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. 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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