Coping with hardship: How professionals handle tragic turns

By David Maturo

The unfortunate reality of the human condition is that hardship will touch all of us. Yet, most of us are grossly unprepared and have difficulty dealing with turmoil when it occurs.

There are several reasons for this. First, hardships typically, and thankfully, don't occur frequently, so we don't develop standard operating procedures for dealing with them. Second, hardships are just as the name says - overwhelming occurrences that do not have easy or out-of-the-box solutions. They challenge us in ways that we are not used to being challenged. Many of us freeze, unable to clearly think through a problem, much less develop solutions. Tragedy interferes with and influences our relationships, our work, and our overall state of mind.

Despite the seeming singularity of each event, there are, in fact, patterns to how we as human beings and dedicated professionals deal with difficult situations. Many of us are unaware of these patterns, much less how to incorporate them into handling tragedy. We reached out to a number of professionals who were generous about sharing the lessons learned from their hardships. Their stories are highlighted at the conclusion of this feature. We pooled our collective experiences, isolated some key insights, and provided some guidelines here for coping with hardship as a professional.

Plan for the Inevitable

We know, rationally, that hardship will touch all of us someday, but we are still surprised when it happens. Amidst the shock of the event, it is not an ideal time to learn about your options. When tragedy seems a remote possibility, and you can think more objectively, develop a plan. Don't avoid the morbid; get an understanding of how you and your family might deal with a worst-case scenario.

Many hardships are health-related. You can work at staying in shape, have regular tests of your health, and listen to early warning signs to guide the doctors' diagnosis as early as possible, but you still must sit down and sort out your wishes and priorities. If you are a major contributor to your family, have some form of life insurance, a will, and power of attorney drawn up. Also, pay attention to your spending habits so you can build a nest egg for when life seemingly goes off course.

Too often, only one person in a family handles the home's finances and administration. Make sure you, or your spouse, also know how to run the household - at least have a cheat sheet with key contact information, location of documents, files and passwords, banking and insurance information, people to connect with at work, service providers, and so on. You'll only need to prepare and update this every few years, so it's not a huge time investment.

The Company You Keep

Part of your planning must include the company for which you work. For many, the primary - or only - source of insurance is through the employer. You must know what your benefit plans provide, the deductibles, co-payments, doctors in the network, and so on. If you don't feel it is adequate after review, add supplemental insurance. A complete insurance picture also will help determine how much "rainy day" money needs to be set aside. Review your company's policies on paid time off, flexible work schedules, and telecommuting. You need to know what options you have and where flexibility exists should you need it.

One critical ingredient that can transcend a firm's propensity to help you through hardship is its work-place culture. Part of the culture is exhibited by what benefits the company provides: the more employee-centric a firm, the more "caring" the benefits will be. During the interview process, you can learn a lot about the culture through the company leaders you meet. How they talk about themselves and the company, how they relate to their customers, how much value they place on relationships, how they court you during the interview stage - all correlate with how they will treat you and how much they will work with you during a hardship. Each participant in this article - Dennis, Paul, and Joe (see vignettes at the conclusion of this feature) - noted that the leadership of their companies made a difference in how the company responded to their hardships. Paul was grateful that his company gently guided him into grief counseling when he admittedly balked at it. Co-workers volunteered to help him process his bills and sort through medical red tape. Joe was given credit for business development that he couldn't fulfill while away from the job. The human resources department counseled Dennis's wife and helped her with running the home's financial and administrative business while he was not able to. The company leaders expressed concern for them and their families, and there was no pressure to return to work at anything other than their pace. You won't find any of these things in an employee manual. This speaks to the quality of the culture, the goodness in people's hearts, and the relationships built over our professional lives.

Relationships and Teambuilding

When discussing the building of relationships and teams, we tend to think of the professional, pragmatic sense of the concept. But in a broader sense, relationships are the foundation of our personal and professional lives. There is not much we do, or can do, without others. Even more so during a tragedy, you need to know that you can't tackle everything on your own. Reflect on your relationships: with your spouse, family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers. If your interactions are transactional and in-passing, you are not putting yourself in a position to succeed. Your own individual efforts will not be enough when you are not able to put your best foot forward or are at great risk.

