The Challenge of Loss: Overcoming the Negative (and Inevitable) Emotions of Life

Life is hard. Duh… you knew that. You don’t need me to tell you. Sure, when we’re kids and are raised in good families by parents who love us, it’s easy to think life is simple and wonderful. But you grow up.

You get a harsh taste of reality, often when you least expect it.

For some children or young teenagers, their first taste of that happens in school. Bullies start tormenting them. Or maybe they begin catching their parents arguing, the yelling when mom or dad thought they were outside playing.

For others, the real gut punch can come in ways nobody would wish on their enemies. Their brother or sister suddenly feeling ill -nothing out of the usual, though, just a little fever and perhaps stomach pain or headache.

Once mom and dad listen to the doctor tell them those dreaded words, like, “Your child has cancer,” life can get upended.

Or maybe your best friend throughout childhood, the person who completely changed the way you saw the world, who brought you out of your shell, who helped you rebel a bit against your mother or father, grow up, mature, and maybe take necessary risks, even if they were wild and crazy, dies just before graduation from high school.

Maybe you’re the type of person who had a vision of his funeral just hours before the car he was racing in slammed into a tree a short distance from your house. Maybe you’re the type of person who happened to take the dog out for the last time that evening, at 9:50 PM, and you heard the impact of metal against tree.

You wouldn’t know what had happened. No then. Not even when the sirens suddenly blared right out front of your house and raced down the road, through an intersection, settling in less than three-quarters of a mile away at a scene no one wants to witness.

These tragedies, these moments in time, these realities of life can and often do shape us in ways we can never expect. This story is about a man who spent the next 16 years trying to bury the past, who tried to avoid dealing with the hurt and anger, and struggled to escape.

Why am I telling you the story?

Because, while he thought he had buried it all, it was a different form of cancer that kept consuming him, driving him to a place he never wanted to be. But, once he overcame it, he was able to take some of his dreams, his hopes, his ideas, his visions and become an entrepreneur.

Am I saying that if there’s tragedy in your life that you can’t become an entrepreneur? Absolutely not. What I am saying and what I hope you will see in this brief story is just how important it is to deal with loss, tragedy, and hardship because, if you don’t, it will be like a malignant tumor eating you up from the inside out and that will bring most of your dreams, maybe even your business, crashing down.

May 6, 1988

It was a Friday like any other. G and his best friend Tommy were closing out their senior year in high school. They had met about nine years earlier on the soccer field. Living less than half a mile away from each other, their friendship quickly blossomed.

At the time, there weren’t really any other kids in the area. Tommy was the free-spirited fourth child in an Italian family. Not much parental discipline, Tommy was left to do whatever he wanted (most of the time). G, on the other hand, was pretty much a sheltered, shy kid. Almost incorrigibly shy. The kind of shy that made it difficult for him to make friends or even try new things.

Tommy and G were as different as two kids could be, yet they were as close as brothers through those years. On that Friday, everything would change for G. Tommy would be at a party, drink a little beer, and take someone else’s car for a joy ride. It was be a souped-up Chevelle. Powerful.

In the car with Tommy were three other kids, all seniors. At 136 miles per hour, the car would tip up on its side, on the driver’s side wheels as it failed to negotiate another curve in the road, and then slam into a tree.

Three lives would be over in an instant with one more clinging to the desperate hope of survival. G found out the next morning what happened and his vision and hearing the crack the night before upended his life completely.

He was devastated. Up until that point in his life, no one close to him had ever died. As he would say later on in life, “It’s not supposed to be your best friend. He’s not supposed to be the first.”

From there, G went off to college several states away. Tommy was supposed to have joined the Navy and his boot camp would have been a mere 50 miles away. They had made plans to hang out on the weekends, when they could each get a ride.

Now, it was just G going off on his own. He never really dealt with the tragedy. His parents didn’t know what to say. They essentially left him alone.

When some friends in college finally confronted him and said he needed to stop talking about Tommy or get help, he packed it all away. For the next 15 years, he would think about Tommy almost every day. Usually, a passing thought and nothing more.

