When Is a J Not a J?

My step-mother passed away on New Year’s Day.

She had been in the hospital for almost a month. At the worst possible time during rising COVID infection numbers in the community and social lockdowns in effect. Initially admitted into ICU suffering from pneumonia, she recovered to a point where she was moved out of ICU and into a general ward.

The doctors felt confident she could go home in a few days. My dad was ecstatic. It was hard for him not being able to freely visit and only being able to talk to her on the phone at certain times. The last time he talked to her on the phone, she was lucid and wanted to come home. He too, was looking forward to having her home for the holidays.

And then the doctors weren’t so confident any more.

She became extremely drowsy and unresponsive. She was transferred back to ICU. She was subjected to test after test without a clear diagnosis. The doctors were perplexed. They had more questions than answers.

My dad was crushed.

His constant companion for almost fifty years wasn’t coming home. It was sad noticing him cycle up and down through the Kübler-Ross grief model stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

How could this happen? She was talking on the phone so loudly and clearly to me. The doctors said she was ready to come home.”

It’s the hospital’s and doctors’ fault! They were bad. I know of other people who have died in their care.

I’m so sad. There are reminders of her everywhere. Everyday is hard for me”

I’ve applied variations of the Kübler-Ross grief model such as the Satir change management model to understand, assess and communicate change initiatives in my work with clients as an Agile Coach and change agent.

But this was different. This was deeply personal.

The Kübler-Ross grief model describes the raw emotions and feelings that individuals experience as they grieve a loss. The Satir model focuses on how people and an entity at large respond and perform at different stages of a change.

Satir Change Model

Both models follow a prototypical “J-shaped” curve that portrays things getting worst before they get better. Sinking into the depths of despair or a drop in performance before rising with acceptance or a new status quo.

In my reality, the journey has rarely been so linear or sequential. Like the expression, “Two steps forward, one step back”, in practice, the journey resembles less of a “J” and more of “W”, a roller coaster 🎢 , a mogul hill and a swinging pendulum all rolled into one. Sometimes, more like two steps forward, three steps back and a couple of steps to the side.

Just when I thought my dad had started to accept my step-mother’s passing and move on, he would slide back and commiserate in anger at how this could’ve happened. Or even slide sideways into diatribes on the price of vegetables or the surfacing of old familial relationship wounds. There was nothing linear about his emotional state. It was all over the map.

In business, after a significant change, how many of you have seen periods of positive progress and momentum only to be followed by parts or all of the progress regress right back to the old status quo after a while?

  • Perhaps the change agent left before the change became self-sufficient?
  • Perhaps some people had vested interest in bringing back the old ways?
  • Perhaps people forgot why they changed in the first place?

All indicators that the change may not have penetrated deep enough to take root. Barely cracking the surface of the existing culture.

Then again, perhaps the business environment has changed and now the old way is once again, good enough.

Why cling on to a change for change sake?

Kinda like returning the world to its pre-pandemic state after everyone is vaccinated or removing the barbed wire surrounding Washington DC once the domestic terrorism threat has subsided.

As devastating as it was for my dad, his experience left me with a deeper sense of obligation and acceptance. Finally, a little positivity out of the dark start to the new year.

An obligation to support my dad with the multitude of planning, arrangements and administration needed during this difficult time. Some days, it’s simply checking in with him to let him know we’re here for him. Truth be told, I’ve spent more time with him the last month and a half than I have over the last ten years. It’s an opportunity to make up for lost time. For that, I’m grateful.

I’ve also come to better terms with life and death itself. I never wanted to talk about death before. It would always give me the hebbie-jeebies. Being immersed in the aftermath of someone’s unexpected passing, I’ve come to accept the eventuality of my own mortality. I’m less afraid to talk about it and even pre-plan for it so that my loved ones won’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.

My start to 2021 was a microcosm of my 2020. It was as if I relived a year’s worth of hardship, obligation and acceptance compressed into the span of forty-five days. The events, circumstances and people may have been different but the emotions and feelings were similar.

A year of hardship and personal challenges brought about by a global pandemic.

A year of obligation to each other and our communities to stay masked, distanced, away and safe.

A year of acceptance for come what may.

Surrendering to the universe. Nine months without a paid gig.

Patiently waiting… breathing…

Taking long, pensive walks outdoors and in nature. Admiring the halcyon, carefree days of my dog. And then, two promising gig opportunities appear at the same time. Was it the universe answering back? In any case, I’m thankful for a little light.

As dark and gut-wrenching the start of the year has been, perhaps the rest of the year will be filled with more light than dark.

To that, I surrender.

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