- Days after my mother died of cancer, I returned to work, hoping it would distract me from my grief.
- When my boss caught me hyperventilating, he revealed a shared experience that surprised me.
- This is an adapted excerpt from “So Sorry for Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief and Other Grave Concerns” by Dina Gachman.
One major “first” for me after my mom died of colon cancer in the fall of 2018 was when I went back to my job at an ad agency less than a week after her funeral. I figured work would distract me and keep me from scrolling through old photos and crying all day. It was a solid plan, practical and wise.
That plan worked amazingly well for about half an hour.
After our morning meeting, I felt that uncontrollable surge of emotion and pain that anyone who has experienced great loss knows all too well. I snuck outside to calm myself down. As I walked quickly down the alleyway that separated our warehouse-like office from Ballona Creek, I got even more upset because I remembered that this was the walk I would take each workday when I called to check in on my mom during her nearly four years of chemo.
Now I couldn’t call her anymore, ever.
My boss caught me in the middle of an emotional breakdown
Eventually, I felt ready to head back inside. As I was walking to the door, who comes out but the head of my department along with my immediate boss — a cooler-than-thou dude in a prog-rock band called Annihilator. This was also a first. How do you pretend to keep it together the first time you bump into your bosses in the midst of an emotional breakdown? In my case, the answer is: You don’t.
So I lost it, again. I think this stage of grief could be called hyperventilating because there is a very specific type of crying that can occur during this time. It’s the type where you cannot catch your breath, the waves are too strong to control, and you find yourself, out of nowhere, doubled over and panic-sobbing in front of the people who have the power to hire and fire you.
My department head hurried over to see if I was OK.
“I think … I’m just …”
“It’s OK,” he said.
“I think I need to go home.”
I was caught off guard by my boss’ empathy and shared experience
My first day back at work didn’t last long, but at least I gave it a shot. I also got that “first” over with. After I’d gathered my laptop and purse and was driving out of the parking lot in my trusty Kia, who sauntered up to my car but the Annihilator himself. He was the last person I wanted to see, but I stopped and rolled down the window because my mom raised me not to be a jerk. I was fully expecting him to remind me that a Kraken Rum write-up was due by the end of the day or to tell me that a Mountain Dew brief had come through and I needed to look at it ASAP and come back to him with fifteen brilliant and bold ideas by the morning. Ideas that would shake up culture while also connecting with a diverse, multicultural audience — but not too diverse — of impossibly cool and wealthy imaginary consumers.
“I’m sorry about your mom, dude,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if I should get out of the car and hug him or just sit there like a stone.
“When my mom died, it was brutal,” he said. “I quit my job and moved back to North Dakota to take care of her. It sucks, man. It’s the hardest thing in the world to go through, so just take your time. I’m here if you need to talk or whatever.”
I had no idea he had been through the loss of a parent. His kind words surprised me. I was pretty sure he hated me because I was a boring mom and not a 23-year-old influencer with eight million TikTok followers, but this new development meant that maybe, possibly, we had something in common.
“I’m sorry you went through that,” I said. “Thank you. That means a lot.”
And it did.
The grief was still painful, but over time, it’s easier to handle
We said goodbye, and as he walked off I drove away, east toward home, along the crowded Los Angeles freeways full of people whose lives and stories I would never know.
After I left work that day, I picked my son Cole up early from day care, because there is nothing like an innocent little person to take your mind off your troubles and remind you that things might just be OK. Not easy or perfect, but OK. Steeling myself for the emotional aftershocks to come, I went back to work the next day, and each morning, it got a little easier. I still cried next to Ballona Creek. I still stared, bleary-eyed, at my mom’s old texts. I still hurt. My boss still demanded bold ideas that would shake the world. But each day, I went back. I got on that crowded freeway, and I drove.
Excerpted from “So Sorry for Your Loss: How I Learned to Live With Grief, and Other Grave Concerns” (Union Square & Co, April 11, 2023). Reprinted with permission by Union Square & Co.