lessons in patience

The past two weeks have found me returning to a bit of work. It’s an annual job that runs for a few weeks, and I’m able to sit at home in my pajamas, use my brain a little, and get paid. It’s not a bad opportunity; in fact, the extra money is always welcome. When I received the inquiry about my participation in this year’s program, I initially scoffed at the idea of working, It was after all, just after Caemon had died. But the reality of finances began to settle in. While we have nearly paid off all of our medical expenses, and while we had enough to move, the fact that I have not worked regularly since last August is beginning to show in our bank account and has left me to try on returning to working life, even if just for a few weeks.

Honestly, I thought this would be harmless, that I could sit around and grade some exams, talk once in awhile on the phone with colleagues, and have a little bit of a mental break from the grieving without the bigger commitment of having a regular schedule or regular interactions with the outside world. While I did consider that my brain might be a bit rusty, I didn’t fathom that I might encounter people who were actually unkind or situations that completely dismissed that I am a human being going through the traumatic experience of losing a child.

That is the case in our culture though, isn’t it? Most employers don’t offer much more than a week or two for bereavement, and beyond that, we’re expected to put on our suits, dry our tears, and get back to work. Ah, but grief doesn’t work like that, does it? It pops up. I might be sitting here grading only to read a paper about a teen who feels her parents have neglected her, and I will absolutely fall apart. Or, there won’t be a reminder, only quiet, too much quiet, and I’ll remember past years when I graded while nursing a baby Caemon, while snuggling a sleepy toddler Caemon, or while watching a little boy Caemon playing on my office floor. With those memories come tears and distraction, something that doesn’t serve one well in work that requires focus and concentration.

To my surprise, I have managed to perform satisfactorily for the most part. There are days when I am a bit off, though, and on those days, I have been called out by supervisors. On one occasion, I mentioned that I was feeling off my game, that I could use some mentoring to get back on track because my son had just died. Typically, this disarms people, but in this circumstance, it seemed to make the supervisor less understanding, more critical. I burst into tears when I got off the phone. I wasn’t ready for the harsh reality of an environment where work is work and personal lives take a seat way, way in the back.

A few days later, it was my turn to do some mentoring of graders, and one of my team members was struggling. When I spoke with him, he confided that he had recently suffered some deaths in his family, and he was struggling to grade through the grief. I expressed my condolences, and offered him words of encouragement when he decided to back out of the program and return next year. When I spoke with one of the supervisors–a different one this time–I was met with similar disregard for this person’s suffering and utter relief that they had finally rid themselves of this problem grader. This problem. A grieving man. Once again, I cried when I hung up the phone.

I have worked in academia for over a decade in one way or another, and while I love intellectual pursuits, I’m beginning to see that Caemon’s death has changed me. Yes, I may very well return to academic work eventually and love it, but I don’t know. I know it feels like leading with my head is counterintuitive right now. It’s almost as if my heart won’t let me. I spend all day trying to squash my grief, pushing it back so that I can focus only to be consumed with it for the rest of the day once my work is finished.  I know it won’t be like this forever, but that change in me–that desire to lead with love–that will be with me for the rest of my life, so I wonder if I even can go back to this sort of work where the head rules and the heart rides in a side car.

I’m beginning to fear the answer is no.

Of course, for now I’ve got to make a living, and I’ve got to do it whether the people I work with are understanding or not. I have decided to return to my regular job this summer where compassionate people abound, but where I am, for all intents and purposes, a brain on a computer monitor (I work in online educational support). Since Caemon was diagnosed with leukemia, however, I have been feeling a pull toward something else, toward work of the heart, something that might make a difference in people’s lives beyond their ability to successfully write an essay. I don’t know what that is going to look like, but my son changed me. He led me not to just realize but to know that I must make the most of every moment I spend on this planet.

I still don’t know if I am ready to return to work. What I do know is that I need to surround myself in people with love and empathy and be gentle and patient with myself. I have learned very quickly that when I stop honoring the grieving process, I suffer. Whatever I do, my inclination right now is to lead with my heart, to be as authentic as I can, and to be kind to myself. I suppose I should hope for the same in any future pursuits, and while the control freak in me has a hard time of just letting that be for now, I’ve got to learn to know that my right path is just ahead.

12 thoughts on “lessons in patience

  1. I am so sorry, T, that people have treated you with less than compassion and kindness as you wade back into the working world. That is not right and is not fair. I hope, on the balance, more people are kind than are not and that you can abide this time on this stop-over, while you figure out where your destination is and how to get there.

