Work and grief
I had been gone for 78 days. A lifetime in a startup. And a lifetime for my mother. I was on FML to care for my mother while she died in a complex and beautiful experience. Ultimately it was my magnum opus, my greatest work.
All of the skills I had picked up as an entreprenuer, executive, storyteller, producer, hustler, all came in to play as I advocated, shaped, surrendered, managed, built a team, and loved her until she was gone. 52 days in the hospital, 16 at home learning how to hospice, and one full week to move furniture, storage units, and put a lifetime of art together in one room with the door shut.
And suddenly I was back at work, unsteady but functioning. On the executive team of a surging startup. In charge of (among other things) team morale and culture right at the cusp of the world shutting down for the pandemic. Everyone on our team, from CEO to interns had given me support, grace, and most importantly time to care for my mom, but now it was time to give some back.
I had been completely disconnected except for occasional check ins with the CEO who to her unbelievable credit never once pushed for work-talk, would check on me, check on my mom, and let that be enough. Coming back in, I had no bearings or reference points to where the team was at, what zig we were zagging as we pivoted business models. All I could do everyday was RSVP “yes” to meetings, put one foot in front of the other, do whatever came up, and say to myself, over and over “Add value. Just add value.”
When my mom was in the hospital and we were making impossible decisions, I chanted “What does love look like?” every day, every choice, every unbearably long hour listening to machines beep and alarm. Now I was back at work, a shell of myself, asking “What does value look like?” and wondering if I had anything like it to give.
People work and grieve simultaneously all of the time. Loss from the pandemic, miscarriages, family, friends. Somehow we all keep being functional, adding value and showing up.
Sometimes work is a great place to hide. Zoom with the camera off meant I was just weeping while I worked, sometimes my eyes just did that even if I wasn’t feeling the pain. Sometimes the pain was there and too much and I would just cancel. I could often get distracted enough by whatever the problem of the day was that we were trying to solve, let other people’s compulsion convince me it was urgent, and just let the stress of work distract me from something much deeper.
I started noticing that I was doing a good job, putting in a solid week, but every Friday I would shut my computer and immediately cry. Time to grieve. Saturdays hurt like hell.
Teams make all the difference. So does time. Both require a lot of grace and patience.
If someone you work with is grieving, or if you are just let it buck. Grief is like a wild animal. It throws you around, spinning in all directions, taking you for a ride. All you can do is hold on for dear life. Anniversaries and holidays are brutal. Some days are abruptly not fine. Some days are. It is not linear.
This isn’t just an HR issue. It’s productivity. It’s process. It’s collaborative. It is deeply human which is unavoidable in spite of frameworks or processes. It’s a partnership between a person and a profession that asks over and over “What does value look like?” It looks like work. It looks like love.