Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On Grieving During the Holidays - The First Thanksgiving Without My Son

My 28-year-old son died in July.

Writing these words stops me. I sit in my seat, staring at them.

How can they be true?

It is hard to move past these words today, in particular. It is one day before Thanksgiving, and I am wondering how I will make it through tomorrow—the first big holiday without my son.

Jon and IJonny would have turned 29 in August. My wife, my daughter, and I survived his birthday with tears and memories and laughter, and then with more tears. Yet, there were fewer expectations on his birthday, fewer customs, and fewer traditions to uphold.

Whereas his birthdays have morphed throughout the years, and we have spent many without him, Thanksgiving is supposed to be a certain way. There is supposed to be turkey and wine and football. We are supposed to be loud and boisterous. We are supposed to be surrounded by family.

We are supposed to be thankful—thankful for the blessing of our children.
And Jonny is supposed to be there.

My wife, my daughter, and I will have Thanksgiving at my house, along with a handful of friends and family.

I wonder: Who will sit in Jonny’s chair? Will anyone sit in his chair, or will it sit empty—a loud vacancy reminding us that things are not as they are supposed to be?

We are certainly not the first family to face the fear of that first Thanksgiving. So many others have survived the holidays after a divorce, the first Thanksgiving after the collapse of a business, or the first Thanksgiving after the death of a spouse.

Today, it feels impossible to simultaneously grieve and celebrate—and yet, that is what so many of us are being called to do tomorrow.

A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend. We spoke of Jonny, and I told her that I was worried about the holidays.

Felice said something that has stayed with me.

“Remember that Jonny doesn’t die again on Thanksgiving,” she said.

Jonny died on July 27, 2015. On that day, we began to grieve. We began processing the fact that we would never again hug him or laugh with him or share a joke with him. He died on a hot day in July.

It happened once. It will never happen again.

It already happened, and it will not happen tomorrow.

I remind myself of this over and over because I want to give myself permission to move forward. And I want this for all of Jonny’s friends and family members: my wife, my daughter, Jonny’s girlfriend, and his many, many friends.

I do not want us to feel compelled to relive all of our grief, afraid to create new moments because we are so tragically lost in the past. I want us to make new memories, discarding this notion of what is supposed to be, and mindful that although we are grieving, we are also recovering.

Jonny does not die again tomorrow, and we are recovering.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pain Denial Syndrome (PDS) - One of the Best Kept Dirty Little Secrets

My great friend and mentor, Dr. Brad Spencer of Spencer, Shenk, Capers, has spent a lifetime considering and counseling business executives. He recently shared this previously unpublished article on suffering. He has given me permission to share his wisdom with all of our friends and clients.


Yes, I just made up the term…(there is no such thing in the DSM-5, the bible of psychological disorder diagnosis.) But tell me it does not exist and I will point to several contradictions. Recently a ‘medical historian’ reviewed 14,000 pages of medical texts and journals…he found only 17 pages that referenced ‘pain!’ (Why do you go to a doctor if not to alleviate or avoid pain?) If doctors don’t deal with it out loud than who does?

It occurred to me as a behavioral consultant, that I have read hundreds of books and thousands of articles on issues related to management, organizational and leadership effectiveness in the past 30+ years. I cannot remember one reference to avoiding/alleviating executive pain in one of them….and that is at the heart of what many of these books are attempting to address and certainly a major part of our practice.

At best, they refer to disappointment, frustration, being upset, or in rare cases even admit to being angry. And my clients mimic this language in our initial discussions. We do not admit (and even energetically deny/rationalize) these are forms of pain because then we would need to confront the root cause.

Because you reach the ‘C suite’ in no way means you are free of suffering. In fact, contrary to the belief of so many who are not on executive row, the titles, pay, perks and power in no way prevent, and may even increase the performance/family related anxiety and problems resulting in deep mental anguish. Contrary to the myth so resentfully held by so many, those that do not have time to join the bowling league often have more anxiety and pain than those who struggle to make ends meet. It may not be more, only different, but there is little acknowledgement it even exists.

This is not an apology for those in powerful positions, they chose their fate. And few I know few who would voluntarily change places with many, but the reality is much of my work is helping them deal with or avoid suffering. That is when they recognize it. This may sound like a strange comment, but much of their unconscious energy is spent denying or repressing the ‘feelings’ that are the manifestation of the issues they face. The attempt to be logical and ‘explain the issues away’ is the antithesis of dealing with (working through) the suffering.

