On 13 January of the year that I had my self-doubt crisis, my Dad passed away. Ten weeks earlier, we had been told that a previously removed tumour, the result of a squamous cell carcinoma, had returned. It was in the forehead/eye socket area and was following a nerve towards his brain. There was nothing that could be done.
I thought that I had coped fairly well during the nine or ten months after his death. Sure, there were days when I really missed him, and every “first” after his death brought with it various memories and challenges but, overall, I thought I was doing ok.
In October-November of that year, I started to struggle. Looking back, I think it was because all of a sudden the focus seemed to shift from surviving the “firsts”, to re-living the “lasts”. The “firsts” felt like a milestone that we had to get through. Once a first was over, it wouldn’t happen again; that is the nature of firsts. The “lasts”, however, were always going to be there, year after year and for the rest of my life. I didn’t think that I could ever move on from those. As the end of the year drew closer, all I could think of was our last Christmas with him, the last time I saw him, the last time we spoke.
Somehow, it occurred to me that the “last” I was mostly struggling with was New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the last time that I saw my Dad. We had spent Dad’s last Christmas with him, leaving Mum & Dad’s house on New Year’s Day to start our trip back home. Hugging and kissing and saying goodbye on the front veranda, with Dad saying “Don’t you worry about me”, and both of us knowing that we were saying the most final goodbye ever, felt like the toughest thing I had ever had to do in my life. He stayed in his wheelchair on the veranda, waving, until we had driven out of sight. I hated the universe right then. I hated it so much.
He died 12 days later.
So, here I was, nine or ten months after Dad’s death and not coping with the prospect of having to start the first day of the new year with the memory of that final goodbye. This went on for a few weeks. I felt as though I was spending a lot of time crying, usually in the car on the way to or from work. There was a part of me that berated myself for being so caught up in grief and not being able to “get over it”, and there was a part of me that, although worried about where this was going, was trying to tell myself that it would be ok.
At the end of one work day, I was in my car in the carpark, crying again about the upcoming anniversary. I was really suffering. This time, however, something caused me to pause and I remember mentally saying to myself “OK. This has to change. What are you going to be that will help you through this?” Before I had finished asking myself the question, there was a random voice in my head that said “How about you be grateful?” It was unexpected, and I had no idea where it had come from. Although I thought that it was a fabulous idea, I was also skeptical – was this one of those bright ideas that I get excited about for five minutes and then do nothing? So, I sat with it for five minutes, just to be sure. At the end of five minutes, I was certain that it wasn’t a whim. I felt quite excited, and I made more declarations that I didn’t know I was making: I will have a healthier approach to my grief; I will honour my Dad’s grace and courage by being grateful; I will hold my own personal Gratitude Festival 1-13 January every year.
From that moment, I felt more at peace. Looking back, I wonder whether I had finally accepted that my Dad had gone; I am not sure. There was no more sobbing in the car from that point, and there was a peace about me that I can’t describe. It was interesting that, from the very next day, people commented on how I had visibly changed and asked me what I had done.
By the time 1 January arrived, I was ready to start looking fondly on the memories, rather than focussing on what was missing. Actually, I was quite excited about it. My thirteen-day Festival of Gratitude felt like a wonderful luxury, and I really was truly grateful for that final goodbye on the veranda 12 months prior. I’d had the chance to say goodbye, and I now had the privilege of starting every year with the most fantastic, beautiful memory of a man who, even when facing his death, had made sure that he was thinking about those around him: Don’t you worry about me.
This was a major turning point in so many parts of my life. For a start, my life was no longer clouded by the terrible sadness that had started to rule me in the lead up to that first anniversary. I was now in acceptance and, just as the sadness had overflowed into every part of my life, so was the peace that came from acceptance.
What was most surprising was the impact that this shift had on how I viewed myself in my self-doubt journey. Until this point, I had been taking “issues” to my coaching conversations, coming up with a plan during those conversations, going away and applying what I had learnt, and then coming back with the next “issue”. Everything that I had dealt with along the way had, at that point, started with a coaching conversation; I had simply taken the learning from each conversation, applied it and built on it. I could never do this without a coach.
This time was very different. In my eyes, this defined me in my journey as a learner.
Although I had never made the declaration to anyone but myself, I was adamant that my personal life would not be discussed in a coaching conversation; the scope was work only. There were a number of reasons for this, the biggest one being that I felt crap in every part of my life, and I was terrified of that being confirmed. Because of this declaration, my struggle with the anniversary of Dad’s death was not something that had ever been discussed in a coaching conversation. My coach would have had no idea of whether my parents were living or not, because my family never got a mention. This made my turning around of the first anniversary of Dad’s death the very first thing that I had totally faced alone. Completely on my own, I had found a way that I could move forward on something that felt incredibly huge, with astounding results (in my opinion). What I realised at that point was that, if I could do this for something as massive as immense grief, I could do it for anything. I might be doubting myself in nearly every part of my life but, as a committed learner who was determined to get through all of this, I was doing ok. I can do this. Bring it on.
