How to Cope with Work During a Heartbreaking Personal Crisis

The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.” – W.M. Lewis

In November 2000 my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. After his first visit with a specialist, he was told to ‘put his affairs in order’.

Suddenly Dad wasn’t sick, he was dying.

I was rocked to my core.

To be honest, my core wasn’t all that stable, to begin with. In September that year, I’d returned home to Brisbane after living in London with my partner for five months. My partner ended our relationship and I had no option but to return home.

Since I’d given up my life in Australia to go overseas with him, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job, and a broken heart. My self-esteem was at an all-time low. I was already battling feelings of depression when Dad was diagnosed.

The news about Dad hit me hard.

Yet somehow, life and in particular work had to go on. I had recently started a full-time team assistant role which I desperately needed to get back on my feet financially.

Over the next eight months, Dad went from outpatient treatments to intensive care to a long stint in hospital to palliative care, during which time I had to keep working.

This situation or something similar is faced by countless workers every day.

Here are ten lessons I learned on how to cope with work during a heartbreaking family crisis.

1. Ask people for help

If you are working full time, you will need people to help with doctor and specialist visits.

Thankfully, my sister-in-law who was a stay at home mother at the time was able to take my father to his regular radium and chemo treatments and take care of chemist visits and the like. With both my brother and I working full time, her contribution was invaluable. We wouldn’t have made with through without her help and support.

Make sure you enlist people who can help, even if it’s for basic tasks like preparing meals. Don’t take on the mindset that you can do it all yourself.

You can’t and you will only wear yourself out trying.

My amazing friends were also a godsend. Make sure you have people you can talk to, cry on and have a laugh with.

Life, despite its hardships, sadness, and loss, still needs to find a way to go on.

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2. Talk to your manager at work

While you may want to keep your personal life private, you will need to inform your direct manager about your situation.

Even with help, there will be days when you can’t make it into work, you will be late or you need to take extended periods of time off.

If possible, talk about how to handle these situations before they arise.

If you find yourself in a position to take time off, discuss this with your manager. Talk to them about using any personal or annual leave available.

Discuss what will happen if you need time off suddenly. You may need to engineer a backup plan for your workload if you can’t make it into work.

On a routine visit to the hospital, one Thursday morning, my brother and I were told Dad would not survive the long weekend. They said it was time. We were devastated.

From a work perspective, I was incredibly lucky to have the support of my managers. Despite the fact that I was in a temp role, they let me take the time off I needed, without fear of not having a job when I went back several days later.

In case you were wondering, Dad did make it through the long weekend. He actually lived another six months. Another lesson to be learned – doctors can be wrong.

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3. Use work as a release valve

There will be days when you want to go to work and focus on something that is not about sickness and dying.

Use those times to be as productive as possible.

Some days will be hard to concentrate. If possible, pick one task and follow it through to the end. Don’t jump from task to task, if you can avoid it.

The key is to stay focused and immersed in your work.

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4. Don’t talk about your problems at work (unless you want to)

Well-meaning colleagues may come up and ask you how the patient is holding up. Understand people have the best intentions – they genuinely care.

Generally, you will find that many people won’t come up to you, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to upset you.

If you are at work and you need someone to talk to, seek out a trusted co-worker and talk things through with them.

Compartmentalization may be helpful for some people. Keep work strictly about work. Keep family and health matters strictly at home. While many will find this behavior impossible, some may find it works best for them.

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5. Understand some days at work will be difficult

There will be days when you really struggle.

You will feel emotionally drained, sad and physically exhausted. Concentrating will prove difficult. Your attention span may seem non-existent.

You will literally feel like crawling into a hole (or perhaps under your desk) and staying there.

Most jobs have a component of routine about them, tasks that you need to do that don’t take a lot of thought. Use this to your advantage. If possible, seek out these tasks on the days you are struggling to concentrate.

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6. Eat as well as possible

I know you have heard this before but you need to take care of yourself and eat well.

As basic as that sounds, the truth of the matter is there will be times you are too exhausted both physically and mentally to bother eating, particularly if long hospital visits after work are part of your daily routine.

Aim to keep skipping meals to a minimum.

If you are an emotional eater, the opposite may be true. Eating may become your source of comfort. If this is the case, keep the house stocked with as much healthy food as possible. Get rid of junk food in the house to avoid binge eating. Treat yourself to splurges now and then.

If you are eating regularly at the hospital canteen or restaurant, choose your meals carefully. Try to eat healthy fresh meals. Hospital restaurant food can often be heavy on fat, salt, and sugar.

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7. Get as much sleep as you can

This is extremely important and equally difficult.

Depending on how you handle stress, you may either struggle with insomnia or feel slightly depressed and find you are sleeping a lot more than normal.

Despite which camp you fall into, bear in mind you need to get up and go to work the next day.

8. Keep your vices in check

Whatever your vice is – drinking, smoking, gambling, shopping, overeating, now is not the time to let it run wild. 

While you may be looking for a form of escape, think first about the consequences. Overindulging could ultimately lead to more stress, financial difficulty, depression, and guilt.

You don’t want to risk losing your job at an already difficult time.

Accept you may not feel like yourself. I felt quite numb for much of the time Dad was in the hospital.

It is important to understand that everyone handles a crisis differently.

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9. Expect an emotional roller coaster

Your emotions might be all over the place.

The doctor tells you terrible news but you keep it together for the sake of your loved one, but you accidentally break a cheap drinking glass and burst into tears. You might feel unreasonably angry over the stupidest things.

One of the hardest parts with Dad in the hospital were the days he would seem fine. My spirit would soar and I would start to feel hopeful. He appeared to be recovering. Each time the doctor had to remind me that Dad was still dying, despite his improvements, my heart would plummet and I would feel lost in an ocean of grief.

Expect to feel vulnerable and understand how this will affect your time at work.

My Dad worked hard his whole life. His strong work ethic meant he would become distressed when my brother or I missed too much work because we were with him.

I imagine he was fearful of us losing our jobs and he didn’t want to see that happen. Sometimes you need to remember to take the feelings of the patient into consideration as well.

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10. Take time out for yourself

Make sure you have time out for yourself. You need to have time to relax and reflect.

For me, writing provided a healthy release value.

Writing regularly in my journal helped me pour my emotions onto the page. One afternoon, I took my notepad to the local park and wrote furiously for 26 pages. To this day, I have never re-read a word. Reliving my thoughts and fears is not the point.

Getting out the pain, frustration, and despair was the goal.

I actually wrote the draft of this blog post several years ago yet I could never quite bring myself to put it on the blog until now. Even years later talking in detail about the loss of my Dad stirs up some confronting memories.

I hope this article helps someone going through a similar situation and lets them know they are not alone in what they are going through.

Please share this post with your friends on social media, you never know who might be needing to read this today.