#Freelancelife: Managing grief on deadline

As a freelancer or entrepreneur, one struggle we will all face eventually is the lack of support when you are sick, or when REAL LIFE (TM) happens. 2017 was a masterclass in this for me… Still is.

RIP Alan Glyd Thompson 1944–2017

I’ve been freelancing for just over four years now. It’s largely going well. I have systems in place, repeat clients, stimulating work and — critically — I’m paying the bills month after month. There have been (very) lean months, and there have been hard lessons learnt, but I’ve mostly got on my feet (*famous last words*) and stayed there. When I first struck out on my own, friends and family asked me how I found the motivation to work when there was no one looking over my shoulder, no boss, no structure. The truth is (sorry to disappoint) that that’s easy for me. I am self-motivated, and I enjoy what I do. Occasionally I self-sabotage by binge-watching series all day, but frankly not often…

If anything, it’s the opposite problem that I’ve had to deal with: setting boundaries, taking breaks, establishing work hours, saying no. I’ve done phone interviews from the middle of the Kruger Park on family holidays. I’ve filed stories from an Airbnb in Paris, from a protea farm in the Western Cape, from a conference floor in KL, Malaysia. If I am sick, I bring the laptop into bed with me. I began to pride myself on juggling and coping. I was Multitask Girl (who frequently flirted with being Burnout Girl). I could manage it, until I couldn’t.

The breaking point for me came in late March this year. I had just signed on for an exciting new short-term project, lots of deadlines, lots of control, 90% self managed. And the phone call I’ve been anticipating for years came: my father was very, very ill. His Alzheimer’s Disease was in the final stages and we didn’t know how much longer we would have him. I had to get my ass down to the Eastern Cape and fast.

You know what’s a less-than-fun call to make as a freelancer? This one: “Hello nice new client. You know how I am supposed to start tomorrow? Well, I can come into our orientation meeting, but then I am leaving, possibly for several weeks. My father is dying.”

Thankfully (excuse the following attempt at laughing in the face of grief), “my father is dying” is pretty hard to argue with, and my new client/boss was understanding. So understanding. Even when I returned two weeks later, my father still alive, with the caveat that I was “on call” to return to his bedside at any moment.

On April 24th, my mom called. She didn’t think Dad would make it through the night. Miraculously he did. I jumped on a plane and was able to be with him ASAP. The day I arrived was the most lucid he had been in six months. What does that mean in advanced Alzheimer’s? He knew who I was! He said my name. It was virtually the only word he said that day. Well, that and “And I love you too”. He responded to me! It was incredible, emotional and heartbreaking. You know what I wasn’t thinking about? Client work. Not my weekly tech story deadline; not my new contract job client (who I had already asked so much patience from); not all the follow-up emails for countless projects that I had to send.

My father passed away on the morning of the 1st of May 2017. He was 73 years old. And although it was heartbreaking, we were also relieved that his suffering was over. My mom and I clung to each other and wept. I sent her up to bed, and had to make the calls to tell my siblings, my dad’s siblings, our friends and family that Alan was gone.

At the end of this brutal long day, I dropped my clients a short email. For the first time since going freelance, I didn’t make promises or new plans. I simply said that my father had passed away, and I would be out of town with my family until after the funeral. I said would try manage some work on the side (but probably wouldn’t be up for much), and I asked for their understanding one more time.

Now, granted, I am very lucky that my clients were not holding a front page for me or anything similar, but either way — what are you going to do? That’s not rhetorical. I’m genuinely asking: what are you going to do? What can you do about the whooshing sound of deadlines passing you by when you are not REASONABLY able to work? Without exception, my clients (both media and corporate) were sympathetic and accommodating. Contrary to Multitask Girl’s secret beliefs, the world did not fall apart*, my clients did not drop me.

[Freelance “real talk” time: Another element that made it easier, is that I could AFFORD to not work as hard for a short time. Honestly, I obliterated some savings and had to load up my credit card quite a lot during this time - I’ll be working to catch-up for a while - but it didn’t break me.]

I ultimately spent a further week in the Eastern Cape with my family. We organised a memorial for Dad pretty quickly, a day that coincided with my parents’ 44th wedding anniversary. And we scattered his ashes in the freezing Indian Ocean, at his favourite spot on the beach. I NEEDED to be there — physically and mentally present — for my own grief. I needed to be there for my mother who had lost her partner of over four decades. IMO, funerals are for the living; they give us space to come together in grief, to remember and memorialise. They are cathartic and necessary processes in communities. We are social animals.

Six weeks on, I’m still sad. Still angry that my dad didn’t get the long retirement he deserved, that he was so ill, so scared and confused for the last five years of his life. But I’m working. I’m catching up where I can and moving on where I can’t. I’ve had to have uncomfortable conversations with clients about deadlines that needed to be abandoned or pushed out. This is very hard for Multitask Girl to admit to. And, I’ve had to reflect on how I want to live my own life. I’m still working for all the same clients, renewing contracts, and picking up new assignments.

It was a necessary reminder of the difference between urgent and important — something we could all do with a reminder of from time to time, especially in the journalism, digital media, comms-type industries.

[Update: after reading this through, perhaps it would have made more sense to call it “Managing deadlines and client expectations in times of grief”, since my core message is basically “the deadlines are less important right now”]

  • Interestingly, one element of my grief process was resentment that the world didn’t stop. How dare it just keep on turning when my personal world had exploded?!

[Another update, six months post my father’s death: Grief is a path you must walk. No straight line, and no real “stages” in the way we are led to believe. I’m still up and down. I thought I had got through the worst of it recently, and life sent me another major (unrelated) curve ball. The only thing I have learnt for sure is: try, as much as possible, to be kind to yourself and respect where you are along that path.]

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