November 2nd, 2017 was a very long, very difficult day. That morning, I was getting ready to board a flight from Taipei to Los Angeles that was taking off at noon. I was breaking up with my boyfriend that day. After having made the decision three weeks before, we decided to officially split and end things at the airport, right before I entered the security checkpoint. After we separated, I thought the worst was over. I even took the rest of the week off from work, knowing I would need the time to recover. I just had to get through the 14-hour flight back home, where my mother was going to pick me up at the airport. I tried to keep things together on the plane. I failed a few times. I was lucky I slept a little. When I landed in California, I remember just feeling a bit relieved. I could just go home. I could just rest. Because of the way the time zones worked, I actually ended up landing at noon the same day. It was still November 2nd.
Still in my seat on the plane, I turned my phone on.
I was getting emails, texts, voicemails. I was expecting a flurry of notifications since I had been out of the country for a month, but not this many. Something was wrong. The little strip at the top of my phone kept filling with ominous words and phrases: "farewell," "my last day," "sad news"... What was happening? I rushed to get off the plane, hoping to get a better signal so I could actually read the messages that weren't fully loading on my phone. It wasn't working. I remember every ping was another blow to the gut. I was panicking. I still had to get through immigration, baggage claim, another security checkpoint...it took me about an hour after getting off the plane before I could really read all the messages. Finally, I had figured it out: my company had conducted layoffs just an hour before I landed in Los Angeles.
The rest of the day was just more bad news and scrambling to figure out what had happened. Who was leaving? What are they going to do? What about their families, their new kids, the houses they just bought? What does this mean for the company? For our community? For me? Many of these people that were going I knew since they started at the company. I'd traveled to visit them overseas. I've had dinner with their families. Some of them I had even interviewed. That day, when I boarded my flight, I thought I was only losing one person in my life. By the end of the day, I had lost many, many more.
It's been over a month since that day.
Up to that day, I don't think I had ever really experienced grief. So far, death and sickness have been kept at bay in my family. A nomadic lifestyle has taught me how to keep ties with people regardless of where I am, so I've never really had to say goodbye to my friends. I've never even owned a pet that I've lost. What I felt that day I could only describe as grief, my first grief. It was the first time I had ever had a boyfriend, and I lost him. It was the first time I had felt so close to so many I worked with, and I lost them.
Most of all, I felt like I lost who I was. I defined my life around my work, my freedom, and my relationship. In a single day, my world shrank into something much smaller. It shrank into what was happening right in front of me, right now. I wasn't thinking about exploring the world anymore. I wasn't thinking about how to make change and how to be an agent for good. Now it was just about survival. Now it was just about putting one foot in front of the other. Now it was just about getting through the next second, the next minute, the next hour, the next day...one after another.
It's been over a month since that day.
There are lots of ways to work through grief, through suffering. I'll admit, there were a few not-so-great methods I used to get past that first day (weed and an In-N-Out burger helps a lot). But I didn't want to be destructive to myself or to others. The first day was shock, then pain - blinding pain, then heartbreak. It was a whirlwind. But in the midst of all that, I was able to do a few wise things. Over the course of a month or so, these things have saved me, and I want to share what I've learned with you.
Show your pain
The first day this all happened, I was simply overwhelmed. At the airport that afternoon, I was numbed by what had happened, just completely shell-shocked. The first few hours were a hazy blur and I remember my body being on autopilot: I remember getting into the car, going to get lunch with my sister, arriving at my parent's house, going to my room, and then finally...I just lost it. I hadn't had time since the morning I was in Taiwan several hours before to be completely alone in a private place. I had kept everything that had happened to me bottled up through the transcontinental flight and the journey to my parent's place. When I finally got to my room that day, it was the first opportunity I had time to myself in over 20 hours. I think it was the first time I let myself really feel my suffering. I feel like I had downed a massive cocktail of emotions: loss, fear, confusion, shaken with a tinge of jet lag, and I was just starting to feel the massive hangover.
This is how I normally operate. When I encounter stress, or pain, or danger, my instinct is to harden my resolve and to become a rock. I'm used to being the counselor and the anchor in times of crisis. It's something that has helped the people that have come to me through their own hardship, and I shield others from my own pain to stabilize the environment around me. I rarely asked people to help me because I was so used to trying to help others. I never want to be a burden to anyone. But what about now? What about when my world gets turned inside out and almost everything I know has changed? Who was I helping by crushing my grief under the pressure of my guilt? No one.
So I showed my pain. I asked for help.
This was the first wise thing I did. I showed my pain, and when I did, people came to offer their help. I was shocked by this. People from everywhere, people I hadn't spoken to in years, people I thought had forgotten about me, reached out with a text, a call, and a listening ear. My tribe had come for me when I needed them most.
