THE RADICAL VULNERABILITY: BUILDING THE MUSCLE OF RESILIENCE AFTER LOSS
“Call Lily. It is urgent. It is about Slim.”….that was the message I received from my older brother when I got out of shower at 09:55 AM on 30th July 2016.
It sent chills down my spine. Everything froze. Before I had a chance to react, another message from mum came in telling to call home urgently. For someone living thousands of miles away from home (8 hour flight) this was the most scary message you can ever receive.
”Nobody has died”…Lily, my sister in law, said to me immediately when she picked up the phone. It got me to calm down a little. She knew I needed to hear that before panicking. She explained how my brother had been found laying with blood oozing from his ears on the side of the road early morning on his way back from jogging. Someone intentionally hit him with what is suspected to be a blunt metallic object on the back of his head and left him for the dead, with nothing stolen. His skull was really fractured with multiple cracks and he had severe brain damage. I remember this voice going in my head over and over again ”Oh God, please let my brother live”.
The flight home was one of the longest flights I have been in my entire life, at least it felt that way. The days that followed were a routine: wake up -> hospital all day-> sleep. My brother started improving, or so we thought. Never in a million times had it crossed my mind that he was going to die. After all, he was just 37, with a young family and a whole life ahead of him. Now I know how naive I was not to have read about brain injuries and survival chances.
”What would the doctors know? I mean, how dare them!”
Everything drastically changed when he had a convulsion (very common with brain injuries) and the doctors told us the bad news that he was totally brain dead and we needed to sign the papers to have him taken off full to minimum support (because Kenyan laws don’t allow turning off life support) Me, being the natural trouble maker, I challenged everything and everyone! I called a million other experts, who confirmed the exactly the same thing over and over. We had to let him go…
”Soldiers don’t die..unless it’s on August 7th”
I had never watched someone die, only in movies. But I knew I was going to be there for my brother when he took his last breathe no matter how painful it was going to be. I remember watching the machines when life started leaving his body. When recording got down to 10 my heart was shattered into little tiny pieces that contained glass and pierced every inch of my body. I counted as his heart rate and pulse continued to drop….then it was zero. Everything froze. My heart froze. Just like that, the life I knew with Tom in it was gone right in front of my eyes and there was nothing in my power I could do to stop it. Just that moment when you realise that, as a human being, death is something you will never and can never have control over.
”Death is normal, as long as it’s not close to me”
Life goes one, at least everyone around you seems to go on. When you are stuck in grief and pain, you expect the world to stop, but it doesn’t. And you get get angry. I was furious! Angry at the person or people who hurt my brother intentionally to kill me. Angry at the rest of the world for not stopping to feel this enormous pain I was going through. Angry at myself for not being able to stop death. Angry at God. Angry at the whole bloody universe. I thought the more angrier I got, the more chances the world and life would stop, if only for one minute to acknowledge my pain…but it didn’t. It never does.
It’s only when I stopped to think about it and realised that death is always there, has always been there, I just never really noticed because it wasn’t close to me. I remember knowing people who lost loved ones, and me saying ”I am so sorry for your loss. Sending my condolences to you and family”, and I said that with good intentions and meant it. But I also acknowledge that it felt ‘normal’ because I knew for a fact that we all eventually die. So why, in the midst of my own grief was I expecting anything different or special treatment from the world? Now, having gone through that experience myself, I am more gentle, more kind to people, I don’t just say words, I am aware, and I share the pain. I feel connected to the experience for pain that is so demanding and consuming. So next time a colleague or friend looses someone they love, be a little more gentle.
”Work! Work and Work! You will forget it all. ”
Nope. Working doesn’t help. Not at all! You don’t run away from pain! You don’t run away from grief! It follows you. It stays with you.It’s like an infatuated lover. Nothing you do can help you ”escape” pain. I went back to work too soon. I needed that, or so I thought. It worked fine for a couple of weeks then I caved in! I was a walking emotional wreck! Emotional time bomb.
”Keep your head up, nobody will know you are a total wreck…so I thought!”
I remember going back to work and bursting out in tears all the time when I had a bathroom break. I had to wear this mask so my colleagues didn’t know how emotionally wrecked I was. I was so scared and even embarrassed to be vulnerable in front of my colleagues. I didn’t want them to ask me how I was doing, because I was so embarrassed of breaking down. Pain stirred something so raw inside of me- utter rage and anger. I hated everyone and everything. I needed to channel the anger somewhere. I became so irritable. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, especially at work. But I was spending a lot of hours at work, and I was silly enough to think that I could mask it all the time. I admit how lucky I am to work and live in a country where, as an employee, you are protected by law when it comes to being sick, be it mental, physical or otherwise.
”How many clearing cycles do we have? What??”
