What my first conference taught me about grief

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland for work. It was a last minute decision, so I was surprised — and excited to be invited. I’m somewhat new to the marketing world, so I’m trying to learn everything I can. In addition to being excited, I was anxious. I didn’t know what to expect — at all.

Muscle Memory

My gut reaction was to ask for advice from my dad. For those of you who don’t know, he lost his battle with cancer earlier this summer.

I’m finding this to be a recurring theme since then. At first, it was at the forefront of my mind all the time, and I never “forgot” about it. But after a while, when I started to ease back into my work schedule and lifestyle, it got pushed further and further back into my mind. You know that meme where someone’s enjoying their night out with friends and all of a sudden they remember something incredibly embarrassing they did in middle school? It’s kind of like that. I’m back to my original schedule, doing normal adult things, and something reminds me of him. And it doesn’t get any easier to remember as time passes.

Relevant Experience

I have plenty of family, friends, and former colleagues to talk to about work with, but there were certain things my dad knew best. Having worked for the Ohio State University student newspaper, The Lantern, as the the business manager for ~30 years (and recently, the O’Colly at Oklahoma State University), he had hands-on experience during the major digital revolution. While he never worked in an agency setting, I believe a lot of his experience translated well to the environment, and he’d been to countless conferences.

Whenever I had a problem — big or small, or exciting news like a raise or job offer, he’d be the one I wanted to tell first. He took his work very seriously and was extremely dedicated. I always looked up to him for that reason, and I know he was proud of me for where I am today.

So when I was in the middle of the conference, I found myself, again, wishing I could talk to him. Wishing I could text him a quick update about the cool session I spent time in, or send him a photo of Mark Hamill on the stage. That one especially struck a chord, the first time I saw the original Star Wars movies was in the theaters when they were rereleased (in the 90s?), dad was a big fan.

The point is, there’s always someone else to talk to, but it’s not the same.

What Now?

Wishing I could talk to him about the conference just reminds me of all the things in the future I’ll want to talk to him about. And it’s difficult to not get caught up in that sentiment. Sadness can be overwhelming and engulf you, and when you’re vulnerable it’s easy to let that happen…which at times I think is okay. It’s therapeutic. But when it crosses over into your professional life, popping up in your head when you should be concentrating on work, that’s tough.

I think there’s a lot of depth and stages to grief, and I don’t know how to “handle” it other than to experience it day by day as any other human is meant to. I don’t want to mute these feelings because I know they’re part of the recovery process. But I do know it’s going to be a long, ongoing journey.

What I’ve come to conclude, part of the grief process is understanding the new role my dad has in my life. It is no longer an active role in that he is physically present, but it is active in that his spirit and memory lives with me — all the time. Turning that initial sadness into hope and happiness — knowing he’s proud of the person I’ve become — is challenging. I think it will take a while before that muscle memory kicks in, but I’m working toward it.

Keep it Empathetic

Growing up, I’ve had close friends lose close family members, all too often. These deaths affected me. They still affect my friends. But there’s a comfort in knowing that my feelings have been felt by others — others who I can talk to, who may have advice, or may just be good company when I need it.

I’m positive I have RBF, but I’m sure the past few months it’s been worse. I probably look miserable walking around, because frankly, a lot of the time I am. It’s sometimes difficult to pretend I’m having a good time when I should be but I’m not. But more than anything, this experience has taught me to really pay attention to the fact that we’re all human. We’re the same. I don’t know what any stranger has gone through or is going through. Everyone has their own struggles, regardless of their outward appearance.

So now, when I see someone I may have otherwise passed judgement upon, I remind myself that I have no idea what they’re going through. Remember that.

And what does this have to do with Content Marketing World?

Nothing. Everything.

I survived the conference just fine without being able to talk to my dad. But there are certainly things I wish I could’ve shared with him. My goal now, is to remember that when I’m feeling like I want to talk to him. That somehow, my memories of him and his knowledge transferred to me can be applied to the present — without him being present.

I’ll continue to make him proud and remember what that feeling feels like. Gold.


Originally published at marisacatalino.com on September 13, 2016.