Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Devastating Loss Teaches Us to Overcome Challenges

I'm going to share something very personal, and very painful with you. But as I reflect on my loss and life, I've realized the significant role it is playing in changing me as a person - and the lessons I am learning apply to anyone who is suffering a major disappointment or loss in their lives. This could be personal, professional, or both. I must start by thanking Jennifer Gresham for writing an article that both motivated, and inspired me to share my insight with you. I hope that sharing my story will spread hope and optimism to those suffering loss, and provide a road map to getting your life and career back on track.

Our Loss

The most devastating loss a parent can experience is the loss of a child. Our family experienced this tragedy last year when we lost our baby boy Gavin at only 10 weeks old.

Gavin was born after a healthy, uneventful pregnancy. I practiced yoga 3x a week, special ordered organic vitamins and ate a healthy, nutritious diet. But despite taking excellent care of myself, Gavin was born with a very rare brain malformation called Lissencephaly, it literally means "smooth brain". He was born extremely ill, with severe seizures and spent most of his too short life in and out of the hospital. Eventually it became clear that Gavin's quality of life was terrible, and our family made the difficult choice to allow him to naturally pass on, and finally have comfort and peace.

As I cried at the funeral, looking at his tiny coffin and watching the large group of family and friends release balloons into the blue sky, I honestly felt as though I would die from a broken heart.

One morning, as I lay in bed crying and looking at pictures of my precious child, I made a commitment to myself, to my husband, living child and extended family, to not let this life shattering loss ruin me. Change me? Yes, forever. But I decided it was not going to ruin the life that I currently had, and hang like a dark shadow over everything I do. It was time to start the hard work to deal with, and learn to live a good life, along with this tragedy.

So here is what I have learned so far, it applies to overcoming any major disappointment, failure or tragedy. I used the well known '5 Stages of Grief' to mourn my loss, but learn to live well and move forward in spite of it.

Step One - Denial

They say this step is the first because it helps you cope with a major loss. Denial helps us pace feelings of grief, and accept our loss at a rate we can handle.

As we begin to move out of this stage, into accepting the fact that the loss happened, that is when we begin to ask ourselves some very important questions. This is a time for true reflection.

For myself, I reflected long and hard on the choices we made for Gavin. I came to the conclusion that as much as it hurt to lose our child, I was also very proud of the decisions we made. During hard, stressful times, we were able to stay focused on what was best for Gavin, and fought hard to make sure he was comfortable. This terrible experience showed me an inner strength I didn't know I possessed, and that was something to be proud of.

If you have recently been laid off, downsized, or experienced any major disappointment, take the time you need to fully realize what you have been through. There is no set amount of time for this process, take all of the time you need to fully realize the extent of your loss. As you begin to accept it, reflect on why you are so upset - Why did you value that position so much? Get clear on why you wanted what you did - and you may very well find insight that eases the pain of your loss, and may even illuminate a new path for your future.

Step Two - Anger

This step is pretty clear. As the denial wears off, the anger sets in. "Why did this happen to me?"

In my case, I felt intense anger at pregnant women that did not take care of themselves and their babies. I remember watching a Dr. Phil show where a baby was born addicted to pain pills and seething with pure anger. How could she do that to her baby? Why did my baby have to die, that I took such good care of - when her baby was just fine after a few days in the NICU?!

Underneath anger is pain. The more you allow yourself to really feel it, the faster it will dissipate and you can begin to heal.

Anger can also be a huge motivator. Are you hurt, angry and upset at your former employer for promising you a bright future, then bringing in new management and letting you go with seemingly no care in the world? Use that anger as a stepping stone - use it to make you strive for more, do better and go farther.

I used my anger at Gavin's birth defect to motivate me to be the best parent possible to my older, living child. I suddenly appreciated his presence so much more, and realized what a miracle it is any time a child is born without complications. I decided I would convert my anger into energy, and pour that energy into my family, and business. To this day, anytime I feel anger about what happened to our child, I do something positive for my family or business - bake cupcakes with my child, write an article for my website, work extra hours to provide research for a client.

