How do you stay productive during the grieving process?
If you read my last blog, you know about my mom.
That Monday afternoon, I was expecting a call from my NSA pal, Amy Kinnaird, at 4 PM. The phone rang early at 3:54. “Wow, she’s on top of things,” I thought.
I checked the caller ID. I saw the area code and the last four numbers. My brother must be calling me on a quick break to let me know that his kids’ first day of school went. When I answered the phone, I heard my dad’s voice and said, “What up?” (We weren’t allowed to use bad grammar when we were growing up, but I’m allowed to now.) My brother and dad have the same area code and last four digits on their cell phones. My dad never calls from his cell, which is why my eyes and brain didn’t bother to confirm those middle three digits.
I heard stuttered breathing and what sounded like crying. “I’ve lost her.”
And then the world got dark.
The doctor interrupted him while he was on the phone with me to say that they’d re-started my mom’s heart. My dad said he’d call back.
Surely this was a dream, right? I just talked to my mom yesterday. We’d planned out the rest of the week because I was going to fly out there to L.A. on Wednesday.
At 4:05, the phone rang. I’d been looking at my packing list that I store on my computer, which I’d printed out in preparation for my Wednesday departure. Part of my brain was saying that I should get online and change my flight ASAP. The other part of my brain was saying, “Nah. This is a false alarm. This isn’t happening.”
It was Amy on the phone. I said, “I have a huge favor to ask of you. My dad just called, very upset. He said my mom’s heart stopped.”
“Go. Bye,” she said and hung up.
Thank goodness for that list. I’ve flown I don’t know how many times and should know things by heart, but that list kept my brain focused on what to do and what to take. When the words on the list became confusing to me because my brain was losing the power to think and connect, I told myself that L.A. wasn’t a third world country, and I’d be able to buy whatever I’d forgotten over there. All I truly needed was my driver’s license so I could get on the plane.
I changed my Wednesday flight and got the last flight out of San Antonio to L.A that Monday.
My packing list reminded me to set my email and voice mail out-of-office responders and to email the people who’d be affected by my absence. Thank goodness once again for that list. I was in a fog and would otherwise not have thought of it.
I was showered and packed and loaded up by 5:00, in time for my husband’s arrival home from work. We spent ten minutes talking and crying and hugging, and then it was off to the races. My goal was to get to the airport by 6:30 in order to fly stand-by on the 7:30 flight to LAX via Phoenix. If that didn’t work, I still had my ticketed seats for the 8:10 flight to LAX via Houston.
I parked my car in front of my friend’s house. I’d emailed her that I’d be leaving my keys in our hiding spot a couple of days early. As I sat ordering up a ride with Lyft, she and her husband came out to my car. They took me to the airport. (Thank you, Pattie.)
There was no security line, so I coasted through and made it to the gate by 6:30. I asked the gate agent for her help. She didn’t ask the reason, but the look on her face changed when she saw my eyes (which upon later inspection in the bathroom were quite red and puffy), and she immediately went to work on her computer. She tried everything, but the computer wouldn’t allow the change. Good thing. Because the earlier flight that I’d wanted wound up being delayed and would’ve landed even later than my current ticketed flight.
I checked in with my dad at the hospital and with my brother, who’d taken leave from the hospital to run home. My mom was still in the ER. On the second check in with my dad, he said that the doctor told him that my mom wouldn’t be moved to ICU. She was being kept alive by machines. There was nothing they could do. They would wait it out in the ER.
On the flight from San Antonio to Houston, I was in such a fog that when I returned to my seat after using the restroom, I just stared blankly at the airplane seatbelt. It looked foreign to me, and it took me several seconds to remember how to buckle it. I started to drink water because I felt my brain beginning to implode.
When I arrived in Houston, I hustled to my gate and called to check in with my family. Based on my dad’s description in our prior conversation, I knew the situation wasn’t pretty, so I was prepared to tell my dad and brother not to keep her on life support just to wait for me. I was at peace with the last conversation I’d had with my mom, and I didn’t want her to suffer. When my brother answered, he told me they’d let her go. I crumpled into a heap at Gate 45 at Houston Hobby Airport.
I knew that my brain was about to check out, so with my last functioning cells, I emailed the remaining two people who needed to know that I wouldn’t be doing anything that week except for concentrating on my family.
How do you stay productive – at those same high levels – when you’re going through profound sadness and the grieving process? You can’t. Some of your energy needs to go to giving support to your loved ones. Some of your energy needs to go to grieving in your own way. The rest of your energy needs to go to caring for your own health so that you don’t get run down and sick during this difficult time.
The over-achiever in me was worried about missing deadlines and not getting back to people with whom I’d been in the middle of email conversations on Monday. But I knew that trying to work at a time when I couldn’t think straight would not only make things worse on the work front, but would zap my energy that needed to go to other areas of my life.
What I learned about surrounding myself with good-hearted people is that they understand when there are emergencies, and they will give you their full support. Every single person responded with condolences and “permission” to delay what we’re working on. Even the executive director of 3CMA – who should’ve been freaking out that his opening keynote speaker might possibly be a nutcase when I showed up the next week and should’ve been ticked that I left him hanging on a print deadline – responded with, “Do not apologize and do not worry. What can I do to help you?”
I preach about the importance of positivity and mindset because that’s what keeps us focused, efficient and on track – even when things don’t go our way. But when tragedy strikes and the grieving process hits, do what’s best for you. If you need to go back to work right away, do so with the understanding that your brain won’t be functioning at its highest levels for several days, so don’t get down on yourself for that. Take the time to acknowledge what happened, process your grief, and work through it. Doing so will help you get back into the swing of things much faster.