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Nicola Aquino

Editing in Times of Chaos and Loss

A person sits at a desk with their head in their hands. A computer monitor, a mug and sheets of paper are next to them on the desk.
A person sits at a desk with their head in their hands. A computer monitor, a mug and sheets of paper are next to them on the desk.
Copyright: oljadeny

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.)

Sharing helps

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.

Final thoughts

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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8 Comments on “Editing in Times of Chaos and Loss”

  • Gael Spivak


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Nicola. I am sure that this post will help many people, so I am grateful that you took the time and effort to write this.


  • Robin Larin


    Beautifully expressed, Nicola. Thank you for this.


  • Thank you very much for this, Nicola. I am especially grateful that you mentioned dealing with world events, because those have been affecting my concentration lately.


  • This is an honest, reassuring post on a subject that’s troubling to talk about let alone cope with. Thanks for such a valuable addition to the Editors’ Weekly blog.


  • My apologies to Lenore for misspelling her name; I have now corrected it.


  • Thank you for putting together a post on such an important and under-discussed topic. So many people think they have to “act normal” while they are grieving, and they put themselves under tremendous emotional stress. Hopefully, the more we talk about this, the more we can remind people to be empathetic and realize that grief has no timeline.


    • Exactly! Last week I went to my first in-person knitting circle and had to repeat the story of the past year multiple times. It caught me off guard, and I was emotionally drained by the end of the hour. Another tip I should have added: prepare yourself for expanding your circle and having to explain it all.


  • Janice Dyer


    Thank you so much for this post, Nicola. It expressed so well what I have been doing over the last couple of years as I deal with the stress of aging parents and relatives (along with world events). Working with clients who are flexible and understanding, saying no to work (hard to do, but sometimes very necessary!), spending time with people in my support network who understand what I’m going through, taking time for myself when I need it–all of these things have been crucial! This is such an important topic, and as Michelle said in her comment, hopefully talking about it will increase awareness and lead to more empathy.


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