It didn’t hurt. Not most of the time, at least. Yet, every time he started to feel as though life was turning his way, that success was finally reaching him, he would sabotage things. He didn’t recognize it at the time, but whether it was a relationship with a woman, a good friendship, a band that he was building, or anything else, he would find ways to tear it all apart.

A moment of revelation.

Sixteen years after that fateful night, G was speaking to family about what, he couldn’t remember. The conversation turned to loss and tragedy. It turned to Tommy. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he broke down and sobbed.

It was then that he and his family realized he hadn’t grappled with the grief. He never dealt with the tragedy. He simply put it away and, when most people seem to put things in a compartment, pack it all away rather than deal with them and grieve properly, they think it’s over.

Sadly, it’s not.

G realized that the hard way. He finally went and sought counseling through a grief counselor. She was highly experienced in what she was doing and quickly they got to the root of the issue.

Guilt. You see, G saw Tommy’s gravesite with his mother and father and one brother standing around it on a rainy, dreary day. He saw that vision four hours before the accident.

He always felt he could’ve saved his friend if he just called him that evening. If he just called and asked to hang out, he believed Tommy wouldn’t have been at that party and wouldn’t have gotten in that car.

Then, what he discovered during those sessions was just how toxic his life had become, not just to people around him, but to opportunities, to dreams, to his hopes and aspirations.

Every time somebody got close to him, he would drive them away. It wasn’t a conscious action, but a reaction. The pain of losing his best friend right before high school graduation, the way it happened, drove G to become a completely different person than he ever imagined he would be.

The Healing

Healing doesn’t happen instantly. I know there are plenty of people who will say that they had a moment of epiphany and overcame the loss. That’s simply not true.

It may seem it at the time, but like building a business, you may hear about men or women whom others call an ‘overnight sensation,’ but they put in time and effort to get to that moment.

When you cut yourself, break a bone, or suffer another injury, does it heal immediately? No, of course not. Why would we think that emotional pain and suffering can heal instantly?

Once G was able to accept what happened, he was able to reflect on 16 years of adult life and all the mistakes and even the pain and hardship he caused other people along the way. Yes, he was immature well into his 20s and 30s, but a big part of that was the loss he refused to confront.

When you set out on this entrepreneurial venture, you will face challenges, trials, and losses. Some of those losses will be personal. Some professional.

Some will be people who pass away suddenly. Some will be critical employees who up and leave, go off to your key competitors, enticed by better pay, better hours, better benefits, or something else. Some will be a partnership that dissolves, maybe even poorly and with heartache.

Don’t fall for the temptation of simply ignoring the grief. Don’t try to pack it away and think you will “deal with it later.”

Most of the time, no, you won’t. One day will pass and then another. You might not think about it and it will feel like it’s easier with the distance and time.

And while that may be true to some degree, the losses that are most personal to us — whether they are relational or professional — will affect us one way or another.

Confront Grief While You Can

I think this advice is great for anyone, whether you start your own business or not. Confront grief while it’s fresh. Allow yourself the opportunity to grieve in whatever way works best for you.

Just don’t pack it away. Don’t try to ignore it. And don’t rush through the process. Also, don’t rush others through their grief, either.

There are parents who lose a child suddenly to any number of reasons, including violence, sudden illnesses, or accidents. There are husbands who lose wives, children who lose parents, wives who lose husbands, best friends who lose the best friend they could ever imagine in life.

Grieving can take weeks or months, sometimes years. You never really know if somebody else has truly worked through the process, but if they short-circuit the grieving process, the loss is still there and it will affect them one way or another.

When you face hardships and failures or losses as an entrepreneur, as a business leader, let your team support you. Let them see you grieve. Don’t try to act strong when you’re weak. Be weak in front of them. Let them be your strength.

People -couples, families, communities, and even businesses- become stronger through adversity when they’re allowed to bear one another’s burdens, to lift each other up, and to carry the load their leader always felt was his or her own.

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