Reaching out and opening up

You just never know the path that other people have been on. Our world has gotten too good at denying the open expression of our feelings, especially at work.  That doesn’t mean that people aren’t hurting, or confused, or wanting to help others. Let me tell you about a week I had recently when I was training.

The subject was leadership. A facet that many in the group were interested in was managing change. I told them that you don’t really “manage” change, although that is the popular lexicon. The change happens. Sometimes we know it is coming, sometimes it just jumps out at us in one fell swoop, and sometimes we don’t realize until after the fact that the change occurred. Change is usually an event.  I’m not talking about PMS and menopause, by the way!

So if we can’t manage change, what then? Well, we can manage the change process, I said. More accurately, we manage the transition that follows a change. I explained this to the group, and we then discussed the stages of transition and how we go through them, and how we can help others. From the ending and letting go, to the middle space where we let things settle out, to the new beginning.   Yes, I took a slight risk and used my husband’s death and my grieving as an example, rather than, say, converting to a new case management system. (But later I did use that example also.)

The risk I took was that I would make my audience too uncomfortable with such a personal example, or almost worse, lose my composure and start crying.  The horror of horrors! Not at work!!  But that didn’t happen this time. And that in itself is proof that I have managed this transition and am on the upswing again.

What was interesting is what happened as a result.  A man brought up a situation in which people were moved to a new office. From a small space with no windows to a larger office with a view. And the person cried. He didn’t know what to do. He could not understand that the employee wasn’t jumping for joy.  I explained that even when we want the change to happen, we still have feelings that need to be honored and expressed. I might guess it had to do with security, comfort in the status quo, or the prospect of people now watching her, or maybe even increased expectations as a result. Maybe it was going to be more distraction, or … You get the idea. The man in the class seemed amazed at these possibilities. He said he would handle the next time differently and ask questions instead of making assumptions.  And that’s not all…

A woman in the class brought me a card the next day. She didn’t want to say anything in front of the entire group, but she had lost her only sibling 26 years ago.  She occasionally struggles with questions of “what would it be like to have a niece or nephew?” And she sometimes is frustrated because she is now the sole caregiver for her aging parents. She thinks this experience has made her stronger, but she is proof that we don’t just “get over” a loss.  The feelings change, recede, visit from time to time, but never go away completely. It doesn’t mean we are still sad 26 years later, or forever, but simply that our feelings change, especially as situations change. With her parents now needing attention, the reason she is the only one left to give care seems fresh.  She will remember that others may also be going through the same thing, and we haven’t a clue why. She said I was courageous and showed integrity. And there is another story, too.

This woman came to me as everyone else left at the end of the course. She had tears in her eyes. I’m not sure of her age, but I would guess her late 30’s; she has a 14-year-old son. Her husband passed away suddenly a year ago from a heart attack. She told me that she doesn’t ever talk about it at work at all because she doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or pity her. She tries to maintain an “everything’s just fine” appearance. She took off her wedding ring and replaced it with another favorite of hers.  (I took mine off and don’t wear any rings at all most of the time, on either hand.) She was appreciative that I was willing to talk out loud about it, said it gave her courage. In her view, I gained credibility because of my story, and she also appreciated that I shared it so she knew she wasn’t alone.

And then there is the woman I met at Starbucks. She lost everything when her 19-year-old son died in a car accident. She couldn’t concentrate and didn’t care; she lost her job of 20 years. She had bills to pay (including a funeral and medical expenses) but no job. She lost her home. She became difficult to be around, and she lost her friends. But it’s all okay, according to her, because she is “dealing” with it.  She blamed her ex-husband for allowing the son to have a driver’s license, for letting him drive his car. She also has a 14-year-old son who is bigger than she is, and he grabbed her arm. She knew he needed a man in his life, so she sent him a thousand miles away to live at Dad’s. All she wants now is to not sleep in her car and to get her late son’s ashes back from the hotel that threw her out because she didn’t pay her bill. She smiled and laughed as she told me her story, and I could see the pain she was trying to deny.

There, but for the Grace of God, go I.  We all have our stories.  All of us, not just those of us who have suffered the death of someone close to us. We all walk our own path that might be uphill at times, have twists and turns, potholes, or quicksand. And we also have views of hills and valleys filled with flowers and freshness, rainbows to give us hope, signs to guide us, and scampering critters to let us know we are not alone.

I realized that in the early days I hadn’t really “talked” about my grief much, although I do talk about Kevin all the time now as if he were still here (because I believe he is, and no, I’m not crazy). I looked for grief support groups but wasn’t successful find one I fit with. So I “showed” my feelings instead.  I was short-tempered, angry, confused, loud, and even mean-spirited.  I hated to cry at my desk, but I couldn’t help myself, and then I felt bad about that – because There’s No Crying In Baseball!!! (According to Tom Hanks in League of Their Own.)  I was making the effort we must make to keep on living, but I was so exhausted from crying and not knowing what would happen next and not sleepingsoIdidwhateverIdidwithoutthinkingmuchuntilIcouldn’tanymore. And when I talked it out and rested, finally, it all sorted itself.  When I talked about my feelings instead of trying to be strong all the time, I released them and made space for other, better feelings.  I even came to like myself again.  When I started sharing my experience, I felt able to accept the gift of grief I had been given.  If it weren’t for this time in my life, I wouldn’t be who I am, doing what I’m doing, being more of who I am, getting closer to being a better version of me.

If you need to talk, I’m here. Or at my camper. I’m going camping next week, to recharge and refresh my perspective once again. I’m learning to recognize the signals my body gives me, and do something about that. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year.  I’m glad it’s coming.  Open windows, open mind. Fresh air, fresh ideas. Vibrant colors, vibrant living.  We can walk while we talk, even if it’s on the phone.



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