I didn’t see it coming, but the grief counsellor I was seeing saw it a mile off. I was on the edge of an emotional breakdown if I didn’t stop. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I hated meetings. I hated interactions with people. I hated chit chat. Every little and big emotion I was trying so hard to hold in was dying to be let out, and sooner or later, it was going to come out one way or the other and probably it wasn’t going to be a good scene. I knew something was wrong when one of my colleagues asked a very simple question: How many clearing cycles do we have. And I had no answer to that question. I didn’t know. I didn’t even know what a clearing cycle meant. My brain was blank. I was so confused and angry, asking myself with rage why he would ask me a question that he clearly knew I didn’t know. This was of course not the case. While sitting in the train after leaving the office that day, still pouting with anger, I finally realised that I of course knew the answer to that, since I single handedly had revamped the cycles and this was my area of expertise. But at that moment, the only thing that my brain was able to process was pain and grief. Nothing else.The realisation that I was operating on 100% full grief capacity and no other brain resources could be allocated to anything else, came as a slap to me. I broke down in the train, and I couldn’t stop. I knew then that I had to listen to the grief counsellor and just stop! And I did! I just stopped! I am very lucky to work for a very flexible employer who allowed me the flexibility to work around my emotional stability. Nothing mattered at that moment apart from ensuring that I felt better.
Knowing that I had the support of my employer, and still do, to concentrate on healing first, helped me tremendously because I didn’t have to worry about anything else apart from dealing with grief that consumed every part of me.
So many employers don’t take time to show more empathy to their employees going through adversity, be it divorce, grief, family problems etc. Many are times, employers view people as machines: perform or get out. By having policies, written or not, and flexibility that allows employees to deal with their emotional or mental status, employers will ensure that they have an employee back when they are in a better state to perform to their full capacity rather than when they force them to come back immediately after. Having internal support system or someone to talk to employees will not only give assurance to employees that they are indeed viewed and understood as human beings, but also that their mental and emotional stability is as important as their performance.There is still a long way to go when it comes to grief leave. In fact, the days are very minimal. Most companies only have just five (5) days, which in reality is not enough to allow employees time to properly deal with the adversity.Sadly, many employers still need to create such policies. After all, you as a manager, or CEO, or executive, are not immune to grief.
Post traumatic growth and resilience
The only one thing that ALL human beings are 100% sure of going through is DEATH. Yet, this is one of the most ‘don’t mention’ topics known to mankind. We have been taught, generation after generation how bad death is, even when we know for sure that we will all eventually die.
There are so many things that test our resilience more than death of a loved one, yet, for some unknown reason, grief from loosing a loved one can be extremely devastating and crippling than any other loss human beings experience. But death is almost the only thing that can teach us about life.
Grief is very personal and most of the time paralysing. There is no one clear path or method of dealing with grief or finding comfort. There are some common stages of grief, or so they say: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but not everyone goes through all of them. And if you are going through grief yourself, you will learn to handle it the best way you know how. Your emotions will guide you.
There is never going to be a silver lining when you lose someone you love, but there is a tremendous possibility to grow from it because you are forcefully pushed forward to deal with something that you can never be prepared enough for it.
Experts in this field have categorised five forms of post-traumatic growth:
- Finding personal strength (realising you are stronger than you ever expected)
- Gaining appreciation (joy looks different after trauma—a non-traumatic day is a great day)
- Forming deeper relationships (focusing on friends with substance)
- Discovering more meaning in life and seeing new possibilities.
”I will never smile again”
I remember feeling so overwhelmed that I knew for a fact that I was running mad. It was a scary experience, yet, Hetty, the grief counsellor I was seeing (still see) told me, one day I would, and she was right. When everything is all raw, the emotions can be very overwhelming and your brain convinces you that this pain you feel at this moment will never lessen, but it does. Finding ways that help you deal with grief can speed up your recovery. It is very different for each individual, and as a person, you have to find your own ‘helpers’ that nudge you when you want the whole world to swallow you because of the pain.
Personally speaking, these are some of the things that helped me:
I started writing to my brother. Telling him everything I needed to say to him. Putting things down, helped me tremendously, because I felt I could still have conversations with him. Sometimes we argue in my writing, just like we would in ”normal” life.
I am sucker for classical and piano music. I found the saddest songs that helped me bring my raw emotions to the face. Crying always helps cleanse my soul. My favourite song is: Andante Affettuoso by Brian Crain. This is the song that was playing when my Tom took his last breathe (doctors allowed us to play him music when he was in a coma). It’s the only song that has the capability to bring all emotions I am humanly capable of, at the same time bring calm to me.
3.Family & Close Friends
Surrounding myself with very few close people who could relate and share my main helped. Cutting down people who said comments like: ”move on already”, and allowing myself time to deal with grief. I also established more personal and strong bonds with family and a few close friends. I made new friends a long the way and I stop to chat with strangers just because I know one word might be the only thing that can lift up that person.
4.Being gentle to my soul
Learning to be gentle with myself and my soul has been very hard to learn. Being consciously aware of my emotions and allowing them to surface, acknowledging them, giving them their space and allowing them to be heard. This has not only allowed me to heal better, but has also taught me how to handle my family, friends and colleagues comments much better without taking things personal; while at the same time being able to forgive myself when I take it personal or get offended.