Because of the relationships they built, Dennis, Paul, and Joe were able to surround themselves with a team. Dennis explains that, "People called around the clock, neighbors brought meals, employees helped with missed work and administration of our finances, friends helped with doctors visits - the list goes on." While we do not want to take advantage of the sympathetic responses of others, do make plans to guide it. Make it easy for people to help. Have a list of all the things that you need done and what the priority is. If people step up, channel their efforts. They will appreciate being able to help, and your family will appreciate the load being lifted for a period. Paul, Joe, and Dennis were helped by gaining access to organizations that help those in their situations. The relationships opened up other doors of support, where they could talk to people who understood their hardship without having the complication of being deeply intimate with their personal lives.

Should tragedy strike you, be diplomatic, honest, and direct with your employers and co-workers. Work with leadership to create a work plan that everyone is comfortable with. The plan should address your schedule and how it will change over time. Address your work outputs and how they will be covered, whether by you or by a substitute, over the period. Cover compensation and insurances so you all understand what will happen at each interval. Just as importantly, do not shy away from the personal piece of it. If you, or a family member, is getting medical treatment, explain the situation. They will appreciate your sharing, as it will complete the picture for them and help them gain more comfort with your work plan. Lastly, consider the technologies the company employs - handheld devices, remote access, and so on - so you can stay connected and visible to the extent possible.

People Challenges

Dealing with people while you're in the midst of a tragedy can be awkward. Some people cannot handle the load of our problem and become uncomfortable. We need to know how to talk about our situation without inducing discomfort. As odd as it sounds, rehearse your conversations. Joe started by being blunt, but he soon discovered that people cared deeply about him, and finding out that he had cancer rocked them.

"I had to learn how to ease into the discussion. I found that I first needed to give people a heads up that something heavy was coming, and then tell them." There will be surprises along the way. People with whom you weren't particularly close will help you, and some of the closer ones may step back. The challenge is to remember that you're not the only person dealing with difficult issues. You don't know what's going on in their camp, so don't be quick to judge. Sometimes your situation may be too great an emotional hurdle for them to overcome. Try to understand and not react harshly.

Glass Half Full

When surrounded by darkness, we need to see a light. That hope can come from a belief in something or from an internal optimism. Immersing oneself in the process of overcoming the tragedy can help with optimism.

Moving forward with treatment and recovery reduces the time spent brooding. In addition, while life can be crazy and beyond control for a period, try to focus on normalcy. Do the things you typically do that make you feel good, productive, and normal. Also, try to experience a full range of emotions, not just stress or sadness. Keep your sense of humor. We need to be happy and silly at times to combat an unhappy chapter in our lives. "Treat yourself, and know that you deserve good things in your life," says Paul. He added, however, "to be aware of escapism - overworking, emotional explosions, affairs, substance abuse, etc." There is a fine line between doing all you can and overloading yourself to avoid dealing with issues.

Be a Driver, Not a Passenger

Early on, and if the situation allows, give yourself time to grieve and reel from the shock of your emotional earthquake, but set a deadline as to when you have to stop and take decisive action. Be aggressive about understanding the issue and educating yourself on all that needs to be done. Create plans, personal and professional, and be adamant in realizing them. Paul, Joe, and Dennis embraced treatment and recovery, following the doctors' guidelines to the letter.

The recovery timetable is something we have little control over: Paul's wife Nicole had six years of treatment; Joe was in recovery for eight months; Dennis took one year to get back to work full-time. While we have to accept that the pace will be dictated to us to some degree, we can nevertheless use a timetable to establish goals that gently push ourselves forward.

For many, part of the emotional recovery is getting back to work and proving ourselves to be a part of productive society. For Joe and Dennis, when they started feeling better, they got antsy and felt compelled to get back to work. As always, we need to follow our doctors' advice on the timing of our return, but we can ease into the return more easily by staying connected, even if not fully engaged. Being part of the action via e-mail will let people know you are involved and will help you feel in touch and less intimidated about returning to the office.

What the Future Holds

Dennis, Paul, and Joe learned many things through their hardships. They learned that they had many more friends than they supposed, and that those friends rose to great heights to help them while they were in need. That experience underscored the value of relationships and networking. It moved them to join, and even create, organizations that help others in a similar way. Additionally, they discovered that they need to prioritize work and family a little differently, but at the same time they learned that work was very important to them for a sense of contribution. Beyond that, work constitutes our other family - a professional family that cares for and depends on us, as we do them. Finally, they learned that it pays to plan ahead, when one can think more clearly and objectively, and to be more deliberate about the company they choose. Whatever individual lessons that life is teaching them, the students are certainly listening.

