Living all life gives you

Photo taken by Jenn Shallvey 2014 on stairs approaching Neutral Bay ferry in Sydney

Photo taken by Jenn Shallvey 2014 on stairs approaching Neutral Bay ferry in Sydney

What do you say when the unexpected happens and changes your life? This is the question I have pondered for the last couple of months and many times prior.  For me it is personal. For others it is distant and unrelated. Yet as we all progress through our days, weeks and months we encounter events close to us that trigger shifts and change. Many send us into periods of emotional upheaval and others bring us joy, happiness and bliss. Such is life and it’s undulating roller coaster ride of all that happens along the way.

So in this context I wish to share with you a more personal experience. Why? Well because it is my fundamental belief that we are whole people, ie human beings, whether at work or at home. We go to work and bring our thoughts, emotions and self wherever we go.  So when something happens to affect us in our personal life it can have ripple effects on a work level and vice versa.

I share with you this personal experience simply as a way to invite you to reflect and open up the conversation around what is right for you. I also write this not to invite nor ask for sympathy. Whilst that might be a response I feel it is more appropriate to listen / read with an open mind of acceptance and acknowledgement that I am not alone in my experience.  Consider as well how you and others balance life and work in such situations.

In late April this year my older sister was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.  She appeared healthy on all accounts. Yet in the period of only a month her health declined to the point of being hospitalised. After thirteen days in hospital she passed away.  I was with her throughout the experience. My role was listener, errand runner, secretary, comedian, researcher, shopper, negotiator, liaison, body guard, communicator and most of all sister.  On a deeper level my role was to love and accept her in this situation and support her in her decisions.  My sister was a strong, resilient and independent woman who knew what she wanted. I was there to help her get that until the end and going forward.

When my sister became ill, and it was clear her time was limited, I adjusted. I consciously chose my time carefully in everything I did.  I found that there were meetings, appointments and even a workshop that could wait. Some matters could not wait so I stayed committed to these.  Other experiences were necessary for a bit of time out akin to personal therapy.   She needed rest and I needed normality where possible.  Later I also gave myself permission to grieve in my own way.

It is in these weeks of reflection post her passing that so much comes to me. The waves of grief rise and go, lesser as time passes.  I have been through the passing of my mother five years ago and my father ten years ago. I grieved for each uniquely because I was at different stages of personal growth and each relationship was different. I notice a lot though about my choices and how they affect the way I cope, respond and live with this new reality.

Even with my best effort, and unfortunately experience, I am learning through mistakes, again. I am learning that to stretch myself too far is not good for my own health; it takes time to sort out matters; I need to have boundaries around how I engage my time, who I see and what I do; yet again that there are aspects of life beyond my control that take their own time.

My sister did not have a partner nor children but many amazing friends and family across the globe.   The ripple effect of her passing continued almost daily and then weekly as more people found out. Even to this day I am still encountering people in her network who do not know the news.  I am the messenger in many of these cases or if not messenger then recipient of follow up contact.  For each of us we grieve in our own personal way. Yet the communication feels like a record on repeat reliving the details of her passing every day.

Being a coach and trained in other counselling modalities I have a natural inclination to want to reach out and help everyone. Over the years in my professional training I also have learned not to rescue other people and practice extreme self care.  So it has been in this situation another opportunity to learn about boundaries. In my own emotional state I found that when down I would forget about the boundaries. When I reinforced my self I was ok.

Things I have done well is meditate every morning to set the day and meditate every evening to clear myself of whatever happened. This practice helped me tremendously whilst I was in the throes of my sister’s decline.  Even so I still found that my physical body suffered under the weight of the experience. So I had help in that area as well.  To round things out I made sure and still do make sure that I talk with people to process my experience.

What has helped beyond measure has been the support of my family, especially my husband and close friends. Whilst they all have been going through their own experiences it is a testament to the community we create around us when we need to ask for support and help.

In my reflection and observation I realise that I am not alone. This is why I am writing and sharing this with you.  I also am aware of how tragedy and loss strike so many in our wider communities. Each situation is unique as is each person's experience. What is needed from others will vary as well. This is only known when shared.

It came to me the other day when a person spoke to me about her father being ill.  Here we were talking business and this real life scenario was ever present in the conversation. How unusual.  Not because of it’s occurrence, but because of the reality and authenticity and honesty of our sharing. Refreshing. Refreshing to be real and human in business.

As I walk around participating in daily life I wonder. I wonder how many other people I pass on the street, stand behind in a shop or see on the bus are going through something similar.  Maybe for them it is not a sick relative or loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s a relationship breakdown or job loss.  They carry on with their lives independent of knowing the situation of a stranger.  Likewise I do the same.  Do they have a community of support? Do they have people in their world that they can turn to?

Communities though only exist if we choose to connect, open up and share, even in the most unlikely ways. For example a few days after my sister passed I was eating in a cafe with my husband.  The owner who I know from my regular visits came over to say hi and ask how I was doing. She looked at me and I looked at her and all that came out were tears.  Up until then I managed tears and grieving privately. Then I realised this is going to happen. It was a state that I was in. We shared a more meaningful exchange of words before getting back to our day.

I was not embarrassed. I was instead relieved that again there are human responses to being human.  Even so I am more mindful of how I am grieving and how I am in my day to day.  Unlike my past experiences with grieving I am not defining myself by my grief. Instead I am accepting the flow of emotions, releasing them when needed and then finding my equilibrium again.

My default state in life is an optimist, idealist, glass half-full kind of woman.  I see the silver lining and gifts in even the most dire situations. Yes there are gifts in loss even if not seen immediately. I admit though that our emotions can take hold and get in the way of being in this state.  All is ok.  As I allow myself to grieve I give myself permission to be me. My choice is to still smile, laugh and enjoy the world because I am able to.

On the outside it may seem cold and even odd that I can still laugh and smile but it is not. My sister in fact was the epitome of seeing the glass half full and smiling even when life was down.   Likewise I choose to live life fully every day, not mope around in misery (which I have done before!). Then if I have my moment of grief I can hold myself in this as it passes, experience it and then let it go.

So take a moment and consider your challenges and the people around you that support you. How are you doing? How are you at allowing others to help? How are you at taking care of you amidst the ups and downs of your life?  How are you able to balance life, work and being the whole you? And lastly how are you being a person of support for others in your community?

Jenn Shallvey