by Amy Steinbauer, Senior Assistant, INALJ California
“My life fell apart… and then I had to go back to work”
My father died last month. It was sudden, and quick, and has changed my life forever. I was headed back East for a friend’s wedding, and a visit; but once he got to the hospital, I bumped up my trip to spend more time with him.
In total, I spent about a month in NJ, but eventually, I had to head back to CA, and back to work. My work had been pretty lenient… one plus of being paid hourly— your cheap to misplace for a bit.
Coming back to work was difficult, and there are many waves of that difficulty. My coworkers are lovely and want to hug me and share the burden of my grief, but I don’t want to think about things, much less talk. Some of them can relate, as they have lost their parents, but considering I am one of the youngest employees at the library it doesn’t do much to console me.
To add to my chaos, I had left my desk a complete mess as I was still processing a office transition from a few weeks before. I had anticipated being back much sooner, I didn’t think things would get as bad as they did. Coming back to it, I feel like a different person left that space. I had to go back and retrain myself in how I was working in the space. A silver lining to that, is that I am finally taking the time to organize my stereotypically messy librarian office, and going through things I meant to toss months ago. Since my job has split into two, now I split my office in half to reflect the different areas of my work. So far it is making things much easier to be so organized.
I would like to think that no one would ever need this guide. I hope you all have blissful and happy lives, free from pain. But, realistically, tragedy may find it’s way to your door, no matter how many times you double check the locks.
A few things that may help to consider.
Don’t be afraid to be honest with people.
Libraries are community centers, and being a librarian is an instant community connector. This applies directly to my job as an Outreach Librarian, the literal face of the library… People need to know that I am going through a hard time that has changed me, or they may be frustrated that I am not the person I used to be, or am not right now. It takes the load off when people know that I am grieving. Since I was gone for so long, and don’t have an adequate substitutes, my outreach service was majorly disrupted. People were frustrated and annoyed with me being out, and there was no one to explain things to them. I had to get control of the situation, which meant having many small uncomfortable conversations with my community contacts. While I generally love outreach and my job, it’s hard to be the happy, positive community member when you are grieving.
Being open about grief connects you with people who are suffering too… since I have shared my news, one mother stayed to talk with me after storytime about her father having risky brain surgery. And another mother told me that her son is chronically ill, so they drive every day to a special hospital a few towns over. Even though we don’t typically discuss it openly, people are hurting all the time. And in a job that builds community connections, it easy to overlook that sometimes the biggest resource you can be sometimes is just some ears to listen. One of my favorite quotes has always been “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”~ John Watson. Grief reminds me of what we all too easily forget. Life is hard, and no one is immune to that. Even Beyonce has bad days. Connecting with people about loss and or life’s hardships helps to ground you in real human experiences and emotions.
Don’t overload yourself.
Before I left for home, I had just started up the Fall Outreach Schedule, and was still in the process of contacting all of the 35 or so outreach partners from preschools to businesses. I wasn’t even running my full schedule, but I was exhausted and overworked and super stressed. In particular in the month before I had left my wallet home twice! I frequently couldn’t remember if I had shampooed or conditioned my hair, or in what order. I wasn’t operating at a level that was comfortable for anyone, but I had a strong desire to do everything! Technically, I was doing one and a half a person’s jobs, and it was simply too much.
After what has happened, I took the time to reevaluate what I can do. I’m not emotionally at 100% yet, and taking on stress right now just won’t work. Work is a good distraction from grief, but you don’t want to stress yourself out while you are fragile. I’m taking some time to realistically look at my schedule. There is no room for playing catch up or getting projects done, and now I really miss that time and need to find room for it.
There will be changes.
Grief changes people. On my first day back, I had to stay late for my PJ storytime. It had already been cancelled and rescheduled, so despite my feelings, I had to make do. I picked out the stories, got the snack, looked up an action rhyme, and was set. Five minutes before the official end time, we had gone through 3 and a half stories, the action rhyme, the snack, and I didn’t have another story in me. I announced the end, sang the goodbye song, and we were done. In hindsight, I think I read the stories too fast, and probably could have kept going, but in all honesty, no one really cared that it ended quicker than usual. Stories were read, laughs were had, and that equals success no matter how much time is spent.
Remember to eat healthy meals and exercise. This is something I am working on! I had bread and cheese for dinner my first two nights back, followed by weight in ice cream. As I write this, I am at a conference that I presented at. I bought a huge bag of candy to entice feedback, but forgot to hand it out, and am now eating too many Reese’s pumpkins. I tend to oscillate between skipping meals completely to overindulging.
Meal times can be really hard, as you sit quietly and are tempted to reflect. They are also hard for me because my father loved to cook, and it was something we could always talk about. Even as we sat in the hospital, praying for good news, I was asking him to teach me how to make blueberry scones.
Lunch is hard at work, as I have to leave my distractions at my desk, and remember the life that I am leading. Sometimes I just drive around for the whole hour only stopping for coffee. Hopefully, things will get better.
You can’t predict how grief will make you react, but no matter what you have to honor it. Sometimes you need to cry in your car at lunch, or in your office, or hold back tears during storytime. My work schedule gets interrupted as I have to focus on things going on at home, or just feel sad for a few moments. But, life is more important than work. All that matters is that things get done, and thankfully I have the space in my management to take my time.
Don’t shut out your friends.
My friends are mostly good and hover the awkward line between giving me space, and reaching out. Nothing really helps, so there’s no right move on either side. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to respond to a text, but I like getting them.
Late one night when things started to take a turn in the hospital, I texted one of my graduate school friends, and without saying anything significant, asked her to remind me of my career goals in 6 months, and then to remind me again in a year. She didn’t ask any questions, just agreed to my weird late night requests, and I am thankful for that. I have aspirations and dreams, and I want to do things, things that I can’t think about right now; but are ultimately important to me. I like that she is “in charge” of them right now, holding them for safe keeping for when I can be myself again. Even though she probably never thinks about it, it makes me feel relieved to know that someone else is tasked with taking care of my dreams for the time being.
Job Searching Gets Extra Challenging
For all those grieving and job searching… imagine that I am reaching out to pat you on the back. Job searching is always a challenge, and when you bring grief to the table with it, it can seem impossible. Searching for work is all about possibility and hope and good things. Grief tells you that all the good is gone, and you will listen to that. It feels like that. But like I stated above, you have goals, you have passions and desires, and life has to move on. This is another shout out to lean on your friends, let them look at your resume, cover letters, websites, etc. Friends want to help, and these are tasks that require multiple eyes on them. Focus on your good. Get overly involved in career orientated websites (I’m kind of obsessed with TheMuse.com), keep your goals on the front burner. It’s another sort of distraction, and when the good comes from it, you will be happy again.
To anyone going through grief, let’s tell each other that it gets better. Even if you don’t believe it right now, maybe if we keep reaching out to each other and being an ally, we can heal together.
Amy Steinbauer is the Early Childhood Outreach Librarian at Beaumont Library District in Beaumont, CA. It took her six months to find a job. She drives a bookmobile; which is one of her favorite things! Amy has a B.A. in English from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA and an MLISc from the University of Hawaii. She loves mermaids, and advocating for libraries; and will one day combine them both to take over the world! Until then, follow her on twitter@merbrarian.