And it would not be right to imply that all pain is equal in intensity or duration. Common sense bears mentioning, there are clearly degrees, and a gall stone is a dramatically different threshold in both intensity and duration from a stubbed toe. Having to lay off a number of long tenured employees is different than cutting expenses.

Suffering is divided into four distinct categories by those who have made a career of studying it.* You want nothing to do with any of them. And each of them can be debilitating.

The first type of suffering is “Pain.” This refers to physical suffering, the kind of thing that takes you to the emergency room. If you have ever had a broken arm or appendicitis recognize it…even a splinter or back pain is something that can capture your undivided attention. This is truly the place for the physician.

The second type of suffering is “Psychological.” Again if you have ever been deeply distressed, had your heart broken by a high school sweetheart (yes, you feel ‘life as you know it’ can never go on) or at the end of this very long continuum, lost a loved one, you do not need to be told what this is. It can vary from deep depression to just feeling rejection or not competent enough…it hurts and often causes you to obsess on the areas of discomfort. The executives and football coaches I deal with are often subconsciously obsessed with avoiding the pain of ‘not being competent.’

In a fruitless effort to avoid that feeling their compensating behavior induces pain in others who are over-controlled or trying to figure out what is really expected, but never quite able to jump over the constantly shifting bar. Nothing is ever good enough to please the boss or themselves.

This repression is of course complicated by the fact that ‘real men’ (and women) believe they need to be stronger than others. Part of this strength comes from making hard decisions ‘rationally.’ That is not the issue, the true problem comes to the fore when they do not deal with the hurt they experience for all the families affected by the plant closing that must occur for all the right reasons.

The third type of suffering is “Spiritual.” That is: “am I committing a sin?” You do not need to be religious to experience this type of pain. The moral boundaries for dealing with others (often encoded as corporate value statements) are manifestations of these questions. The issue faced in dealing with promotion/layoff decisions often fall into this arena. Am I really doing the right thing by all involved, is meritocracy really at work?

It is not usually as black or white as cheating on one’s expense account, but we all have issues at home or work that cause us to doubt our righteousness. In organizations we often call it integrity. And we all admit to falling far short of the ideals we set for ourselves. For my American and European clients with the strong Judeo-Christian value system this is where guilt** raises its ugly head to compound the suffering immeasurably …”what have I done to deserve this punishment?” 

The forth form of pain carries this continuum to its least day to day, moment to moment arena. That is “Existential” pain. The most abstract of the four, this is an attempt to leave this earth with a meaningful footprint. One of the things that separates man from other life forms is the search for a meaning for our existence. And then if we finally articulate what it is, are we accomplishing it?

At a recent workshop, when a hard-nosed GM in a major corporation got in touch with the legacy he wanted to leave, and where he stood on the continuum, he broke into tears in front of his amazed staff. The suffering was palpable as he came to grips with the reality that if he held his current path, he would go to his grave not leaving the legacy he so longed to create.

For my Asian clients with a Buddhist-Shinto value system, shame*** is the underlying issue that magnifies the question “why could I not be more worthy?”

So what would happen if you were to label something as suffering rather than simply trying to label it in a way that minimizes your responsibility to change it? The first step is to start talking about it and ‘languaging’ it correctly rather than ignoring it as pretty much all the literature does, or sweeping it under the carpet as though it did not exist.

Yes, language matters and it matters most in self talk…if a friend describes themselves as frustrated, we assume it is a human condition they must live with…if they tell us they are in pain, we are more likely to take an action to alleviate it. And while we recognize this how we treat others, we often deny this is true for how we deal with it ourselves. The way you describe it will truly make difference in the burning platform of dealing with it.

*The basis of “total pain theory” goes back to an incredible woman, Dame Cicely Saunders. 
**I define ‘guilt’ as thinking/feeling I have done something profoundly wrong. 
***I define ‘shame’ as thinking/feeling there is something profoundly wrong with me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On The Passing of My Son

My son was taken from us on July 27, 2015. He was just one month and one day shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. The loss was extreme and shocking for everyone who knew him—for his mother and his little sister, for his many friends and his girlfriend, and for me.

