Working Through Grief

This week, it will be a year since I lost my dad. It was sudden and unexpected. That Friday, he was out on an early morning bike ride when his heart gave out, and I received the call from my mom while I was getting dressed for work. I opened up my laptop, and ignored the first flush of work emails while I booked a flight departing in two hours’ time. I packed a suitcase with funeral clothes while waiting for my dad’s best friend to arrive and drive me to the airport. On the way, he took me to my Gran’s house to break the news to her in person, and then I left her in the care of my aunt and uncle.

Dad’s funeral took place the following Wednesday. The day before, I’d gone through his business files. The day after, I had a board meeting that I didn’t want to miss. By Friday, I was properly back at work, and meeting with the family business partners to coordinate the succession management process. 

My dad was not old. He was 66. His business interests were broad and complicated and active. There was a window for my grief, but it only lasted three working days. 

In fairness, he and I had already choreographed this process between us. We had both dealt with family estates before, where the head of the family had passed away unexpectedly and we had stepped in to help navigate the family through the succession. We had both seen the pitfalls when someone’s legal status shifts to “deceased”. Their legal life doesn’t end, unfortunately. It’s a mess that has to be resolved, one way or another, by someone else.

So over the last decade or so, my Dad and I had slowly worked through the family estate together to make sure that we were ready when the time came. 

And it wasn’t just the big ticket estate planning that we had thought through – it was all the small details as well. I knew where the email passwords were and which people fitted where in the contact list. There was a file with key information that he updated every year. Ongoing projects were not secrets for me to uncover – he’d already told me about them. Dad and I spoke almost daily. As my own work commitments increased, he would be increasingly indignant that I was not always available at his convenience. When I was staying with him, he’d come into my room at 6am in the morning with a coffee, and then would leave 45 minutes later after having told me his plans for the day. One evening, he apologised to me that the work of steadying the ship would mostly fall on my shoulders. We had a decade-long handover, and a week after his bike ride, I’d picked up the office keys.

This was one of his greatest gifts. Everyone should be blessed with this kind of care in a parent.

But even that gift does not change a fundamental reality – that as working adults, we must do our grieving after hours. There are no obvious resources to help with this that I have seen. And I did go looking for them.

The post-death spiral

I am no expert, but I know that we do not talk enough about how essential and urgent those first few weeks after death are. Those weeks have long term consequences. People talk about the vultures circling, and this is indeed correct, even if it is unkindly phrased.

Let me explain with a scenario. Let’s say that you’re working for a dynamic entrepreneur who dies suddenly. Business continues as usual in the office, albeit somber, for a few days. Then the first client cancels a contract. Debt collection falters. Someone realises that the payroll process is running late because there is no one to sign it off. A supplier starts aggressively pursuing payment. A few colleagues stop coming to work. Other clients take their business elsewhere because performance has dropped off. The resignations multiply, and suddenly the company has collapsed because everyone just rushed out the door. 

The first supplier to cut ties and pursue payment faces the least loss. The first employee to find alternative employment is the least likely to miss a paycheck. 

This kind of reaction happens faster than you might expect. Debtors disappear en masse and creditors descend in a panic that they probably won’t get paid. Everyone knows that bank accounts get frozen by the executor of the estate until it is wound up – creditors and employees will sweep in to hoover up whatever is liquid. 

At the same time, perhaps some altruistic friends and family will step in to help. This can really help at first, because they tend to make small short term decisions that keep the ship on course. But eventually people get resentful, and start to ask themselves whether those friends and family have a right to make those decisions. Smaller decisions also set the trend for larger decisions to be taken. Long term decisions made by unprepared temporary stand-ins (who usually miss the larger context) can be extremely damaging. They might well pay that first creditor at the door to assuage the harassment, which really just notifies the creditors at large that the estate is open to payments if you push hard enough.

My lived experience is that you maybe have a ten day window to take control, or you face contagion. 

Being prepared

Stemming that tide requires resilience and clear long-term thinking. For a start, it means fending off those initial angry creditors. When they arrive, it’s far more important to keep paying those loyal few who are sticking around than it is to clear accounts with those that have already jumped ship. That’s what incentivises people to stay put.  

The immediate problem is that you have to find that clarity of mind while you are still in grief. 

The larger risk is that you shut down because you cannot face it. That’s when grief can really escalate into the trauma of watching your entire life fall apart. It’s no doubt why losing an aged retired grandparent feels less intense than losing an active parent, or a breadwinner spouse, or your supportive adult child. There are fewer consequences.

So how do you parse through the grief almost as soon as it has arrived?

I guess you can try to suppress the grief through sheer force of will. Or perhaps you can use a mix of medication, meditation and substance abuse to numb the experience. In those moments, you just have to cope in whatever way you can.

But the only logical way to parse through grief when it arrives is to be prepared for it in advance. 

To be clear, I don’t think it’s really possible to be prepared for the experience of death, but the experience of grief in the aftermath of death is different. One analogy for this might be someone who is preparing to have spinal surgery that will leave them unable to walk. You cannot stop the pain of that change. But your adjustment to living with that new reality will be much easier if you’ve installed ramps in your house, made your bathrooms disabled-friendly, and installed a chair lift to get upstairs. 