5. Setting Boundaries
When I need to stop, I stop. Be it a work or at home. Setting boundaries with colleagues, family and friends when I need to take time out for me. Saying no to invitations, be it lunch with colleagues or drinks with friends. Being always aware that my brain might want to do it all, but my soul can’t handle it yet, and effectively not crossing over these boundaries. By continuously respecting such, I have been able to slowly build up my emotional resilience at home and work.
6.Allocating my brain % capacity to unknown
I must admit that this has been the hardest thing to do especially with my work. Knowing that, I can’t and will not, not for a while, be able to perform at 100% capacity at work, and fully accepting this has been extremely hard. Like so many people going through grief, you become so aware that the things that made sense to you then, don’t necessarily do now.You start self doubting. You start challenging yourself if you knew anything in the first place. Your brain doesn’t function as you would like it to. As a self proclaimed top performer, I struggle with the fact that my brain is not 100% full work capacity, and that it’s totally ok. At one point, when all this is well behind me, I will eventually be back to capacity again, but for now, I need to fully heal before I can realistically be 100% normal. Being aware of this, accepting this and knowing the elasticity of your brain capacity, setting that percentage aside just in case you have a meltdown and balancing between work and the unknown will make things easier. Giving myself an ”allowance” to not have control has been so good in so many ways in helping with my healing.
I love doing things myself because then I know I do them well, or rather the way I want them done. Accepting that I can’t do it all myself, and probably won’t be able to for a while, has allowed me to ask for help at work, something that I normally wouldn’t do it because I didn’t need it then. This has allowed me focus the little energy to one thing at a time.
Based on my capacity, I have learnt and continue to learn to let go of things and people that don’t contribute to my healing. Letting go of the fear of being ‘found out’ that I am vulnerable. Letting go of the fear of breaking down. Letting go of the fear of non-performance. Letting go of ”full capacity” bullshit and knowing that sometimes I can only work with little possibility to consumer more information and data. Letting go of the pressure and guilt that I am not the first to go through this. Letting go of the pressure to ”chin up and move on”. Learning to let go of all the crap of ”how it should be and how I should act” instilled and expected of me or from me, be it my society or self, has lifted such a heavy chip off my shoulder.
9.Asking and reaching out for help
There is nothing embarrassing about being vulnerable to your colleagues, family and friends. There are many good professionals out there who can give you tools of coping. Going to see a grief counsellor is probably what helped me the most. Being a professional who has handled such incidents for years and having gone through grief herself; I rely so very much on her guidance and help. Having someone not related to you to listen when you pour your fears, emotions, anger, sadness and not having to worry about how they will feel about you is very therapeutic. Accepting that I didn’t have the capability to pull myself through this and reaching out for help, not only allowed me to see myself from a totally new perspective, but also reminded me that I am only human after all.
Lastly, acceptance of the way things are and taking all the little fighting energy left to break out and escape from the ‘grief prison’, is slowly allowing me to seek joy after facing adversity . I am more kind to myself and others. I am more gentle to my soul and others. I am more patient with myself and my capacity to not being 100% ok. I am more aware of my capabilities from a human being point of view and not just a working machine. I am aware that my life as I knew it then, will never be the same. I also know that and I am very emotionally aware that many people are facing more adversity that I could ever imagine, and I should always be kind to people. I interact better with others, always keeping in mind that just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean I know what each person is going through. I try to be more kind than I used to be. I am aware that I am still extremely full of anger and with questions that will only be answered when we find justice for Tom and have closure. I am more aware that the anger, frustration and the lack of closure has changed my emotional dynamics and made me extremely edgy, irritable and emotionally sensitive. But, by being aware of all this, I have accepted and I am able to understand that not everyone is capable of understanding and feeling the core of my pain, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t mean well. I have accepted, that my heart is broken into little pieces, and it needs time to mend up before I can be ‘normal’ again. But I have also grown in such an incredible and tremendous way, something that I don’t take for granted. My resilience, both personally and professionally has grown and continues to grow.
”But most of all, I have accepted that I am only human, and it’s humanly impossible to separate emotions at work and at home when it comes to grief. Your heart and soul feel what they feel regardless of your location. Grief and adversary, can, and sometimes do help you grow.”
It is sad that my brother had to die for me to experience such growth, for that I see his death as a blessing for helping me become a better human being.
If you are going through grief of any sorts right now, don’t be scared or embarrassed to be vulnerable. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you can’t concentrate at work. Don’t worry too much if you currently hate your colleagues or work. Don’t get stressed when you start loosing self confidence at work especially about your performance.You are only human. Seek help. Talk to your employer about getting help. Stop and take time off. Don’t forget to be gentle to your soul. If your soul is broken, so will your brain. You need to fully heal inside, before anything else can fully function. Eventually, the pain will subside and lessen, and you will find joy in the little things in life and work again. Just be patient…