Case Studies: True-Life Experiences of Our Local Professionals

Dennis is a CPA who, for the past several years, has been vice president and corporate controller for a large manufacturer. Dennis is young, athletic, and has been into weightlifting for as long as he can remember. Dennis was at the local gym when, after one set of exercises, he felt the worst headache of his life overtake him. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where they learned Dennis had an aneurysm. The rupture of the blood vessels in his brain resulted in significant hemorrhaging that would kill him if it was not addressed in time. He went from the gym to a local hospital to an advanced neurosurgery unit. He needed immediate brain surgery. After eight days of procedures to stop the bleeding and repair the blood vessels, Dennis was released from the hospital. As a result of the aneurysm, he couldn't see out of his left eye and he felt as if he were in a mental fog. He was told it would take two years to recover, and that he may never work or drive again. This was a huge blow to someone as athletic, health-conscious, and career-oriented as Dennis. He was bedridden at first, with his wife and children tending to his needs. Dennis went through several more procedures to prevent further ruptures and aggressively pursued therapy. He soon started recovering, with his vision, focus, and energy levels strengthening. He began working part-time six months later, and a few months after that he was working full-time. About one year after the aneurysm, he was given a clean bill of health.

Paul was living the American Dream. He was a successful account executive with a national insurance broker; he was married to his college sweetheart Nicole; he had a son, Christopher, and his wife was eight months pregnant with their daughter, Gabrielle. Nicole began experiencing exceptional fatigue and shortness of breath, so Paul took her to the doctor, expecting that she had the flu or some other passing virus. As Nicole's symptoms worsened, they discovered she had stage four Hodgkin's lymphoma, with masses on her lungs and heart. The next several years were a blur. Nicole endured more than 15 series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, bone marrow transplants, and a seemingly endless barrage of tests, procedures, and consultations. Nicole was homebound, so Paul provided the family's sole income. For years, a typical day for Paul included multiple trips to drop off and pick up the children from school and day care, he made a point of having lunch and dinner with Nicole every day, and he worked nights to keep up with the load and earn his commissions to keep them afloat. They did everything they could to both help Nicole and raise their kids in a loving and "normal" home. They fought bravely for six years, until Nicole finally succumbed to the cancer.

Joe is a CPA who has worked for a national insurance firm for the past 10 years. He is a key contributor to the firm's Delaware office. Joe, in his early 50s, is accustomed to being in shape and healthy. He visited his dentist to check out the source of a dull pain he was having in the back of his right jaw. The dentist took a biopsy of a suspicious looking growth. Three days later, Joe found out that he had a marble-sized squamous cell in his throat - he had throat cancer. Doctors gave him an 80 percent chance of cure and an 18-month recovery time. What followed was an intense program of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Despite the immediate response and eight weeks of treatment, the cancer spread quickly, moving to his lymph nodes. Joe returned to surgery and resumed chemotherapy and radiation. Over the next few months, Joe was fed through a tube in his stomach and was on a restrictive diet of daily IVs, Ensure, and Gatorade. He lost 40 pounds and grew tired and weak. The doctors said they were going to do everything short of killing him to cure him, and he hit a low period where it felt that way. Once the treatment was complete and he entered the recovery stage, he started feeling better and stronger. After eight months, he began to ease back into work - first on a part-time basis and then, a couple of months later, on a full-time basis. During his last tests this year, he received a clean bill of health from his doctors.

About the author

David Maturo is a partner with Attolon Partners LLC, an executive search firm in Philadelphia. He can be reached at dmaturo@attolon.com.

Special thanks to:

Paul G. Isenberg, account executive with Engle-Hambright & Davies and co-founder and CEO of the Great Guy Group, which helps families going through the battle with cancer. He can be reached at paulisenberg@greatguys.org.

Joseph T. Curran, CPA, vice president with Marsh USA Inc. and contributor with the Delaware Advocacy Program, which counsels those struggling with cancer. He can be reached at joseph.curran@marsh.com

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