Six months ago, my world caved in when my brother died unexpectedly – 2 weeks before Christmas.
I still can’t wrap my head – and heart – around the fact I’ll never see him again. That all that’s left of this larger-than-life man are the memories I cherish (and those that still hurt) … and a smallish blue box housing his ashes on a shelf in my living room.
I haven’t felt up to writing about it publicly – as if I’d be capitalising on his passing and dishonouring his memory … but you know, when I googled “grief and solo business”, I couldn’t find anything. There’s a little on navigating grief when you’re a small business owner with a team of staff, but nothing for sole traders. So maybe, just maybe, my experience might help someone else.
My brother was 3 years older than me, so we were always closer than I was to my other brother, who’s 10 years older. He and I had what psychologists might call a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship. There, I said it. He had his demons, as I have mine. But we loved each other, we got each other, we were twin souls. And losing him is monumental for me: I have lost a major influence in my life – for good and for bad. And in that, I feel I’ve lost a lot of my identity. I’d been going through an existential/mid-life crisis for a number of years before he passed. Losing him has only magnified those thoughts and feelings. Where the hell do I go from here?
My answer, my mantra is: “I don’t know”. Every question I ask myself brings up the same answer. Where do I see myself in 5, 10 years? I don’t know. What do I feel like doing or wearing today? I don’t know. What’s my purpose, my passion? I don’t know.
On top of the grief is the trauma of never knowing the actual date he died, or the cause of his passing. Add to that the heartbreaking discoveries we’ve since made about his life; things he kept so well hid for his own reasons. Nothing nefarious, just choices he made about how to live his life that don’t make sense … All the unanswerable questions that surface again and again, in a loop of my reluctance to accept the reality.
In amongst the grief, some other personal trials surfaced, leaving me feeling like I was standing, or crawling rather, on very unsteady ground.
So as I ease out of my ‘grief cocoon’ back into trying to gather some semblance of myself, to take on client work and try to market my business, I’ve learned that it really is one day – sometimes one hour – at a time.
Here’s what else I’m learning:
- Take the time you need…
You most likely won’t KNOW how much time you need, because grief is as unpredictable as … life. I barely worked between January and March. I could hardly see past one day to the next, let alone plan and promote and juggle clients and timeframes. I spent a lot of time wondering what the point of anything was. All of it: life, business, purpose, passions. I started grief counselling…
By March, I started to feel ready to slowly re-engage with people and with my business. I took on work again. I still wasn’t ready to put myself out there with any marketing – beyond the occasional networking event. I can’t say I’m completely back on board now, and I may not be for a while. Because while I have a few days of feeling ‘normal’, go about my routine, do client work, invoicing, admin… all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, the ‘thud’ hits again and I’m dragged back down into the abyss.
Much has been written about grief coming in waves, and that all you can do is ride them – well I’ve never been much good in the surf. I keep getting dumped by those waves or getting caught in rips. To me grief is like a thud; a numbing whack out of nowhere, slamming me against a wall of despair and darkness that I can’t get past – until it itself passes.
Don’t let ANYONE tell you when you should stop grieving, to move on. The journey is different for each of us, and it takes as long as it takes. Sometimes – often – you never get over it. Factors like the nature of your relationship, the circumstances of your loved one’s passing and your own emotional state, obviously colour your grief experience. As strange as it sounds, embrace it. Turning away from it doesn’t make it disappear – it’s not going anywhere. It just delays the process.
- Accept that some people won’t know how to handle your grief
This might be your friends, partner, clients, colleagues … Maybe they’re lucky enough not to have experienced the loss of a loved one – yet. Or the SAME kind of loss. I know what it’s like to lose pets, both parents, friends – and now a sibling. But I’ll never know what it’s like to lose a child, as I don’t have kids, so it’s not a fear in the back of my mind, as it must be for a parent. And I don’t know what it’s like to lose a partner.
And don’t you DARE censor your grief because it might make someone else uncomfortable – don’t you DARE! That’s their problem. If they can’t ‘hold the space’ for you in your grief, then please find someone who can.
- Ask for help
This is related to the point above. As I’ve learned, the people closest to you might not check in on you as often as you’d like. They’ve got their own ‘stuff’. So you have to ask for the support. You won’t be a burden, a downer … you deserve the support now of all times! Sometimes you might need professional help. I’ve found the grief counselling helpful.
If you have networks for support in your business, call on them. Accept any offers of help from friends and colleagues – they WANT to help, but may feel like you need your space. They can’t read your mind, so tell them. Ask them. Then thank them.
- You’re going to reassess your life and business – that’s a given
As I said, losing my brother amplified things that had been niggling away in my psyche for months, years, decades. Especially with a sibling, who you’ve grown up with, your whole life is called into question. Who I am today – flaws, insecurities, sense of humour and all – is partly a result of my relationship with my brother. So do I carry on as before, or do I make some phenomenally HUGE changes?
Early on in this grief, I acknowledged there were 2 areas of my business that no longer fired me up – and hadn’t for a long time. So I’ve decided not to offer those services anymore. I’ve turned down or referred clients seeking these services. And I don’t miss it one bit!
- If you can, plan
I didn’t. But maybe you can. As a sole trader, I don’t have anyone to delegate to, or who can take over to ‘do the work’. I just had to take time off work – and lose income in the process. But if you can have a savings buffer to tide you over, or perhaps subcontract work to colleagues in your networks for the time you’re off work, that’s a start.
- Remember your needs in all this
Believe me, this can be hard – especially on those days the grief is all-consuming. What’s helped me in these 6 months has been journalling – this year’s diary is a series of letters to my brother. It helps to write to him as if he’s still here. My darling dogs have been a solace for me, too. People say maintaining a routine is good – and it’s true to a degree. But as I work from home, my routines revolve around the house, and my brother would visit here so often, that sometimes a routine can send me spiralling down a rabbit hole of memories, and unlock more grief.
Slowly challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone helps as well – and I’m getting back into singing again.
What can you do for yourself to bring comfort when you need it most?
- To tell clients – or not?
Especially if you’re a sole trader, it can be hard to negotiate the reality of telling clients what’s happened – if you tell them at all. What if they can’t handle it and stop working with you? You can’t control things like that. I just trusted my intuition on this; I told some regular clients and not the new clients. Those clients I did tell have been so understanding and patient, for which I’m ever grateful. That support and compassion means the world to me.
I’ve never been good at compartmentalising work from personal life, so feeling safe to tell the clients I did tell was important – especially since I’m more of a ‘heart on my sleeve’ type. Keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’ just adds to the stress, I reckon, and that’s the last thing you need at a time like this.
- Ease back into your work
I’m lucky that work started presenting itself around the time I felt ready to get back into it – with no effort on my part! Call it coincidence, providence or synchronicity. I’m just so thankful.
Putting yourself out there or focussing on client work when you’re in the grip of grief can be tough. I started working for 1-2 hours a day before I’d crumple and have to shelve work for the next day. Now I can do 3-4 hours and still be okay. Just do as much as you feel you can. The distraction can be good for you – but you’ll know when you reach your limit and need a break. And that’s more than okay.
My therapist says you never get over a loss like this, you learn to carry it with you. I don’t really miss Mum and Dad anymore – but I can’t imagine not missing my brother. And I’ll dread Christmas even more than before now…
My life will, without doubt, never be the same – question is, can I make that a good thing?