Use anger to your advantage. Allow yourself to deeply feel the disappointment and anger. Then use that anger and direct it towards activities that will benefit you personally, and professionally.

Step Three - Bargaining

Bargaining is your attempt to make sense of what has happened to you. Many people go through this step by thinking about what they could have done to avoid the loss happening in the first place. If you have recently lost employment, you may think, "If only I had worked longer/harder on that key project, the board would have seen my dedication to the company".

In my case, I wondered if I should have never taken Tylenol for a bad headache, or had that glass of wine before I knew I was pregnant. Of course, those are silly thoughts - Tylenol a few times, and a glass of wine at 4 weeks pregnant didn't create Gavin's Lissencephaly.. and chances are working harder on that key project wouldn't have saved the job you lost either.

I encourage you to use this step to obtain clarity about your loss. I realized I didn't cause Gavin's birth defect, and while we may never have answers about what happened, it did show me inner strength I never knew I had. Use this time to be realistic about what happened to you, let go of blame and guilt, and focus on what you can learn from the situation moving forward.

Step Four - Depression

This is the worst step in the grief process, by far. It's also totally unavoidable - but luckily, most of us do not experience it for long if we can really feel our feelings and work through them. Grief is a process of healing, and depression is one of the necessary steps along the way.

Right after Gavin died, I would take my 8 year old to school, come back home, and go to bed. I would lay in bed and cry, look at pictures of Gavin on my phone, smell his clothes and relive the moment he took his last breath in my husband's arms. This was so painful at times I honestly felt like it might be possible to die from heartache. But as time went on, I found myself spending less time crying and more time moving on with my life. To deny the depression would only prolong it, the fastest way around it, is right through it.

If you are recovering from a major disappointment or loss, don't try to avoid the painful feelings. Feel them. Accept them. If you begin to worry that this stage is taking too long, seek professional help. I did, at the advice of my counselor, begin taking an anti-depressant for the first time in my life. Sometimes we can use a little help dealing with such powerful feelings, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. So seek help if necessary, but don't avoid dealing with your emotions.

Step four is awful, but it leads to the final step, and ultimate healing - keep that in mind when you are ready to bury your emotions and never look back.

Step Five - Acceptance

Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being "all right" or "OK" with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don't ever feel OK or all right about a major disappointment or loss. I will never be OK with the loss of my child, but I am learning to live with it.

A major sign you are approaching this step is when you start to have more good days than bad days. Maybe you will find yourself laughing out loud, and really feeling happy. Or you will feel good enough to have lunch with an old co-worker without being jealous or angry.

I knew I was accepting my loss when I was ready to throw myself back into work. Instead of dwelling on Gavin all day, I was ready to reconnect with my network and produce work I was passionate about. Many executives in transition find themselves at this step in the process when they are finally ready to actively seek new employment. That can be an overwhelming and intimidating task, especially if you have never had to actively seek a job offer.

Whatever your loss, you will know you are healing when you begin to think about the future and make plans to move forward. Remember to really use all of your reflections, pain and healing as you make your strategic plan to move forward. One of the greatest lessons grief teaches us is about ourselves, what is really important, and we can find great focus on where our life needs to head from this point on.

I just love this quote from Jennifer Gresham's blog, "You can't always be lucky. And when your heart is broken, you can't always be happy. But you can be brave. You can embrace hope like an old friend... the one who lied, the one you forgave. Keep dreaming."

What encouraging, true words. I hope sharing my experience can help those of you experiencing a major loss or disappointment in your lives. Sometimes what does not kill us, makes us stronger. I'm learning that every single day, and believe I am a better, stronger person because of it.

Life is not fair, and sometimes, it's downright unfair. But what matters is how we deal with it. Any loss is an opportunity to grow and make ourselves better.

Keep dreaming - and make those dreams happen.

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