How My Job Saved Me

My struggle with loss, identity, and finding purpose again.


“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” — Robert Frost

Before you roll your eyes at the idealistic nature of this title, know this about me – I’m not one of those people who skips dinner to stay at the office until 9:30 PM. I’m not the guy who won’t shut up about his job in between sips of Guinness at Friday’s Happy Hour.

But do I love my job? Absolutely. Not only is my job itself extremely fulfilling, but I believe in what I’m doing, and more importantly, the people with whom I’m doing it with.

But I also love having my toes in the sand and ending up with a spotty sunburn. I love seeking out awful horror movies on Netflix and laughing at their absurdity. I enjoy splitting a six pack with a close friend on the back porch, with nothing but Duane Allman’s slide guitar to color the gaps between our fits of laughter.

In other words, I’m just like you. And that’s how this story begins.

Amanda passed away on a Tuesday.

I was on my way home from work when I received a text message from her mom.

“Come over right now, John.”

Finding her sense of urgency unusual, I switched directions and made way for their split-level home, set diagonally on a corner as if to keep a friendly eye on passerby’s on behalf of the whole neighborhood. I made this drive for five years, so this day felt no different. Except when I arrived I wasn’t greeted with the usual friendly banter we seemingly took for granted, but instead pale white faces instructing me to sit down. I refused.

It was snowing. There was a car accident. Amanda didn’t make it.

My Amanda. The girl I was to marry, grow old with, and with whom I’d constantly retell the story of our first words being, “hey, where’d you get that cookie?”

The girl who, against my will, taught me how to accept losing, at everything from Banagrams to Cornhole. The girl who taught me what unconditional love meant. That it was actually possible to love someone more than you love yourself. My best friend.

She was gone. Just like that. And in many ways, so was I. Suddenly the things we find second-nature in life – eating, sleeping, dressing, shaving – become unbearable undertakings.

I didn’t go back to work for three weeks. In fact, I didn’t do much of anything for three weeks besides exist. I withdrew from everyone, even my own family. There were too many sleepless nights, too many painfully lonely days, and too many questions from those who observed both.

One day, my boss called. Although I should clarify, he isn’t just my boss. Bob Ruffolo moved to my neighborhood from Long Island when I was around 4 years old. We were fast friends. We played basketball every day, often engaging in wrestling matches over the validity of a foul. Street ball rules are very unforgiving, even for adolescence.

Bob was also very close with Amanda. He was hit hard by all this, too.

He called about two and a half weeks after Amanda had passed. I hadn’t seen him since the services, as like I said, I was fairly reclusive then. I was lying in bed when the phone rang.

“You thinking about coming back to work yet? People are asking for you,” he said.

Admittedly this angered me at the time.

Work?! You want me to think about work right now?

Looking back, I think he may have saw something I was incapable of seeing at the time: I needed purpose. For three weeks I sat around contemplating my own. Who was I now? What am I supposed to do? What does my future look like?

There’s no instruction manual for the grieving, especially those who experience it so young. The only thing I knew after three weeks was that I needed to stay in motion. I needed movement. I returned to work on April 8, 2013, 20 days after Amanda’s passing.

There were hugs, tears, and to my surprise, even some smiles. A funny thing happened that day, I felt I had purpose in some way. People actually missed me. Some even needed me. The job itself needed me. I had a role to play in all of this.

I realized something important that day.

Work is trivial. Our jobs may even be trivial. But the people we’re affecting every day as a result of our work is truly profound.

In other words, a hammer’s job is trivial. The craftsman swinging it is, in the grand scheme, trivial too. But the dresser that was built? The one for someone’s daughter? One that, years from now, she’ll pass down to her daughter as a family heirloom?

That means everything. That’s where we find purpose.

Sometimes that’s not easy for all of us. Some people view their jobs as a paycheck. As a stepping stone. Others hate their jobs.

You may even hate your job.

But find the smile that results from the work you’re doing. You may have to peel back many, many layers to find it, but it’s there somewhere. I promise.

Find it and obsess over that smile. Over the difference you’re making.

That’s what I’ve done. Loss has a profound way of ridding your life of the trivial, and as a result, when I returned to work my job was the same, but my outlook on it was completely different. While I’ve always enjoyed my job, now I see how important it is. It’s not about me. It’s about the people I’m helping. It’s about finding those smiles.

I’m not pretending to be healed, because I’m not. I’m not even sure it happens that way. I’m not saying work is the key to grieving, because it’s not.

But movement is. Finding purpose. I am continuing my journey. I am moving. I’ve found ways to be positive. To be active and work hard.
Most importantly, I’ve found ways to live. With purpose.

If you’d like to donate to The Amanda K. Cartier Scholarship Fund which benefits high school seniors going into math, science, engineering, and the arts, please make a donation here. Every dollar counts.

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