I can only tell you how I prepared for it. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I didn’t realise that I was mentally preparing for it, but then it turned out that I arrived prepared. 

What is the experience of grief?

Here is my starting point:

  1. Grief is the raw experience of what is absent. Over time, grief fades.
  2. Gratitude is the active recognition of what is present. Over time, gratitude fades.

One great evolutionary advantage that we have as humans is our ability to cope with change. As time passes, we get used to the new normal very quickly. This can be good news for the grief-stricken. But it is also bad news if you want to be happy – because happiness is a positive change that we adapt to, and then the honeymoon is over and you go back to normal.

But even if we appear to relatively passive participants in our life experience (ie. “life is what is happening to me”), we are actually re-active participants in that we still react to what is going on. So depending on how I react, I experience life in three main ways:

  1. If I am lucky enough to have an optimistic character, then life is a series of fortunate encounters, where the difficulties are framed as even-worse-outcomes avoided.
  2. If I am a relatively easy-going person that doesn’t worry too much, life is an ebb and flow of good times and bad times. Some days I’m lucky, and some days I’m not.
  3. If I’m unlucky enough to have a pessimistic personality, then life is a series of misfortunes, where even the better moments are experienced as pending disasters waiting to happen.

It is not a stretch to say that we naturally tend toward the pessimism of option 3. Life is full of risk; the news cycle is negative; and in the end, one way or another, we’re all going to die. 

How to tip the mental scale toward optimism

For those of us that have reactively ended up experiencing life as “a series of disappointments broken only by dark spells of depression”, we’re already existing in a state of low grade chronic grief. When that’s your default setting, the death of a loved one can plunge you into full-scale despair.

This way of being is something that I’ve consciously rejected, as a rule: I opt for proactivity whenever I can. And fortunately, there is some pretty compelling scientific evidence for how to be proactive about positivity. Some studies show that choosing experiences over goods makes you happier. Others show that acting happy tends to make you feel happy. 

My particular discipline of choice was the “spend a minute a day writing down 5 things that you’re grateful for”. It seems like a minor thing, really. But to be proactively and creatively positive (the creativity comes from turning thoughts into marks of graphite on a page) at least once a day is somehow beyond us. We’re usually too busy being reactively depressed or passively distracted.

But I somehow committed to creatively treading that new neural pathway each day, for that short minute out of the one thousand four hundred and forty available to me. I had never taken the trouble to voluntarily build a mental habit before, and as it set in, I began to notice myself taking notice throughout the day of experiences and moments that would make it into the daily 5 list.

The appreciation multiplier

Being even vaguely aware of what is good and profitable in a day acts like an insulation layer against anxiety. Before long, I started to notice when the worry about the exam paper turned into the relief that the dense questions were on topics that I knew well. That is: I no longer recalled only what was good about the day, but also what didn’t go wrong.

That way of thinking about what could have gone wrong but didn’t seems to subtly alter the way that you engage with the people that matter. It makes you aware of how vulnerable your time is. So you don’t just say what needs to be said, you also find yourself putting the work in. You make the time, and take the calls, and have that 45 minute cup of coffee when it’s on offer.

You also don’t waste time with those unhelpful patterns of behavior that creep into old relationships. You adjust course when the outcome is most likely to be positive, rather than waiting until you’re at your most frustrated. 

Over time, it turns out that the multiplier effect of proactive gratitude is a sensory experience of multiple parallel realities in which this reality is the one in which you worked on bringing about the best possible outcome, and you made good choices.

And this is why gratitude is the antithesis of grief, because grief is the sensory experience of multiple parallel realities in which your loss had not happened, and in which you would have acted differently if had you known that this loss was coming when it did.

When you can passage through grief holding in tension both the loss of a future in which you will never actively participate and the gift of the past in which you were an active participant, then you are already ahead of the game.

And when you can hold in balance the indefinite absence of a single person with the ongoing presence of every single other person, then you have clarity of mind by default. 

Having proactive awareness in your toolbox means arriving at grief prepared. You knew it would come one day. It is awful when it turns out that one day is today, but you’ve done some really essential heavy lifting in advance, and there are still future days of grief to guard against.

The bottom line

In the end, when we use terms like “grief” and “gratitude”, these are really descriptions of perspective. Grief is the state of fixating on what is not there. Gratitude is the broadening of your mind’s eye to see what is not there, what is there, what could have been better, and what could have been worse. That breadth of mind almost by definition means having the clarity of long-term thinking.

I am still amazed that mental and emotional preparedness for mourning began with trying to practice a small and seemingly insignificant 60 second habit. 

But then again, it should not be so surprising. Nature will turn a packet of seeds into a garden of flowers, and most of the work will be done by the energy of the sun. You just have to take the action of planting those seeds one morning in spring, and then watering them occasionally. Seeds are pure exponential potential. It requires very little effort to unlock them. 

Humans are also biological beings, with that same latent potential for growth. Apparently, all it needs to get going is a few minutes of regular daily commitment to writing a list of what went well today.

It may not work for everyone. But in case you’re asking, it probably will work for everyone. And it costs so little to try.

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