Rebirth — from a Year of Chaos, Grief, and Uncertainty
How I figured out “what’s next” and how you can too
On February 5, 2020, I raced through a blinding snowstorm in the middle of the night to be at my mother’s hospital bedside. I wasn’t sure she’d still be alive by the time I got there (a five hour drive turned into a seven hour drive by the snow). I’d last seen her two weeks earlier, writing in the Gratitude part of my journal, “Grateful Mom is still around to visit.”
Before that, 2020 had been looking pretty good. In January my diary was filled with days out with friends, cooking, work, teaching, working on research to apply for my PhD… I went to an impossibly crowded networking/cocktail event, one where we all stood six inches from each other and screamed to be heard. Not my favorite thing, even before the pandemic, but I did meet A Guy. The Guy and I got in exactly one date before all hell broke loose. February 1, to be exact. Our first and last real date, although we managed to meet up for walks now and then over the next few months.
By February 11, Mom was dead. I’d been thinking up until the very day she passed that she would be coming home. It wasn’t COVID-19, as far as we know; nobody was testing for it then, although it was some sort of respiratory illness.
We all know what happened soon after that. By mid-March, I started working from home. I transitioned to teaching online, grateful to be teaching graduate students, all young adults who worked hard to stay engaged despite the maelstrom of uncertainty and fear.
My PhD research was put on hold. My program was in Italy, in the epicenter of the worst outbreak of the virus there. The field I was researching, international higher education, had imploded, since no students were going anywhere.
By the end of the semester in May, another crisis loomed. Like many small colleges and universities, mine did not have a huge endowment. We had already been permanently cash-strapped before the pandemic; now we were given a choice: take a separation agreement, or wait and hope we weren’t laid off. For various reasons, I had a feeling my administrative position would be on the chopping block. I decided to take the package, leaving a job I’d held for twenty years, in a community of people I loved working with.
Thus by the end of June I became an unemployed single woman in her fifties, with no immediate job prospects. In the previous few years, I’d organized my life around three things: caring for my mom, my job, and working toward a PhD. In the space of five months, all three were gone. Oh, and I had developed a health issue that wouldn’t get resolved until October.
I should have been miserable.
Don’t get me wrong — I grieved. A lot. But these upheavals meant I could also get off the wildly spinning hamster wheel my life had become, take a step back, and take stock. We don’t often get a chance to do this in life. We’re too busy just getting through the day, chasing down items on our To Do List. Working at a university I was often envious of core faculty taking sabbaticals. Now I had a chance to have one of my own, although not in the way I’d thought.
I was fortunate; with severance pay and savings I didn’t face immediate financial crisis. And it was summer, a time when things generally slow down. I took a lot of long walks. I sat on my back porch with my journal, answering all the questions I needed to ask:
What do I want to do with my life?
Do I want to continue my PhD?
Do I want to take more of a creative path?
What do I love to do?
How can I contribute to the world?
What can I do to make money?
I had actually been asking these questions for a while, torn between my career in academia and a desire to do more writing, editing, and book coaching. I filled notebooks with writing exercises, and read tons of books on life purpose and business-building and creativity. A lot of ideas had been percolating in my head for a long time. I had felt stuck, desperate to make a decision but unable to commit to any big changes, for lots of reasons: the always-unstable situation with Mom, being comfortable with the status quo at work, the possibility of finally doing a long-put-off PhD… and of course, good old-fashioned fear of the unknown.
The series of life-upending events plus the enforced solitude of the pandemic allowed me to grapple with all these questions. What I discovered is that I had known what I wanted all along. I had been sucked into believing that one path represented security, or at least a more straightforward line with visible markers of success. The blessing of the pandemic, if one can call it that, is that it forced me, and many others, to confront the fact that there are no guarantees. I started making choices based on what I felt called to do rather than what seemed most prudent.
I finished my book coaching certification and started focusing more on getting clients. I wrote more, both fiction (finished a novel) and articles published on Medium and elsewhere. I started an online course for women in mid-life facing the same issues I’d faced — the idea that one chapter had come to a close, and something more meaningful was out there, if I could only figure out what it was, and have the courage to go after it.
Now I get up excited to work again. Remarkably, I didn’t suffer the usual bout of SAD that makes winters such a trial. Having reconnected to meaningful work, my productivity and motivation didn’t take their seasonal hit. I am still refining my vision. Still working on putting all the pieces together. There are still days of self-doubt. But I’ve seen enough success to know that the life I want is possible. I’m no longer tied to old ways of seeing myself and the world.
