I want to preface this post with a disclaimer: I am not an expert (therapist or trained professional) in grief; what follows has come out of discussions with colleagues who have suffered loss or other upheavals in their lives and who still needed to put bread on the table. For those who think the title seems familiar, it is a nod to Barbara Colorosa’s Parenting with Wit and Wisdom in Times of Chaos and Loss.
How I got here
Like it did for everyone else on the planet, COVID affected me greatly. The impact on my business was positive, since people had time to write books that needed editing, and I gained a publishing client who was able to follow a dream to establish their non-traditional business. The impact on my extended family was negative, and the stresses were exacerbated by living 1,800 km away, unable to visit.
Mid-pandemic, my husband’s father moved into long-term care, and my father’s mental acuity declined due to lack of stimulation. This culminated in my father-in-law’s death on Thanksgiving last year, followed by my father’s death (after a bout of COVID then RSV) just before Christmas. My father’s funeral was on Jan. 9, 2023 — and one month later, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Talk about a triple whammy! (Mum is currently doing well on chemo, so that immediate stress has lessened.)
The single biggest thing I think any editor can do to mitigate unforeseen events is to create a professional network of trusted colleagues.
When I told my story during a Zoom social with other freelance editors, almost everyone had something to share about coping with both the work of editing and the business side during times of grief, which made me realize that we need to talk about this. We need to talk to process it. We need to know we’re not alone and that others have made it work.
I also came to realize that clients are human and will be empathetic if you’re just honest — but professional — about your situation. Obviously, how much you say will depend upon your relationship; so, too, will their responses and the solutions. My two long-term clients sent me beautiful bouquets and “take what time you need” sentiments.
Sometimes, though, the answer may be to request an extension or pass a project along to another editor. Having names and contact information on hand makes the latter easier. I’d go one step further and say create boilerplate for the two different groups (current and potential clients). That way, a simple copy and paste (or text expander program) can resolve the issue with minimal effort and stress.
Editing entails emotional work
I found distraction in working, but I also found that some types of work were harder than usual — a realization echoed by colleagues. We figured that when you’re in the midst of making decisions regarding funerals or other life-changing events, your brain reaches decision-making overload and cannot handle the myriad small decisions required during editing.
Lenore Hietkamp put it another way: “[S]omething that really has come home to me is that when dealing with the problems of another (my mother) and subsequently their death, caring enough about the writing of others to edit with my normal grace and tact is really difficult to do. Trying to edit while grieving means taking some of my ‘heart energy’ away from that precious grieving process — and the precious emotional time spent with my dying mother — to give to my clients, who need something similar in a way. It really brings home that editing entails emotional work.”
On the other hand, for me at least, doing something organizational (like updating a client’s website) gave me a sense of control. The takeaway is to work with your day-to-day strengths rather than fighting through brain fog because you’ve scheduled a specific project for the day. I learned the term “productive procrastination” many years ago, and this is a perfect use of the approach. So long as something is coming off the to-do list, it doesn’t have to be the top item.
Be prepared — and be gentle
Grief is a process; it doesn’t magically end on a given day.
Recognize that there will be times (such as milestone anniversaries) when you may be blindsided by a wave of grief — and then plan for them. For some, that may mean building in a buffer to your schedule to allow you to take time away from a project. For others, a more concrete plan may be to take the milestone day off. This will be different for everybody, depending on what events your family marks and how.
Additional tips on managing grief and work:
- If you’re responsible for handling an estate, know that it is time-consuming and don’t overbook yourself.
- If the chaos stems from something ongoing, you may need to figure out ways to compartmentalize the issue.
- Self-care is something of a buzzword, but it really is important to look after your physical and mental health.
- When you look at a page of words and your brain says “Nope, not happening today,” there are choices. I recommend closing the computer and getting out of the house.
While my experiences of the past year have obviously affected my presentation of information, many of these ideas can equally be applied to life changes that do not involve loss: having children (they can most definitely add chaos), moving, a partner’s job changes, relationship changes and world events, among others. With planning and realistic expectations, you can maintain your professional grace and tact while you navigate chaos, loss or any other situation you may be dealt.
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