Coping in Change
September 2018 brought me my father’s death, a new job, and a trip to Europe.
In my previous career, I was a psychologist. (I’m still a psychologist — licensed to practice in my state, but not currently practicing.) One might assume that, as a trained psychologist, I’m an expert at handling whatever life throws my way. Untrue. I have more coping skills at my immediate disposal, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert. I especially wouldn’t call myself an expert during September of 2018 — I don’t remember a lot about that month.
Let me explain.
On the night of September 2nd, I got a call from my mom. She started with the four words I’d heard 12 years before, when my dad was hospitalized for heart problems— “Are you sitting down?”
I knew it wasn’t good news.
She followed it with new questions “Where’s [your husband]? Is he with you?”
With that, I knew exactly why she was calling.
I sat down in the giant beanbag in our living room and listened. She explained that my father’s heart had “just stopped” as he drove home alone from a Labor Day event in my hometown. EMTs had worked for over an hour at the scene of the call, on the way to the hospital, and at the hospital. He was gone.
I handed the phone to my husband, as my mom requested, and stared at the floor, totally paralyzed.
After changing careers in 2016, I had a six-month internship with a local company followed by a full-time position with a large national company. By mid-2018, I was ready to move up and shorten my commute.
I accepted a more senior position with a company I’d wanted to get into since my career change. My start date was set for September 4th, just after the long Labor Day weekend.
For the last few years, my husband and I chose fall for vacations. This was usually an off-peak time and we didn’t have children in school. In 2018, the trip we had planned was a Western Mediterranean cruise. This trip would check a lot of “places to see together” off our list. We were scheduled to leave the evening of September 28th.
My father’s birthday was September 24th.
The end of 2018 was a crash course in coping. Prior to my career change, I’d been seeing clients in one-on-one therapy for 10 years. In that time, I worked with people who had experienced all types of loss. I was still not fully prepared for what that month brought my way.
So how did I handle it? Let’s start with the practical.
My last day at my previous job was Friday, my dad died on Saturday night, and I was scheduled to start my new job on Tuesday. I was essentially in job limbo. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to spend most of the rest of the month with my mom and push my start date until after our scheduled vacation. In those weeks I spent with my mom, we relied a lot on one another (and my brother) to form one coherent thought. We sorted through and distributed binders and notes related to his various volunteer positions to the next responsible parties. We sorted through all of his clothes, donating, tossing, and keeping.
About that vacation… we went on it. It felt weird to go, but we did and I’m glad. My parents had always loved traveling — in August of 2018, they’d actually gone to Alaska for their 40th anniversary — so I knew it was important to see those places together.
Handling the emotional part… how do I even start to explain? After the funeral was over my world felt small. My father’s death was so sudden that much of my hometown was also in shock. I found this comforting because people seemed to understand why we were all struggling. Part compartmentalization and part shock, it wasn’t until I returned home and had a few days alone — one of them my dad’s birthday — that I started feeling. I was on an emotional rollercoaster through our vacation. When I finally started my new job, I was totally frank with my manager and team about my situation. On several occasions, I’d hurry to the bathroom to cry, sometimes after explaining to my mentor I couldn’t concentrate, other times because my problem-solving skills were a fraction of what they would ordinarily be, but most of the time, there was seemingly no trigger.
Now let me get into putting together the practical and the emotional. First… yes, I said I was a licensed psychologist. That being said, I’m only talking about my personal experience with grief and loss and what helped me. The grief process is an extremely personal journey and not everyone finds the same things helpful. What follows should not be construed as professional mental health advice. If you have concerns about your own grief process, please consult a mental health professional.
- Be gentle and patient with (and kind to) yourself. Several books and articles I read in the months following my father’s death hammered home this point as most important. You are your best ally and worst enemy. Look out for yourself in this weird and uncomfortable grief process. The world doesn’t care about your loss. This isn’t to say that people don’t care; they do. But in general, the world doesn’t. Everything may have come to a screeching halt for you, but everything else keeps going. Remember to take care of you!
- Get support. Whether this comes from family, friends, support groups, religious leaders, mental health professionals — it doesn’t matter. Reach out. It sounds easy. It isn’t. I don’t have many local friends, so I immediately got a counselor. Don’t like any of these options? You still don’t have to grieve alone, there are endless online resources.
- Be support. If those close to you were impacted by your loss, it can be just as helpful to you as it is to them to be their source of support. At some point in my grieving process, it was incredibly helpful to hear others were struggling as well. It made me feel less alone. I realized something very helpful — I also didn’t know what to say! You know that feeling of “how do I respond to this?” I got it too, even with people I was closest to. It forced me to realize the most helpful thing I can do is just be with others in their grief. Say “that really sucks” and be present.
- Talk about it. Or paint about it or sing about it or yell about it… communicate what you’re experiencing somehow. The reality is that there’s nothing anyone can say that can change your new reality or the way you feel about it. Talking (or whatever) about it can help YOU make sense of what you’re going through.
- Talk to others who have experienced loss. As news of my father’s death spread around my small hometown and among my friends, it was as if I’d joined this terrible secret club. Friends who had lost parents were some of the first people to reach out to me. It was incredibly helpful. I found that as more time passed since my father’s death, the harder it was to keep talking about it. I felt self-conscious, like I was bringing it up too much. I always felt I could talk about my dad to members of this secret club, no matter how long it had been.
- Read about loss. When I couldn’t (or didn’t feel like) talking to people who had experienced loss, I found ways to read about what it was like for other people. This was another way to normalize what I was going through. It helped me to know what I might experience, how my grief might change, and that there’s hope for a life after loss.
- Tell people what you need. It makes us uncomfortable to hear about others’ pain. All we want to do is make it stop, help fix it. Let me be 100% clear — grief is not a thing to be fixed. It’s a process that everyone must go through in their own way. Don’t be shy about telling people exactly the kind of support you’re looking for. Would a hug help in that moment? Ask for one. Do you just need to vent without your friend trying to problem solve? Say so. Remember this from above… “…the most helpful thing I can do is just be with others in their grief. Say ‘that really sucks’ and be present.”
- Set a timer. I’ve been blindsided many times by grief. That’s part of it. Because, like a honey badger, grief don’t care. Grief doesn’t care that you’re driving. It doesn’t care that you’re in the middle of a meeting with your manager, making dinner, or at a party. Grief can just hit you. Do what you have to do — pull over, cry in the bathroom, order pizza. Do your best not to fight it. Let it happen, but set a timer. Give grief 10, 5, 3 minutes and get back to driving, work, cooking, or partying.
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is messy and confusing. I didn’t understand just how messy and confusing until my father’s death. No two people experience grief in exactly the same way. Your process is unique to you and your relationship with the person (or thing) you’re grieving. Everything is normal. Yes, even that feeling/thought/experience/question/desire — whatever it is.
- Time doesn’t heal. You are responsible for doing the healing. Time marches on regardless of how you process your grief. Every friend I reached out to who has been through loss said some variation of this to me: “you’ll never miss him less than you do right now, you’ll just get better at handling it.” How? For me, it was by doing all the things I mentioned above.
I’ll always grieve the loss of my father in some capacity. So far, what my friends told me seems to be accurate — I’m getting better at handling it. I don’t know how September 2019 will be, but I have hope that it will be better than 2018.