I was so proud of myself when I sat in our next coaching conversation and talked about what I had achieved. It felt as though life had thrown me a hurdle event, and I had just smashed it. I think this also changed some of our future conversations, because it helped me to become less worried about being given the answer, and more committed to finding an answer.
At this point, I was ready to call it: This way of being stuff actually worked.
My next declaration was that I was no longer going to simply wonder about what I might achieve; I was going to push forward and achieve it.
This post is not about dealing with grief. Everyone copes in different ways, and there are no rules to grief. So I am not saying that I have found a way to deal with grief. In fact, I nearly didn’t write this post because I didn’t want anyone else who was dealing with grief to feel as though how they were dealing with it might be “wrong”. There are no rules to this stuff, and we are all so very different.
What I am saying is that, in life, we create stories that we associate with events. It just so happens that the story that I created relating to the event of saying my final goodbye to my father was that I had been hard done by, the universe was cruel, and that this was the worst experience of my life. And it was perfectly ok to have created this story. However, I arrived at a point where this story was no longer serving me, and I made a decision to rewrite it.
In everything we do, we tend to create stories to add meaning. If we were running late at the supermarket and struggling to get home to cook dinner, it might be that we create a story about how slow the checkout operator was, or how no one in the supermarket cared enough to help us find the coconut milk or whatever. We have basically made a bunch of assessments that may or may not be grounded, and from there we have created a story. We attach this story and our emotions to the event, and then we tend to live the story as a truth.
When we are able to notice our stories and be curious (not judgmental) about them and understand what is behind them – the emotions, the thoughts, even our body posture – we can determine whether those stories are the best stories for serving us. Once we have done that, we can choose to rewrite our stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is what I did with regard to my father’s death. I rewrote the story that I had created.
The power of rewriting our stories is that the impact can be exponential. It is not necessarily one rewritten story to one renewed outcome. We embody these stories so much that they can underpin much of what we do. So rewriting them can have a far-reaching impact. When I rewrote my story, it wasn’t that I simply stopped crying in the car. I changed my approach at work, I changed my attitude towards myself as a learner and the journey that I was on at the time, and I think I even became more fun to be around at home. This story had worked its way into so many parts of my life.
Something that was really occurring for me as I wrote this post is that I made so many silent declarations, and each of those had an impact on the direction of my life at the time. For example, declaring that I wasn’t going to talk about my private life in a coaching conversation – would things have been different for me if I had made a declaration that I would be completely open, and had told my coach that much of my journey that year had started with the death of my father? We often don’t notice these sneaky declarations that we are making. What if we did?
When I rewrote my story, I seem to have experienced a significant shift by changing my mood. Our moods and emotions really do impact the actions that we take, and I think that they underpin everything that we do. We aren’t taught to understand them, so quite often we take action without realising what the mood or emotion might be that we are experiencing in that moment. The thing is, though, that we are always in an emotional space. Sometimes, these emotional spaces may have gone beyond the point of serving us and it is helpful to be aware of them so that we can understand that.
Finally, something that I didn’t mention here and have probably never owned up to fully is that when my father died, I also became unwell with gallstones. So, with the funeral happenings and me being unwell, I started the year with six weeks off work. When I arrived back at work, I was not operating at 100% and felt pressured and unsupported by the people who were managing me. I didn’t have a conversation with anyone about this. Instead, I followed my normal pattern and left the organisation. This led to me being in the new job where I struggled with my self-confidence and ultimately sought out a coach. If I was able to have my time over again, I would have had a conversation with the management team after my six weeks off, to understand what their minimum expectations of me were, so that I could determine how to meet those expectations from where I was at the time. If, after doing that, I still wanted to leave my job, I would have asked myself “For the sake of what have you decided to leave this job?” I suspect that there may have been some anxiety that may have been useful for me to address. This is not said in judgment of the decisions that I made; it is said in acknowledgement of other possibilities that I did not see as available to me at the time.
Points to Ponder…
- What stories are you living in at the moment? How are they serving you?
- What moods and emotions are underpinning your story? What moods and emotions may be more useful?
- What conversations are missing from your interactions with others? What conversations are you not having?
- What actions are you taking for which it might be helpful to ask yourself “For the sake of what am I doing this?”
My passion lies in coaching people to become the most resourceful version of themselves, and helping new and upcoming leaders who may be struggling with everyday life as a leader. I believe that the ability to be whatever we want to be lies within each of us, and sometimes it is useful to have help in finding what and where that is.