her here).
The power of positive thinking
My mom fought Multiple Myeloma with every ounce of her strength for the last year and a half of her life – and I believe that a lot of her resilience was due to her positive mindset. At the very end, she told my dad, my brother and me that she was tired of fighting, and after that, her decline was rapid. I am convinced that this is in large part since she had lost happiness and hope.
There is no doubt that the power of positive thinking is a valuable coping mechanism when you are diagnosed with cancer or any serious illness. Studies actually show that adopting an optimistic outlook can help to relieve stress and lower blood pressure.
While being positive might not have been able to save my mom from cancer, I know that it contributed to helping her find more meaning in her life and finding more joy in each day, enabling her to more fully enjoy every moment that she was here with us. Try it.
Make happiness part of your every day
I am by nature a very happy and upbeat person. My mom’s death was the most difficult time of my life so far, and I believe that I made it through in large part due to my positive outlook on life. Finding the silver lining in things, making people laugh, reminding myself that things will always get better, always having a dog (I firmly believe that dogs are the cure to pretty much everything) and surrounding myself with a strong support network have been crucial for me during trying times.
If someone in your professional or personal life experiences a tragedy, such as the death of a loved one, let’s choose to support them in their grief process, whatever that may look like. It is unique and personal to everyone with no right or wrong answers. So, me deciding to go back to work soon after the death of my mom didn’t mean that I loved my mom any more or less than someone who went back to work a week later. It was just what I needed to do to make it through an incredibly hard time. My hope is that we can be kinder to one another and cut each other more slack and have each other’s backs.
I wish my mom could see how things turned out for her kids today – we are doing pretty well professionally (hey I’m writing articles like this!). In our personal lives, we both found great partners. My brother and his new wife had a baby, so my mom would have had a granddaughter to spoil. My dad is learning how to do things on his own and find new hobbies after being married for more than 40 years. My friend who I mentioned in the beginning who suddenly lost her husband is picking up the pieces of her life and trying to rebuild it the best she can back in NYC. It’s all very sad but such is life sometimes.
Grief is an incredibly awful and complicated process. One minute you are fine and the next, you’re not. I luckily seem to have the ability to shake it off and move on with my day, but I know that happiness comes easier to me and not everyone is able to bounce back like I can. And that’s why I appreciate Dr. Sanderson’s advice. Because if you follow her tips and incorporate small changes your daily routine, you will feel a positive difference in your life.
Remember that for many of us, happiness is a choice. Of course there are times when you experience happiness without any work. Be thankful for those moments of pure joy. They won’t come easy. Life is unpredictable and finding ways to create a happy and meaningful life for yourself both inside and outside the office is key. Dr. Sanderson mentioned in her talk that you should never put off living, because you never know.
It shouldn’t take the death of a loved one to realize that life is short. Life can be cruel sometimes and it can be exuberant. Maintaining a positive outlook enables us to survive the ebbs and flows. So please live great, live happier and do it right now.