A cardboard cake

I was talking to a colleague of mine this week who just can’t adult another day.

I don’t mean this in a facetious or jokey way at all. This person whom I’ll call Chris, lives across the country from me and had gone through a pretty devastating change in their personal life this year. Chris had hit the wall and lost the ability to keep the professional lights fully on, and so was no longer gainfully employed. (What does that mean, “gainfully employed” anyway? Ugh.)

“I don’t know how you managed it,” Chris said, after I called to see how he/she was faring. My co-worker was of course, talking about keeping my job after losing my husband. I have no pat answer to that. I just remember the feeling of paddling underwater and occasionally, breaking the surface long enough to force air into my lungs so I could sink and plow through another day.  I do remember the panicked feeling that I would surely fuck up and lose my job due to my inability to concentrate and focus. Like my co-worker who is going through a personal rough patch (more like a gaping sinkhole) via a pending divorce, there are still bills to pay, a mortgage to meet. If I had lost my job, then what? No husband and no income. And no structure to my day. As hard as it was, work forced me to do something on a regular basis besides cry and pace.

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.
― Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Years back, my Aunt Margaret had suggested we pull a prank on my sister for her upcoming birthday and present her with a fake cake. We took blocks of styrofoam and wrapped them in plastic wrap and iced it to look like the real deal. At her party, she struggled to get the knife through the fake confection, and we all had a good laugh.

With the loss of a job now being the icing on an already uncarvable cake, Chris is likely going through a fresh range of raw emotions and recriminations. Crises tend to bring self-doubts home to roost. “What ifs” crowd out healthier thoughts and hobble our ability to function very well at all.

“It’s been a year that I’ve been going through this and I feel like I should be getting past it by now,” my colleague shared. I reassured Chris that these self-imposed deadlines are crap. I’ve felt the same thing – maybe I should be doing X by now, why can’t I get past this? Why can’t I put up the Christmas tree – why is that so hard for me still?

And sometimes, especially true in the corporate world, patience and empathy run out. The initial slice of sweetness and understanding from clients and upper management dissolve like sugar in the rain. The job still needs to get done. I  gave myself three weeks away from my then-new job to grieve my husband before I went back, and felt guilty taking that much time.

“Remember olden times when people wore black, or black arm bands for years, so people could recognize right away what they were going through?” I mused with my work friend, a certain longing in my tone.

I recalled a few brief conversations earlier in the year when Chris had reassured me that he/she was doing well. It was what people want to hear for sure. I had bought into it and moved on, drinking that cloying, tutti-frutti flavored Kool-Aid as it were. It was easier to do so. Easier for my sad, mournful friend to redirect my emotional gaze somewhere else, and easier for me to comply.