Grief, support and the job search


Dealing with loss of a loved one during a job search.

Six weeks ago, my mother wasn’t feeling well. She’d had bronchitis for a few weeks. We both did. I recovered after three or so weeks, she had it lingering on two months later. As such, her throat was swollen from coughing over time and eating and drinking made her feel as if she was choking.

My father and my sister finally dragged her to the hospital after she woke up exceptionally weak from dehydration from the aforementioned feeling of choking every time something went down her throat. She’d just been to a pulmonary doctor less than a week prior, so we all assumed they’d hydrate her, give her something for her cough and sore throat, then send her home.

Instead, it began a snowball effect of chaos that has turned our lives upside down. First came the diagnosis of pneumonia, followed by a brain bleed, then carcinoid syndrome in her liver which treatment of led us to find stage IV small cell lung cancer. Thrown in several other problems on top of those and suddenly she had a major fight in front of her.

Mom spent the next five weeks in and out of the hospital. Mostly in, only returning home for a couple of days at a time between the three times she was admitted. On July 17, 2015 she was admitted again after developing a fever just after her first bag of chemo.

She passed away on July 22nd. The nurses in the ICU said that they had never seen someone fight so hard and for so long against so many odds against her. She had a list of items that could, and often did, kill a person on their own and she was holding her own for days against them all before her body finally couldn’t handle it anymore. I sat there holding her hand for an hour after she died, unable to let go, unable to admit to myself that my time of ever being able to hold my mom’s hand was gone. As my sister finally guided me out of the hospital room, the nurses all mentioned how strong of a woman she was, how she fought so hard. She had told me just days before that she didn’t know how she could manage without the support she had from all of us, that she loved how very close she was to her daughters, that she understood why it was so easy for people who had no support to just give up. It made me wonder: was it her that made her so strong or was it a combination of that and having support?

I know I got my stubborn streak from her. I know my mom is the one who brought about my tenacity. I know she’s the one who made me realize my own sense of self worth, both in life and in the workplace. But that tenacity isn’t something you can sustain forever on your own without support.

Four days before my mom was taken to the hospital the first time, I finished a contract job. I was preparing to launch a full on job search on Monday morning after taking a couple of days to catch up on errands, but my mother was admitted on Sunday morning. Thankfully my time off work allowed me to spend every day at the hospital with her, keeping her company when she was alert, holding her hand when she was scared and providing comfort to her when she was doing the worst.

The day before yesterday we laid her to rest next to her mother and father. Yesterday we went to her favorite place, their lake house, to say a farewell. Today I sat down and opened LinkedIn and started bringing up job postings. As I did so, I realized I was numb. I no longer felt quite so excited about web analytics, engagement directives, typography, brand development or any of the design and social things I usually have such a passion about. Yes, they still interested me and are still a major basis of my life, but everything feels detached and unimportant through this fog of grief that online research claims will take over a year to lift.

To have the twofold punch of losing a loved one AND having to look for a job both hit at once has been difficult. But much like my mother, I have a very supportive family and a network of great friends, freelance clients and associates who have been very understanding during this time. Much like she had mentioned, I couldn’t imagine going through this alone. Just like in my daily life I’ve needed the support system of friends and family, in my job search I have needed the support of those with whom I have a professional relationship.

Here are some things I have learned during this:

  1. Don’t overshare. Nobody wants to hear me break down sobbing and wailing for my mother. If I tell someone I’m in a period of grief, I leave it at ‘My mother passed away and I am currently in a period of grief, but am looking for new and exciting opportunities now that I have time.’
  2. Don’t undershare. If you are still in that numb phase, it is your responsibility to let those around you know. A deadline might not have the same sense of urgency for you as it once did. Your creativity might be lackluster. You may want to color all images blues and browns instead of vibrant colors. Everyone reacts to grief differently and it impacts our job differently. Make sure those who are impacted by your grief know the cause for your sudden change in mood and output.
  3. Grieve more privately than you do socially. Grieving allows us to remember, cope and start again, but social media encourages us to remember, share, share more and then ask why we aren’t getting out of that spiral. We get caught up in the number of likes, the amount of pictures shared, the number of people who are sharing the news and all the other trappings of social media. Plus if it is posted publicly, remember that what you post and how you word it may color someone’s impression of you for a potential job. If you feel overwhelmed by grief, keep it out of the public eye. If you wouldn’t break down like that in the middle of a crowded mall, don’t do it on Twitter.
  4. Death is not a public spectacle, so neither should be coping with it. Using social media might help you cope with the stages of grief, but they will not shorten them. Feel free to use social media to notify people and networks, but have someone proof it who is not overly emotional about the content of the message. I asked someone ‘How do I tell everyone that my mom is dead? People keep messaging me on Facebook asking how she is today and I don’t know how to answer that she died an hour ago.’ Her response? ‘Tell everyone thank you for your support during this hard time and that your mom would have loved to thank them all for it personally so you are doing it on her behalf.’ Strangely, that made it easier, approaching it as sharing a message instead of sobbing and blurting out ‘My mommy died’ which is how I felt inside at the moment.
  5. Don’t ignore obligations. Most offices have bereavement time, but sometimes you may want to return to work before your grief has worked into a more manageable stage. Perhaps you are self employed and have nobody else to pick up the slack. If you have a deadline, let the deadline holder know that you just had a major loss but are still going to deliver, preferably on time. Sometimes you need to focus in order to pull yourself out of the spiral of grief and a project that you need to finish may be just the thing. Be realistic, though. If you don’t think you’re going to make the deadline, let them know. If you must return to work or maybe you want to return to work, perhaps you can swap tasks with a coworker to do something more automatic and less creative, such as data entry or filing.
  6. Make lists. Organization is key at any other time, but especially when your brain is not probably functioning in the same way it usually does. Grief involves all sorts of chemical processes and hormonal changes and you may find yourself being easily sidetracked or forgetful when you normally are not. Lists are great ways to make sure you remember everything, plus the sense of accomplishment when you cross that item off a list may help bring a sense of balance back to your world
  7. Find an outlet. For me, an outlet was making this list. I wasn’t ready to go back to working on a logo design I’ve been contracted to do and the client has given me extra time upon which to work on it. I wasn’t ready to go back to my fiction novel. I wasn’t ready to go back to my blog about dealing with my mother’s cancer. I certainly wasn’t ready to go back to writing cover letters. However, I was ready to put up something that I hope will help someone else who might be feeling a little lost, too.
  8. Don’t be strong, be you. Don’t worry about putting on a brave face for people; it takes energy you don’t need to waste. Instead, try to find that sense of self and focus on that. Everything else will fall into place once you let it and people won’t worry so much about walking on eggshells around you. Once they see that it’s still you, they’ll be more inclined to treat you the same which will make interactions easier. If you aren’t feeling up to being around people, don’t be. There is no set amount of time within which someone grieves so don’t feel obligated to rush it.

I fully admit, my mind is not as entirely on the focus of getting a job as it could be. Some might argue that it is not as focused on it as it should be. But today is the first day of many in which I will wake up, face the day without my mother and life will carry on. My work will carry on. It has given me perspective in that a job is just that: a job. What I want now is something meaningful, not just to take my mind off the gaping hole caused by losing my close friend and mother, but also to give me a more profound sense of accomplishment.

So when it feels like you’re not ready to jump into the job search, don’t do it unless you have to. But if you do have to, know that it’s hard but will also give you more perspective into yourself, and that’s always a helpful thing.