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Opinion Editorials

How to address coworkers (or anyone) after a personal tragedy

(EDITORIAL) When tragedy or hard times strike, anyone’s professional life can be impacted, but how can you get back to normal with the least amount of pain possible?

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When tragedy strikes, it is so hard to navigate your personal life, let alone your professional life.

But the world doesn’t stop, even when your world feels like it ended.

I want to share my story with you, and how I recovered in my professional life after devastation in my personal life – what boundaries I set, how I reacted to others, and what I did poorly that I wish I had done better.

In 2005, a little over a year after marrying my beloved, we found out we were pregnant for the first time, and we were so enthusiastic that we called everyone we knew before leaving the gynecologist’s office. At our next visit, however, we were referred to a perinatal specialist and told we were already in the second trimester, but I wasn’t even showing yet.

We learned right away that Kennedy had so many things wrong with him that there was literally no chance he would survive during birth or after birth, and we were faced with being urged to abort for my personal health, but we felt compelled to keep him safe for as long as we could in the comfort of the womb for his short life.

So for almost two months, we lived with the “is today the day his heart will stop?” fear. When the day came, we delivered our son stillborn. Even though we knew it was coming, it was the most crushing silence you can imagine – a silent sonogram, and then child born through traditional delivery that never cries.

Aaron, my younger brother, my Irish twin, my best friend outside of my marriage, sent a teddy bear and chocolates, not knowing what to say, and experiencing his own fear as he found out after we did that his wife was also expecting. We named the bear K-Bear for Kennedy, and I still sleep with in my arms to this day.

Fast forward almost two years, and we were still not completely put back together – not me, not my husband, not my family.

At the time, my brother has two babies, one just four weeks old, and we relish in how amazing they are, and what a miracle babies really are. He failed to show up to make silly internet videos one Sunday, and we figured he got distracted by his babies and went home, but no, he called and left a message that I missed. In a happy voice, he proclaimed he was on his way and that he would be there in a bit.

A few minutes later, he was gone forever in a single car accident, and no one knows why. His wife and children survived the crash. I’d ignored my phone all day, so it wasn’t until the police knocked on my door that night that we knew what happened.

I found myself comparing the losses, and felt massive guilt over being more devastated by the loss of my brother. When Kennedy passed away, we had time to rationalize and understand through genetic testing and talking with our Priest that sometimes bad stuff just happens.

When Aaron died, it never made sense.

It still doesn’t.

Here’s how people around me reacted…

The first loss was very private, and was before social networks were big, so we silently suffered, and as our siblings all got pregnant at the same time, we had to choose to be happy for them rather than feel slighted.

When Aaron died, the Internet reacted by fundraising for his wife, since they were so so young, and had no savings or insurance.

Letters of condolence rolled in by the hundreds, flowers came, and a friend even sent the local Knights of Columbus to our house and presented a rosary. It was all very moving.

I remember going to the grocery store in the morning after Kennedy died and wondering why everyone was just shopping like nothing had happened.

Didn’t they know?

Why were they all smiling?

When Aaron died, the exact same thing happened. It is so hard to grasp that when my world stopped, everyone else’s went on like normal, and the silent pain ringing in my ears was too high pitched for others to hear.

Regardless, I had to recover at work.

In 2005, I worked at a medium sized commercial developer, and I was honest with my employers about everything. I called them the minute we found out we were pregnant, and again when we found out it wouldn’t work. I also told my boss when everything was totally over.

At that time, when people would come by my office to offer condolences, I let them. I chose to be very open about what happened, how I was feeling, and that we would try again. I found that the open door allowed people to not feel sorry for me (which was my fear), rather to understand the journey.

When I read concern on peoples’ faces, I asked if they had any questions. I asked if they knew anyone who had been through a stillborn, and I realized that most people were so concerned with how I was because they had experienced something similar in their life or through someone close to them.

Allowing people to connect over that tragedy truly helped an office to get back to work rather than tiptoe around me, or wonder and gossip.

In 2007, my work was exclusively online, so I didn’t have an open door on my office, I had an email inbox, a Twitter account, a Facebook account, and so on and so forth. Because we were hosting the wake at our home and dealing with moving my sister in law to her parent’s house, it was tough to work, let alone share what we were going through.

In order to open our doors, we had a handful of friends that were our point people.

They were the ones who blogged about what happened and what was going on. They were the ones with our address and phone number for those that wanted to reach out to us, and during the peak of the business of burial, they were our gatekeepers so to speak, and they were there to serve as a means of keeping the gates open instead of closed.

When the dust settled, we shared our experience publicly, and asked people to share their stories of loss.

In a digital world, people are desperately seeking to connect, be it professionally or personally, and giving them a way to do just that was a tremendous help, and I found that people never expected an immediate response, they just wanted us to know we were being cared for, and I answered every single email, even though it took a long, long time.

