Life has a way of throwing unexpected curveballs at us when we least expect it. The sudden and unexpected death of my husband was one of those moments that turned my world upside down (understatement of the year). Not only did it have a profound emotional impact, but it also presented unique challenges when it came to returning to work. I know it’s a sensitive and personal subject, but I believe that talking openly about grief and its sometimes unexpected effects is important in this very grief-illiterate world in which we live.
Grief as a Somatic Experience:
Grief, I soon discovered, is a complex and deeply somatic experience. It’s not just an emotion; it comes with many physical sensations. For me, grief presented:
- With a tightness in my chest and throat; sometimes so painful it felt like I was having a heart attack.
- My near-perfect vision went suddenly blurry and I required a prescription for both distance & reading.
- Difficulty breathing; I constantly felt like I could not get enough air.
- Insomnia, further complicated by a sudden onset of hyping jerks in which I would jerk awake the moment I was falling asleep, afraid I might stop breathing.
- Crippling panic and anxiety attacks that made it feel like I was dying.
- A level of fatigue I had not previously experienced, not even during pregnancy. The fatigue has not dissipated, even over 2 years out.
- Loss of appetite so severe I lost forty pounds in three months (I do not recommend the trauma diet; zero stars).
Believe it or not, I could go on, but you get the idea. After losing my husband, I found it incredibly challenging to concentrate on my work. The weight of grief made it difficult to focus, and I often found myself lost in a sea of memories and sorrow.
The Loneliness of Professional Pursuits:
As a professional in the field of logo and website design, I had always relied on my husband’s support and love. He was not just my life partner but also my most significant cheerleader and sounding board for creative ideas. His sudden absence left a void that seemed impossible to fill. Every design project I undertook felt lonelier and more challenging without his presence. I believed I fully appreciated him when alive; I knew we had a wonderful marriage, but there is nothing quite like having unconditional love and support torn from you without warning. It felt like I would never be able to work again.
Turning Point: Rediscovering Love and Support:
The turning point in my journey came when I realized that my husband’s love and support hadn’t vanished with his physical presence. Though he was no longer with me in the traditional sense, his influence and encouragement still existed within me. It may sound somewhat trite, but this realization was both comforting and empowering.
Tips for Navigating Grief While Returning to Work:
- Give Yourself Time: Grief is not something that can be rushed. It’s crucial to allow yourself the time and space to mourn and heal. (And I use the word ‘heal’ with a great deal of tongue pressed to the proverbial cheek. There really isn’t a healing that comes, but an ability to carry the pain better. We grow around it; we learn to hold it. It doesn’t go away.)
- Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or a therapist who can provide emotional support during this challenging time. There will be many who do not understand; cannot understand, and who offer empty words of comfort that do not resonate. Seek out truly grief-literate support people. They exist. I don’t know how I would have managed without the #widow community on Instagram. I recommend starting by following Refuge in Grief (her book is amazing) and finding fellow grievers in her comment section.
- Create a Supportive Work Environment: If possible, communicate with your colleagues or clients about your situation. They may be more understanding and accommodating than you expect. As a freelancer, I did not have this problem, but I have widow friends who did. Some employers and colleagues were more understanding than others, but communication is key. Do not be cowed by those who insist “you should be over it by now.”
- Set Realistic Expectations: Understand that your productivity and focus may not return to their previous levels immediately. Set realistic expectations for yourself and take on only what you can handle. For me, that meant taking my time and seeking help from my doctor and therapist. I was diagnosed with ‘prolonged grief disorder’ and started taking an SSRI. I have a novel’s worth of ranting about pathologizing grief, but for me, the diagnosis was a way to ‘prove’ the impact of my husband’s loss and get the help I needed.
- Express Your Emotions: Instead of suppressing your grief, let it out & if possible, channel it into your work. Use your creativity as a therapeutic outlet to express your emotions. I would not have survived without the ability to write out my feelings both in private journal form and in my newsletter. While it’s harder to channel grief into client work (especially cheerful projects!), I strongly believe in having an outlet where you can be absolutely honest about how you are feeling is crucial.
- Remember Your Loved One: Keep the memory of your loved one alive through your work. Incorporate elements that remind you of them or honor their legacy in your designs. I didn’t expect how good it would feel to add an “In loving memory” section to a personal project, recognizing my husband’s love and support in a public way. So many shrink away from sharing such things, but it’s not only important for you, it’s important for others to see and recognize.
Returning to work after the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one has not been easy. It has been an extremely challenging journey filled with emotional and somatic ups and downs. It’s essential to be patient with yourself and find ways to integrate your grief into your professional life rather than constantly trying to ‘move past’ it. Moving past it just isn’t going to happen; instead, you will grow around that gaping hole in your chest and it will become easier to bear.
Allowing myself to believe that my husband’s love and support are still with me, even in his absence, has been essential. It wasn’t until I allowed this tiny feather of hope to take root did I find the strength to continue my work and honor his memory through my creative endeavors.