After I explained what had happened, almost every person had asked, "What can I do to help?" At first, I didn't know what to say. What could they do? They couldn't bring my boyfriend back. They couldn't save my friends' jobs. They couldn't do anything. Then I realized it wasn't about anything they could do. What I needed was simply them, their presence. I just needed to know there were others around me whom I could lean on. In a time of crisis, you can suddenly feel profoundly alone in the world, and simply showing your pain to remember you're never really alone is the first best medicine in grief.
"Nothing." I remember replying. "You just reaching out is more than enough."
In grief, you're going to need rest. Fortunately, I had come prepared to grant myself just that. Others weren't so lucky to have the heads up. I knew ahead of time that I was going to be in pain, and I knew that plunging myself into work or exercise or intoxication wasn't going to help me through that pain. What I needed to do was to really confront my feelings and regulate those feelings with things that would be healthy, healing, and easing.
For me, rest means rituals. It means a daily hour-long walk to ponder, starting from my parent's house to the end of my neighborhood and back. It means sitting at the edge of my bed every morning, eyes closed, being diligent about learning to live with my thoughts. It means talking to my parents in our back patio a few nights a week, maybe with a glass of wine in hand, and not resorting to anger or dismissal or denial in talking through my suffering. I did the things that have always made me feel renewed, refreshed. Rest meant leaning on the practices that have kept me on balance my whole life, not to distract me from the pain, but to arm me so I could fully engage with my situation.
Forgive and be thankful
In trying times like this, it's really tempting to assign blame. Why did this happen? Whose fault is this? How should they be punished? How did I deserve this? It's not surprising that in times of suffering that people shrink into thinking about how they are being treated and they quickly search for retribution with a finger on the trigger. In mild cases, this anger just distracts people from and extends their suffering on a personal level; they believe the anger helps them cope without understanding that it's just postponing the resolution. In more extreme cases, people turn their anger into scapegoating or revenge with lasting damage and life-altering consequences. Very rarely does anger-turned-retribution provide any meaningful kind of closure.
For me, I don't see much use in anger. Anger feels like a waste of energy, and a seductive but ultimately deceptive way of drawing out your suffering and dragging others into it. For me, I had to muster the courage to forgive. I had to believe that it was neither my own nor my ex's fault that we had to split, and to forgive him. I had to believe that everyone at my company did everything they could to keep things together, and to forgive them. I had to understand that I had poured myself into my relationship and my work and that even though I had failed, I had to forgive myself too. As I've written before in other essays, forgiving is not about releasing the recipient. Forgiving someone isn't about saying that what they did was excusable, and forgiving someone doesn't mean you should let the mistakes that were made happen again. Forgiving my ex, my company, and myself does not absolve anyone from the responsibility of their actions - but it does free me from the pointless anger that serves only to chain me endlessly to my pain. Forgiving means letting go, and freeing yourself.
Better yet, I could be thankful. I could look at everything - my relationship, my work, my time during this period - and feel deep gratitude for what has been and that I still have. I experienced a moving and rapturous love. I got to travel the world and work for a company whose mission I still believe in. Even the period of recovery in the last month or so has been filled with moments of deep connection, vulnerability, and nobility. I was able to salvage what I believe will be a truly great friendship with my ex. I still have my job, and I'm optimistic about my company's future. The people who were let go I know are taken care of, and many of them have already gotten back on their feet. Most of all, I'm thankful to all the people who have reached out to me in my time of need - my tribe - for guiding me to a better place with vigilence.
I have so much I still have: a good home, loving people around me, and my hope.
Finally, give back
Nothing breaks through the cloud of grief like service. It seems paradoxical: the best way to make yourself feel better is not to try to make yourself feel better, but instead to help others do so. In suffering, it is tempting to think only about yourself. I need more space. I need more time. I need to be alone. The first traumatic day of this journey, all I could think about was what I needed too.
The second day, I did what I could to reach out to others. I've been keeping in touch with my ex to make sure our new friendship starts out on the right foot. I started asking my remaining colleagues about how they were feeling: not only my peers, but also our leadership - they had swung the sword and I knew they were shaken too. I reached out to my friends who were let go and offered my help placing them into jobs if I could give any. I got right back into my volunteer work, knowing that doing so was medicine for me.
Lastly, I finally finished this essay. I started a draft of this piece the day the hammer dropped, on November 2nd, 2017. I thought I could get this written in a few days, then a few weeks, which has now turned into over a month. Something always kept me from revisiting the draft. There would be a new revelation in the resulting fallout, another incident that would rip open the wounds I've been tending to. Even now, I still have my moments. I'll be walking on the street, or buying groceries, and I'll be struck. They're like unexpected waves of sadness or pain that suddenly wash over me and it takes the wind out of me. In many ways, this essay is one of my final steps in giving back and healing. I felt like I couldn't write anything else without finishing this first.
The road to recovery is a long one, and I'm still on it. This essay is a signpost on the path. This is a summary of what I've learned so far, and it's what I want to offer to anyone who finds themselves in true hardship like I have. It's not much.
...but I hope it's enough to get you through the next day.