Lately I feel as if everyone I know is experiencing 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. And of course Covid-19. 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 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 want you to know that it’s okay and that you aren’t alone.
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 a few years ago, 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?,” “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 or when the holiday season arrives each year and her absence is so greatly felt or when I wear something she gave me – will cause my mood to quickly turn to sadness out of the blue.
I recently lost my beloved French bulldog Charlie and all of those feelings of grief have resurfaced. Some moments I’m okay and others I’m not. I miss him terribly. The stress of the pandemic isn’t helping things.
While you eventually get used to not having your loved one (or pet) 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 guttural 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 company and want to talk about it or just 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 often. Do what makes you feel better and don’t think twice about it. It’s okay to cancel plans and be flaky or high maintenance and tell your family and friends that you need 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. If you need to take time off, do it. It’s okay to not be okay. Luckily most of us are working from home right now so we don’t have to see people every day in the office, but if you aren’t up for a Zoom, let them know.
- 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. Today it was looking at a photo of my mom and my dog. A double whammy for me. 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 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 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 29th time, I went to U2 and Coldplay two nights in a row. I saw Billy Joel yet again. I went to 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, I wanted to give you (and me) some actionable tips for how to move past grief, and 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 from 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!) when she was the 2018 LMA Annual Conference keynote speaker.
Dr. Sanderson provided practical ways that each of us can incorporate happiness into our professional and personal lives. 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 natural 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.
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 slack and have each other’s backs.
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.
I share this personal story to show others that while we may look like we have it all together on the outside, many of us don’t. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay all of the time.
It shouldn’t take the death of a loved one (or pet) 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.
Note: I do have a little bit of happy news to share. I am getting another dog! While Charlie is irreplaceable, meet my new French bulldog puppy Lucille (Lucy) who is named after my late mom.