Before Jonny was born, my wife, Chris, and I were happy. Then Jonny turned us into parents, and in doing so, he conceived a warmer, richer blanket of love than we had ever known. If you are a parent, you know.

Today, twenty-nine years later, it is hard to imagine that there was once a world in which Jonny had never existed. It was an honor to be Jonathan Thomas Rose’s father, and I am, at times, petrified of this new world in which he once again no longer exists.

A few nights ago, Chris and I sat on the porch with our daughter, Katie, discussing all of the people whose lives have been touched by Jonny. On the front of Katie’s mind was one of his childhood friends. Katie shared a series of text messages she exchanged with this friend, who had reached out to Katie for comfort.

The text messages Katie sent to Jonny’s friend said things like:

·      “You’re never going to be ready [to accept this and move forward]. There isn’t going to be an exact moment when know you’re ready. It’s a gradual process day in and day out. Every day will just get a little easier.”

·      “Take it as a point as reflection: Do you want to be in pain every day or do you want to love life and have life love you back?”

·      “Some days may be harder than others but somewhere along the line we’ll find internal peace. We will feel Jonny in the things that connected us to Jonny and know he is with us.”

Sitting on that porch, I was in awe at the depth of Katie’s interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. It is an honor to be Katie’s father, too.

I considered what I could learn about constructive grieving from my 23-year-old daughter’s words. This is what I came up with …

It is easy to choose happiness when the sun is smiling down on you—when your healthy newborn son’s eyes are locked onto yours, when he smiles at you from the rink after winning his first hockey tournament twelve years later, or when he tells you he has fallen in love.

It’s harder to choose happiness when this too-young man dies.

Yet in a time of extreme grief, this is when the choice becomes so much more important.

No matter what the loss—whether it is the loss of a loved one, or something less shocking like the failure of a business—our mettle is tested by whether we choose to surrender to despair or rise from it.

Plenty of bad days have won, and I am certain I will succumb to others. I will lament the unfairness of a father losing his son—of a child dying before the parent he created.

But day in and day out, I will choose to return to this…

There was once a world in which Jonathan Thomas Rose had never existed, but for 28 years, 10 months, and 30 days, I was given a gift of knowing an extraordinary young man.

I will speak of him fondly and often. I will speak of him with love, and I will speak of him with much, much happiness.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Importance of Nurturing Your Relationship with So-Called “Strangers”

I write in my second book, Five Eyes on the Fence, about the importance of protecting your
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social capital. My thesis is that financial capital is a byproduct of four other types of capitals. When human, social, intellectual, and structural capital are well-tended, financial capital flourishes.

Social capital can be summarized in two words: Relationships matter.

The strength of your relationship with clients, potential clients, vendors, employees, and colleagues determines the extent to which these relationships can be accessed as a resource. The stronger the social capital, the more likely your financial capital will benefit.

And the stronger your relationship with strangers, the better your social capital.

I know what you are thinking, “Wait a minute: How can a person have a relationship with a stranger? Isn’t not knowing the person the very definition of a stranger?”

And therein lies the problem. You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know whether someone else knows something about you. You don’t know if a so-called “stranger” has an eye on you.

When you walk through life, consider that you are often being observed. If you are being ungrateful, pessimistic, or otherwise unpleasant, “strangers” are noticing. When you post hostile messages on someone’s social media site, “strangers” are reading these messages. When you are rude to the barista, “strangers” are less inclined to engage your conversations.

Those strangers might be people who would have otherwise turned into important components of your social capital network.

This February, I spoke to the students at the University of Southern California’s Leventhal School of Accounting about my book, and how they can use the four other capitals to help their clients strengthen their financial capital.

During our discussion about nurturing relationships with social capital, a student brought this to my attention: The following Friday, a prestigious speaker was visiting their school.

I gave this advice: “Dress like you are going to a job interview.”

One of the students objected: “There are going to be thousands of people at the event. Why would he notice me?”

My response was this: “There are going to be thousands of people at the event. Someone will notice you, and that person might just be your next boss.”

This holds true in life. Of the billions of people out there, you never know who is noticing you. You never know who will be your next boss, your next client, your next employee, or your next vendor. So many relationships are born out of happenstance. Why not give these relationships the best chance at blossoming by going out into the world as the best version of yourself?

The title of this blog is, “What We Should Be Doing.” Let’s choose to do it right, all of the time.

Because you never know …

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