Robin, Camila's mom

How to Help Myself

Camila in her dressing room – doing what she loved most. Guys and Dolls, 2007.

A couple of weeks ago, I began thinking to myself, “I’m ready to work again.” Then I thought, “I want to work again.” Once, I even said to myself, “I’m ready for meaningful labor.” And I hadn’t realized that it would become such an imperative for me. But it did. Since Camila’s death, I had been working as a contractor, an hour here, a few hours there. I was never fully engaged and never far from my grief. But slowly, something in me had changed: I wanted to be engaged, I wanted to contribute. I wanted to work.

My timing was fortuitous. I had already set up a summer teaching job and could look forward to a few intensive weeks back in the classroom. I had assumed I’d be academically “ready”; I knew I could get my mind there, get the syllabi out, the content prepared. But I didn’t know where my heart – where my healing – would be.

Did some part of me know I’d be ready? I cannot tell you on which level the shift occurred. I can only tell you that right around the end of May, just when it was time to start selecting authors and texts, my energy arrived and it was directed at this task. I became focused and distracted – and joyful. I began looking forward to my students, my colleagues, even to my self in the classroom, that woman who is knowledgeable and in control, who is surprising and sharp.

While I was taking my walks or sitting quietly, staring into space, or going out to dinner with my husband or out somewhere in the neighborhood with my girlfriend, my mind and heart were working and my spirit was rising. Everything fell easily into place. There was no struggle, no back-and-forth. I would do this became I could do this.

It was a surprisingly simple shift. Maybe knowing that I had made this commitment, my mind and heart accepted that I would keep this commitment. Maybe all I had to do was make the plan, give myself that timetable back in January.


A few days ago, I went online to research the outcomes of adult loss. I was looking for statistics, scientific studies. I wanted to get an idea of what behavior or action seemed most likely to lead toward positive survival. I was also interested to know the role of personality, age, and experience.

I was surprised by what I learned.

The findings were overwhelmingly consistent. And very few factors seemed to matter: not age, not experience, and not personality. The primary determinant of positive survival is not how much you talk about your loss or how much time you take to heal. The number one indicator of positive survival, the best bet, is… meaningful labor.

It turns out that directing your energies toward others, as a form of employment or as a volunteer, is the best way to survive loss.

I know by experience that we all have 9- and 10- and 20-step programs, and they are personal and necessary. And they are all our own. Those in the circle know that we each develop our own way to move through our grieving process. But what if you feel ready to re-connect to the calendar? What if you want to feel that desire to do something meaningful again, to find meaning again – or create a balance between life and loss so you can live again?

I learned the most successful course is easier than you might think. Just direct your efforts, for a certain amount of time each day, toward others. Get out of your head and into the office, back to the classroom, or back to the boardroom. Whether the path be new or familiar, what matters is the steps you take to help someone other than yourself.

I can do that.


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