  2. I think people panic in the face of grief and often end up doing or saying terrible things. I hate that this has happened to you and I wish that our society left more room for mourning and wasn’t in such a hurry for grievers to get back to work and back to normal. It just doesn’t work.

  3. Forgive them. They haven’t travelled your path, yet. Those of us who have travelled a similar path send you an abundance of love and concern.

  4. It’s amazing how cold and ‘hearltess’ people can be…until their own tragedy hits them. It’s a horrible feeling to go through such a loss and then to have someone treat you like it is nothing to them, so it should be nothing to you. I am sorry that this is happening to you. I am so, so, sorry for this loss for you both. I still have my crocodile tattoos in an envelope on my desk; I only just started following your story and requested my tattoos when little Mr. Caemon gained his wings. I am just holding on to them now, some weird strand of hope – my own niece is in remission currently with AML, and I feel like these little tattoos are good luck! I hope one day, life will be better for you and Jodi.

  5. I don’t now of you follow my blog, but I had a terrible experience when I returned to work…

    On the day I returned to work after Parker died, I was sat down with HR and informed that a corporate complaint was filed against me (while I was out on leave). In short, the person who filed the complaint was upset about me talking about Parker, and that I had a photo of him at my desk. Instead of showing sensitivity to me being a grieving mother, the company sided with the other person, and I was “spoken to”.

    I was so hurt and shocked. Who would do such a thing! I don’t think people can handle children dying. They don’t know what to do or say, and often times what they end up doing or saying is hurtful (intentional or not). It sucks.

    I am glad that you’re following your heart and your inner pull to be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to travel the path of grief. I hope your heart will guide you to a job that will fill you up and make you feel valued and appreciated. xo

  6. It sounds like it may be a good choice for you to take a new direction. I’m sorry your colleagues are such miserable bastards. I think they should be encouraged to read the post that you wrote about the day Caemon passed, and then see how they feel about your grieving.
    And Laurie Ann, that’s terrible, so awful. I hope you no longer work there.

  7. So sorry that the people yo work with have been insensitive and nkind…I think that this is st part of the hman condition and not necessarily the field yo work in…..I work in hman services (social work), and have witnessed some very nkind colleages there as well. Contine to stay strong and hold yor head p…yo will find yo way! Peace and love to yo both! (sorry for the typos, my kids destroyed my keyboard).

  8. I am so sorry that you have met with anything other than compassion on your journey back to work. I am looking forward to seeing where your heart leads you. I am sure you will find something feels more right.

  9. I don’t understand how people can be so cruel in the aftermath of what you’ve just gone through. I’m sorry that you’ve encountered them and hope that when you are back with your regular colleagues that things are better. I agree with a previous poster that it is more about people not knowing how to deal with the loss of a child – in other words, it’s their issue, not yours. And again I’m so amazed at how focused and kind you remain in the face of such a loss. You are a guiding light to the rest of us on living with grace.

  10. When we lost our son, my boss simply said something like “Come to work when you’re ready” though he probably would have said more if I hadn’t come soon. I did a lot of processing there, but I had a solitary job. People who haven’t lost someone close just can’t relate, they should have to take a serious training if they are in leadership.

  11. I’ve read this piece each day since you posted. I’ve sat with it in my quiet times. I’ve relived some of my “lessons of loss”, searching for what to share, what to hold back. This morning I came across this quote.
    “Self-compassion is approaching ourselves, our inner experience with spaciousness, with the quality of allowing, which has a quality of gentleness. Instead of our usual tendency to want to get over something, to fix it, to make it go away, the path of compassion is totally different. Compassion allows.” – Robert Gonzales
    As I walked the roads of my grief I found that, after a time, even a few ‘friends’ had limits on their compassion. Yes I was vexing, and after my husband died suddenly, just before the 10th anniversary of our son’s death, I was a little insane for a time. I inadvertently hurt those I loved. Most loved me all the more, one or two wiped me from their lives.
    With the loving support of those who stayed the distance, I’ve found my joy again. It’s a different joy. I’m not the same person. Grief changed me, but ultimately, I believe I’m a better person.
    I now work as a volunteer, when my health permits, with psychologists, facilitating writer’s worshops for people in the process of grief, and more recently, writer’s workshops for people with chronic and life limiting illness.
    It’s very early days, but your inner voice is already speaking to you. And when others lack compassion, perhaps the above quote will ease a little, the pain caused by their insensitivity.
    With love
    Tricia xo

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