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What my mother’s death taught me about grieving professional losses

On her last day alive, my mother wanted to make me comfortable. She knew that I was jetlagged from an exhausting business trip to Germany. She did what she could to help me, making me dinner in the home that we shared, listening to stories about my experience abroad, and offering to do the dishes. As I drifted off to dreamland, she tucked me in. I was 42 at the time and we were incredibly close.

Then, in the middle of the night, she had a heart attack and died. My heart shattered into a billion shards, each more jagged and horrifically painful than the next, and I fell into an all-consuming cavernous misery.

Over the past 2.5 years, I’ve worked to wrench myself out of that pit of despair—with the help of a counselor, my brother, and devoted friends. Along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons about how to face loss. And I’ve come to realize that the lessons I’ve learned can not only help me with losses in my personal life, but also with ones I’ve experienced in my professional life.

One central aid that assisted me was to create a list of rules to navigate this uncharted territory. I called these my “grieving rules,” and they became my savior. When I felt down, I would look at them to remind me what to do. The rules were a comfort to my STEM-trained mind, as I was looking for a logical framework—almost equationlike—to help me move forward.

As I worked through the rules, I realized that—like all of us—I have had professional losses that I never properly grieved. I have lost jobs, gigs, and projects. I have separated from colleagues and partners, sometimes after years of collaborating. I have not received grants and fellowships that I was certain I was going to get. I have had to adjust to not achieving certain dreams and aspirations. In some cases, I had never fully processed these losses, so they continued to cause me distress.

Professional “grief” isn’t comparable to the loss of a loved one. But I’ve found that my grieving rules can be applied to smaller, professional setbacks—to help me process them and move forward. I offer my set of rules here as a guide for others who may find it helpful to develop their own set of rules.

  1. First and foremost, stick to these rules.
  2. Acknowledge the loss or failure. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen—face its reality.
  3. Do not lose yourself. Remember who, what, where, and when you are. This will guard against being seduced by the pit of despair. This also involves engaging in self-care (or team-care if the loss was experienced by a group).
  4. Do your best. Every day. But equally important is to have compassion for yourself when you don’t feel as though you’re living up to your expectations; you don’t have to do your best at every moment.
  5. Keep a goal. Without an objective, there can be no movement forward. Without movement, there is only stagnation. Keep advancing forward—to improve, to recover, to discover, to prepare, to cushion, to prevent tumbling into the pit.
  6. Remember that what you have learned and experienced in the past can serve as a foundation to process and move beyond the loss. In my case, I relied heavily on my STEM training to handle the loss of my mother and design the rules. I couldn’t help it: My mathematical education in logic, proofs, and solving equations automatically kicked in as I endeavored to “solve” my “problem.” 
  7. Do not use the loss as an identity, particularly one where you are to be pitied. This loss is now a part of your own journey, but it doesn’t define your existence.
  8. Stay in the truth. The loss will trick you into believing a false narrative about yourself, especially that you will never recover and that sadness will be an ever present companion. Don’t let this negative thinking overtake you. Remember who you are—your values, your abilities, your achievements, your attitude, your personality.
  9. Keep your radar up. In your weakened state, people who are attracted to vulnerability and fragility may find their wormy way toward you and try to take advantage of you. Don’t let them pierce your armor and haul you into the pit.
  10. Accept that you’ll make mistakes. You will stumble; that is part of being human.
  11. Look for lessons in every step of the loss. Ask yourself: What can I learn about myself, or the world, or the way I work in the world, to enable me to be stronger when faced with another loss or failure?
  12. Learn to identify things that you’re grateful for. For example, if your postdoc adviser treated you like garbage, can you find some level of gratitude in thinking about the skills you gained through the position? Or did you learn how to recognize a toxic adviser and avoid that kind of creature going forward? When my mother died, it helped me to remember how happy I was to have had the time with her. Holding on to this gratitude meant that I wasn’t consumed by sadness at all times, and it gave me strength to face the next moment without her with me.
  13. Pay it forward. Use what you learn from processing your loss to help others. Before my mother passed away, I had no idea what it meant to lose a person who is central to my life. So, when friends and family experienced their own losses, I had no concept of what to say or how to help them. But now, on the other side of this traumatic loss, I have a better idea of what kind of support might be helpful.
  14. Emerge triumphant and ready to take on the next big challenge.

Not everyone will experience the death of a loved one in this manner—or grieve in the same way. Similarly, not everyone will experience professional loss in the same ways I have. But you may find value in creating a system that works for you to manage, navigate, learn from, and ultimately prevail beyond any loss. And to do it now, before the loss hits you, is a good way to keep you strong during a time of turmoil and sadness.

The author wishes to express appreciation to Bobbie Rill, her grief counselor. She’s also grateful to Susan Levine for being a wonderful mother.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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