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Weathering the tides

Some reflections on coping with loss at work.

Opeyemi Bello

The recent report of the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada laid bare the worrisome state of wellness in our profession, sparking long-overdue conversations on the determinants of mental health issues and their ramifications. However, grief, a critical determinant of wellness, is not often featured in these conversations.

Grief rarely comes up as a lawyer-wellness issue. It may be because it is mainly infrequent and, when it does occur, it triggers indescribable and unfamiliar emotions. It creates a curious situation where the bereaved does not have the energy, their coworkers and friends do not have the courage, and no one has the language to properly talk about what has just happened. It does not help that it is a complex experience that varies from person to person and even between instances of grief.

I should emphasize that this is not a comprehensive guide on grief. I do not have professional experience or training in mental-health therapy or counseling. I am just a lawyer who has experienced his fair share of grief. This is no more than an attempt to articulate what helped me through trying times. My hope is that it will help others who are either dealing with grief or wondering how to comport themselves around their grieving coworkers or friends.

Taking time off

I've lost two important women in my life. I received news of my mom's passing as I was preparing to go to work. Of course, work became the last thing on my mind in that moment. I was told of my sister's demise as I was finishing up at work. I recall wailing all the way out of the building and through the ride home. 

In the days that followed both losses, I could not concentrate or be productive. I took time off work and when I returned, was able to ease back gently but steadily. 

Initially, the bursts of pain came in overwhelming tidal waves, then in ebbs and flows, before subsiding to trickles and drops. Does it ever dry up completely? I am not sure it does.

But taking that time off work helped, as did the general passage of time. At first, I escaped from work, then I escaped into work. 

Exercise and self-care

It was a vicious Catch-22. I needed exercise and self-care to feel well but I did not feel well enough for exercise or self-care. Overambitious exercise goals were unhelpful. They led to procrastination, and eventually to inaction. Instead, I found that starting with breathing exercises, stretches, and short leisurely walks around my home and neighborhood was more fruitful. Soon enough, I could muster enough motivation and energy for push-ups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, burpees, and long brisk walks. It also helped to find the right music for the occasion. My audio streaming app was incredibly flexible and adaptive. It suggested songs and playlists that nearly kept pace with my constantly shifting moods.

I made myself an imaginary self-care alarm: a system of mental thresholds or triggers to alert me to treat myself to things I enjoy. The thresholds or triggers are based on how I feel mentally on an imaginary scale. I kept the rewards simple: haircut, shave, food, retail, music, movie; but I was ready to splurge on a massage, or trip out of town if the alarm got too loud and persistent.

Reflection, therapy and people

Reflecting was especially helpful for me in working through the regrets and what-ifs, which came aplenty. At times, I came to realize I had done my best, and that was enough. Or that I could not have done better in the circumstances and with the resources I had. In areas where I did less than my best, I took note of the work I needed to do better to avoid repeat regrets.

I also benefitted from therapy and the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. Therapists have successfully developed and used tools and resources to help countless other people in similar circumstances. 

Friends and coworkers brought thoughtful gifts, comforting words, soothing company and a good number of reassuring blank cheques of support. There were gifts of cash to my family and donations to charities in memory of the departed, lovely cards and heartwarming condolences. There were snacks, droll coffee mugs, and other cheery curios. There was a mix of respectful distance, compassionate presence, and noticeable care not to assign to me collaboration-intensive tasks and impose unwanted socialization. 

Grief is a complex, personal and divergent experience. You may not relate to most of my experience, though I hope it is not the case. Understandably, people often prefer to endure grief privately, especially at its raw and brutal onset, when some well-intentioned but mindless attempts to condole can trigger platitudes. Still, if those among us who have grieved take advantage of the clarity and calm of hindsight to articulate and share how we made it through it all, others might find solace and lessons in the relatability of experiences similar to their own.