It may take some time, but as we move toward hope of returning to some kind of normal, you may be ready to ask some deeper questions about where you want your life to go from here.
In Michael Hyatt’s Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals, he talks about the After-Action Review, a series of questions designed to see where you’ve come from, and chart a new course. It started as a military exercise, but I have found it useful as a year-end review in general. And this spring, one year after the start of the pandemic, seems a good time for reflection and thinking about how to make any changes we’d like to see in our lives. The following questions are based on Hyatt’s framework, but I’ve also added a few of my own.
Important note: Write your answers down for best results. Actually writing vs. merely thinking about them allows your brain to process more fully, and make more connections. Writing them longhand using pen and paper is even better.
1. How did you see the year 2020 going? What plans, goals, or dreams did you make in January that were changed or wiped out by the pandemic?
• Think of all the areas in your life that were affected: family, social, work, spiritual, relationships with family/significant other/children; financial; hobbies and vacations, etc.
• What exactly did you want to happen in each domain? Did you have clear goals or just general ideas?
2. Acknowledge what actually happened:
• What changes did you experience?
• What losses did you experience?
• What gains did you experience? For example, more time with family, no commute, new hobbies…
• Allow yourself to feel any emotions associated with this: anger, grief, frustration… even excitement. Do you feel any regret, like you somehow “wasted” the year? How can you use that to propel new action?
• What do you feel you should have been acknowledged for, but weren’t? Ex: homeschooling your kids, maintaining work productivity, maintaining an exercise routine in the midst of the temptation to be a couch potato…
• What did you accomplish last year that you were most proud of?
• What did you need to say good-bye to? Old habits, old relationships, old ways of doing things, old jobs and coworkers, old expectations… take a moment to thank them for being in your life.
3. Are there any recurring themes? For example: Rebuilding relationships; starting a business in a difficult economy; challenging negative beliefs about your body; discovering new ways to be present for and support yourself.
4. What can you learn from your experiences this past year? For example, I learned to appreciate my extended family even more now that I’m an “orphan.” I learned that I had more of an idea of what I really wanted than I thought I did — but fear was holding me back. I learned that I can do more than I thought I could even in constrained circumstances. Think “life lessons” like that, but also skills, both hard and soft: I learned book coaching, website building, designing and teaching online courses, how to bake and cook lots of new things…
5. What was missing that you’d like to have in your life? I bet we can all create a long list! Some things will come back, like eating in restaurants, or going to movies and concerts. But are there things you want to make sure you do going forward? Eat better after a year of stress eating? Save more money? Read more books? Find more fulfilling work? Find a romantic partner, or deepen your relationship with your current one? In other words, what gaps did the past year reveal, and how might you fill them?
6. From that, think about your current goals and dreams. What opportunities do you now see? What beliefs and behaviors will you have to change in order to make them happen?
• List those goals and dreams, and then take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side, write all the things that are currently preventing you from achieving that goal or dream. This could be beliefs you have, or actual physical constraints. On the right side, write down ways to reframe those things, or make a case against them. You might ask yourself, “Is that really true?” “How is it serving me to believe that?”
7. Finally, how can you apply what you learned from these questions to make any necessary changes in your life? Again, these might be changes of belief and of action. (Our beliefs determine what actions we think are possible.) You might identify big changes and small changes. That’s okay. Take a deep breath, and realize you don’t have to make them all at once. Small, consistent actions in one area will lead to results, which will motivate you to continue.
For example, if one goal is to lose those extra twenty pounds you put on, then start by thinking of what healthy breakfast you can have to start your day. Don’t worry about the rest of the day yet — focus on breakfast. If you fuel yourself properly in the morning, you may find it easier to make other small changes that enhance your energy level. Small wins lead to big successes. If your goal after a year of being inside is to finally take that round-the-world trip, start planning now. Where exactly do you want to go? How long will you stay there? How will you pay for it? Start by asking questions like these and gathering resources and ideas.
Answering these questions reminds us that we do have agency in our lives. We aren’t only at the mercy of forces we cannot control. There will always be questions, doubts, and challenges, but we can move forward in new directions. You may or may not be at a place in your life where you can come to grips with these questions, but if you sense that now is the time to make changes, these can help you figure out where you are and take action to get where you want to be.