The takeaways – my mistake and what helped the healing

Any loss is terrible, be it a son or an Irish twin, a neighbor, a spouse, a parent, a house to fire, a job, or any loss. Pain can’t be measured on a scale, I promise.

If I could do it all over again, the mistake I made was not in keeping my doors open to co-workers so that we could all focus on work, but in closing them to family because I assumed they knew what I was going through, since they were also going through it.

The truth is, we all experienced these losses differently, and it hurt some of our family relationships that we grieved differently.

Don’t be afraid to cry, don’t sugar coat things to make people around you comfortable, don’t make people tiptoe, and for goodness’ sake, don’t tell your story as a means of getting attention. Be healthy about your recovery and life will go back to normal at a better pace than if you don’t experience the stages of loss. Do what’s comfortable to you and don’t feel like you have to pretend like everything is normal.

When you go back to work for the first time after a tragedy in your life, keep your doors open, invite questions, and ask your own questions.

There’s an elegant power in redirecting people to talk about their own tragedies.

The pain of loss is deep, but most people mistake telling their story for picking a wound, when really, being open to talking about it is tremendously helpful toward healing and one of the best ways to get your professional life back on track.

This editorial originally ran in 2013.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Missy Caulk

    June 16, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Lani, I barely remember when Aaron was in his accident, not sure we were friends yet, I think I read a post from Jay Thompson on it, but I could be mistaken.

    In saying that even “if” I had known you and Benn, I can tell your right now I would not have known how to handle it or what to say. I do now because I have been through it but it took my own pain to be able to understand and be able to comfort others.

    Personally my family and I have had a tremendous amount of support online and IRL. Actually after the initial, raw, numbing, walking in a fog grief… more support from online friends.

    You are absolutely correct in that we all grieve and deal with any loss in different ways. Yes my business took a tumble but you know what I’m ok with that. I had no energy to deal with real estate.

    • Lani Rosales

      June 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      For me, and what I failed to mention in this editorial, is that faith plays a tremendous part, no matter your beliefs, AND that remembering that your cross is never heavier than you can carry, despite the pain.

      Missy, thank you for a thoughtful comment – recovery is tough, and we all choose a different path… knowing that you’re not alone is a HUGE part of it.

  2. Pingback: When someone else gets the thing you want most - AGBeat

  3. Michael Schmidlen

    March 23, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    First & foremost, DIDN’T know about Benn (BEST wishes for a speedy recovery!) and secondly, you truly are an “IRON LADY” as I’d never heard either story before reading it now.

    This helps me to understand you better, thanks for the peek behind the curtain! We ALL have our “shit”, and most of us choose not to wear these experiences as our cape or armor. We can learn from these tragedies and experiences and move forward with living our lives, or we can allow them to define us, I can easily see which path you chose!

    • Lani Rosales

      March 23, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Oh hey, thanks Michael! The note about Benn was a year and a half ago (old post), but the recovery took a long time and is a major part of our life story.

      Thanks for reading! 😀 😀

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Opinion Editorials

Do women that downplay their gender get ahead faster?

(OPINION) A new study about gender in the workplace is being perceived differently than we are viewing it – let’s discuss.

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The Harvard Business Review reports that women benefit professionally when they downplay their gender, as opposed to trying to focus on their “differences” as professional strength.

The article includes a lot of interesting concepts underneath its click-bait-y title. According to the study by Professors Ashley Martin and Katherine Phillips, women felt increasingly confident when they pivoted from focusing on highlighting potential differences in their perceived abilities based on their gender and instead gave their attention to cultivating qualities that are traditionally coded as male*.

Does this really mean that women need to “downplay” their gender? Does it really mean women who attempt this get ahead in this world faster?

I don’t think so.

The article seems to imply that “celebrating diversity” in workers is akin to giving femme-identified employees a hot pink briefcase – it actually calls attention to stereotyped behaviors. I would argue that this is not the case (and, for the record, rock a hot pink briefcase if you want to, that sounds pretty badass).

I believe that we should instead highlight the fact that this study shows the benefits that come when everyone expands preconceived notions of gender.

Dr. Martin and her interviewer touch on this when they discuss the difference between gender “awareness” and “blindness.” As Dr. Martin explains, “Gender blindness doesn’t mean that women should act more like men; it diminishes the idea that certain qualities are associated with men and women.”

It is the paradox of studies like this one that, in order to interrogate how noxious gendered beliefs are, researchers must create categories to place otherwise gender-neutral qualities and actions in, thus emphasizing the sort of stereotypes being investigated. Regardless, there is a silver lining here as said by Dr. Martin herself:

“[People] are not naturally better suited to different roles, and [people] aren’t better or worse at certain things.”

Regardless of a worker’s gender identity, they are capable of excelling at whatever their skills and talent help them to.

*Though the HBR article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole.

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Opinion Editorials

Why I paused my career to raise our child

(OPINION) Our children are like tiny little sponges that absorb everything that we give them — your job and the sentiments it produces and evokes included.

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I never dreamed of being a stay-at-home-mom. Not in a million years did I think I’d find myself choosing to press pause on my career, but here I am, a mother for just nine months, doing just that.

HBR recently published an article about how our careers impact our children focusing on parental values and the emotional toll of our career involvement on our families. It got me thinking about my own childhood.

Growing up, my parents’ discussion of work was almost always negative. A job was something you had to do whether you liked it or not. As a child, I listened to my parents fight over money; I observed them in constant worry about the future. I watched them stress over unsatisfying jobs.

There was never any room for risk, no money to invest in a new career path, and no financial cushion to fall back on to give a new career time to grow.

Later, when choosing a path of my own, I would often wonder what my parents had wanted to be or who they could’ve been if they would’ve been able to choose careers they might’ve thrived in. All I ever knew is that my parents hated their jobs. While they’re on better financial footing now, the residue of their negativity persists in the career choices of their children.

While I was pregnant, I was working at an international tech startup in Silicon Valley. The company suffered from poor leadership; the week I was hired, my team quit and I was left to piece together a position for myself. The company continued to flounder, its culture unable to recover from interim toxic leadership.

I constantly worried about my son and the stress of a toxic culture on my pregnancy. Going into the office made me anxious. Leaving left me feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. Instead of imagining a bright, beautiful baby boy, I closed my eyes and saw a dark and anxious bundle of nerves. Of course, I blamed myself for everything.

Toward the end of my pregnancy, I promised my baby that when he arrived, I would do things differently. This would be the last time I accepted a job that I only felt lukewarm about. Never again would I participate in a culture that could diminish my talents and self-worth. I’d seen this kind of thing during my childhood and I’d be damned to repeat it.

During my career, I’ve watched coworkers hire full time live-in nannies, missing their baby’s developmental milestones and their children’s school events. I listened as one CMO talked about moving into his backyard yurt when the pains of parenthood became too much for him. He left his three preteen sons alone to fend for themselves in the mansion they shared in Silicon Valley.

We pride ourselves on the amount of work we put into our careers, but we rarely measure our success through the eyes of our children.

Children are mimics, they absorb everything we do, even during infancy. So, what are we offering them when we abandon them to make conference calls from yurts? What message are we sending them when our eyes are glued to texts, emails and push notifications? What are we teaching them when we come home stressed out, energy depleted and our values compromised?

We try “disrupting” anything these days so what about the working parent model? Would it be worth it?

My husband and I decided that it was and we’re doing things differently.

My husband works in the service industry. He doesn’t leave for work until late in the afternoon which means he spends all day with our son. At nine months old, my son has a strong emotional relationship with his father.

I carve out time during my days and nights to schedule writing work. I’ve recently returned to freelancing and I find that when I’m working with clients I believe in and doing work that I enjoy, we’re all much happier.

Everyone who’s ever had children says the first year goes by incredibly quickly. It’s true. My career will be there next year and for years after that. My son is only a baby once and I wouldn’t miss it for all the money in the world.

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Opinion Editorials

Zuckerberg makes eyeroll-worthy new years resolution

(EDITORIAL) This year, instead of losing weight, Zuckerberg is going to save himself and the world another way.

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Like the rest of us, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, has announced New Year resolution – public talks on the future of technology in society. In a post on his personal profile page, he has pledged to participate in and host these discussions. Quite the step down from last year’s resolution to “fix Facebook.”

We get it, Mark, baby steps.

2018 saw Zuckerberg grilled by U.S. Congress and the European Parliament. His company suffered a drop in stock due to these hearings, was caught in the Cambridge Analytica firestorm and federal investigations, etc. It’s evident Zuckerberg bit off more than he could chew and his deciding to pull back isn’t surprising.

Here are the positives: the public needs more discourse on the future of tech and how it will affect the fabric of society. We want to connect with each other – we should pay more attention to what that truly means.

The entrepreneur titans leading the charge should be part of those discussions. Politicians, people elected to wield power for the public, are placed in debate situations regularly. Why shouldn’t the face of a global, digital platform be exempt from this basic practice?

If Zuckerberg is willing to truly have a candid talk (without prep or talking points), could we learn something new about his personal views? Does Officer Data have a soul after all?

But when all is said and done, talk is… just talk. The dangers with privacy on Facebook are already here.

The stakes are rising as the political and cultural landscapes are changing every year. It’s been two years since the problems with Facebook’s user information surfaced after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (and Ukraine actually blew the whistle in 2015). Zuckerberg has had quite a bit of time to reflect and “talk” about what needs to be done.

We try to keep to our resolutions every new year, and we’ll see if Zuckerberg can uphold his, or if his efforts disappear as quickly as my will to ween off my daily coffee routine. Even from a skeptic’s standpoint, I’ll eagerly wait to watch what goes down in this upcoming discussions.

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