How Being an Editor Makes My Grief Easier to Deal With (And Harder)
My mom died in October 2016. I was 27, she was 61. And I did—in different ways—see it coming and not expect it at all. At the time she died, I was taking a break from full-time work to get a publishing project off the ground. After she died, I continued to be “fun-employed”, moved to Scotland with my boyfriend, and spent quite a bit of time working freelance, working remote, working here and there, and sometimes just not working at all. Eventually, I floated back down to earth started to “deal with my shit”, grieve, and, of course, make money again (because tears and risograph posters won’t pay the rent).
The first couple jobs were alright, but my brain was starting to “turn back on”, as my grief counsellor said. The numbness was subsiding, and I’d cried in the bathroom during a short retail stint, just because some customer had my mom’s name. I’d left in the middle of a workday to bawl. And I eventually quit one of my jobs because I had an emotional and physical breakdown that landed me in bed, unable to “deal”.
Today, I’m in a full-time gig, back in an office and surrounded by people. All day. Every day. I enjoy my job. I enjoy the people I’m working with. But at times, of course, it’s hard to go from crying over my computer in my pajamas whenever I felt like it (#freelancelife), to holding it in when someone says, “OMG someone sent flowers to the office for you!? I’m so jealous,” on the day after my mom’s death-i-versary.
One thing I’ve noticed most is how hard it is for me to stay present. Present in my grief, present in my day-to-day life, present in my sadness.
I’ve spent a year and a half questioning: Why am I so obsessed with the future now? Why can’t I stop counting days, staring at calendars, thinking about the next time I’m going to have to spend a whole day crying? Why do I spend so much time planning for how I’ll deal with my wedding (which I have no date, time, or ring for)? Why do I spend so much time trying to figure out what I’ll tell my kids (who won’t exist for years)? Why did I force my dad to plan around his own death, only days after I’d planned my mother’s entire funeral? And why were anniversaries, birthdays, annual “holidays” (like Mother’s Day), and “the holidays” (a.k.a. the seemingly-endless string of festivities between November and January) ticking timebombs marked by calendars and days off to “celebrate”.
During a discussion with my new grief counsellor, I realized that no, my brain isn’t broken. No, I’ve not developed some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder. No, I’m not going off the deep end incapable of enjoying the moment, only able to dread the future. But yes, there are habits, mindsets, skills, and ways of coping, that are all directly linked to my professional life, and all impacting the way I grieve.
I’m an editorial manager. I’ve worked my way “up” from various jobs in the field—intern, writer, college lifestyle editor, sports photographer, freelancer (paid and unpaid), digital managing editor, field researcher… the list goes on, and on, and on. And on. And on (ask my dad). I’ve been building schedules, writing five-paragraph essays and long-form nonfiction, doing research, putting together long-term independent study proposals, and nitpicking word choice and timing since my early days writing emo album reviews for my high school newspaper.
Today, as an editorial manager, my job is built on a combination of skills that have to do with writing, scheduling, and timing. I’m client-facing. I work with a small but passionate team. And I stare at calendars, spreadsheets, emails, and planning docs on the reg. Most importantly, and in a nutshell, my job is built on three things: planning, attention to detail, and anticipation.
Planning involves detailed content calendars—stories and campaigns for the month, the quarter, the year, and looking deep into the future, thinking about how clients can succeed. I work with people to deliver editorial calendars, planning for cadence, holidays, and the future.
Attention to detail is the foundation of editorial positions. We like details, tiny details. We enjoy swapping one word for another because it feels right or fits better. We buzz with energy when deadlines are hit and workflows charge forward because of good planning. I deal with words, I deal with comms, and I talk talk talk through unique situations that have to be looked at from all angles.
Anticipating what will make other people happy is also a huge part of my day. Whether that’s clients, customers, or readers. Anticipating when things can and should happen, how they should happen, and how to work backwards from a deadline to make them happen. Anticipating trends, anticipating due dates, and anticipating deadlines are all part of the job description.
All of these things have impacted my grief: separately, at times combined, and in ways I’d never thought of.
In some ways they helped…
I planned my mom’s funeral days after she died in the ICU, with no direction other than the fact that she wanted her ashes spread in Thunder Bay, Ontario (about 3,500 km away from my hometown of Riverside, California). I organized the seating, the invitations, the food. The coffee and when it’d be picked up, the chairs and when they’d be retrieved by the rental company. I hand-wrote thank you cards to every guest that signed the guest book, and made sure to collect all of their accurate addresses. And I planned for how I would experience the funeral. I bought a dress that’d be special—one that reminded me of paint brush strokes, as my mom was an artist. And I made sure that everyone brought sunflowers instead of food, because I didn’t want to get fat on casseroles and liquor (the last thing I wanted to organize was a gym routine to work it all off—again, planning).
My attention to detail helps me commemorate my mom in very specific ways, during hard times and good times. With the support of my loving boyfriend, I spent time googling and reading about the do’s and don’ts of ash spreading, before we traveled to my mom’s memorial to scatter her remains. I picked up the baggies so that every family member could take their own, I bought the scooper from the Dollar Store, read the rules of international travel with ashes, made sure we watched out for bones, and picked flowers to put in the water over the cloudy ashes, to make it prettier and less depressing (eternal thanks to this writer at Modern Loss).
Anticipating how those around me are grieving, and how they’ll have to deal with my grief (and the stress, sadness, anger, apathy, and sense of confusion that comes along with it) has become a big, positive time suck for me. I spend quite a bit of time anticipating how my dad will experience the harder days, whether that’s just the longer stretches at home alone or their anniversaries and days like Christmas. I make sure to call, text, and write the people who are also feeling the loss of my mom in their lives, keeping us connected, and making sure that we’re all in this together—always expecting the worst on some really painful days, only to have it brightened by someone taking the time to say, “I’m crying today, too.”
But in other ways they hurt…
I plan everything, including the days I’m going to spend crying. I plan what I’ll eat beforehand, so that I don’t also feel yuck about my body, or sick on the inside, on top of being sad all day. I plan trips way too far in advance, knowing that I can distract myself with bookings, restaurant reviews, car rentals, and where we’ll observe nature in her memory. I plan big details, I plan small details. I make checklists and track timelines and have countdowns.
My attention to detail makes me hyper-aware of every facet of every situation that I could ever encounter that would have involved my mom but that no longer will. When I see a pregnant woman, I think about who I’m going to talk to to get advice about burping kids and diaper rash, and more specifically, how exactly the conversations will go when my kids ask me about my relationship with my mom. I go to weddings and wonder who I’ll get to give a speech in place of my mom, whether or not they should be a mom, and whether they’ll get to talk about my mom or not. I look at my sister buying a house and wonder how long it’ll take before I do, what kind of advice my mom would have given me, and what kinds of things I’ll put in that house to remind me of the house I grew up in with her.
And on top of all of that, anticipation of every holiday and anniversary damn near cripples me. The day-of is never as bad as the weeks leading up. And the weeks leading up seem like they’re pretty much… every week, for the rest of my life. I’m already anticipating how I’ll handle Mother’s Day this year, planning for a lot of middle-finger-raises at tv commercials and sandwich boards reminding me to call my mom and tell her I love her. I’m plugging in calendar reminders that link to articles about “Why Mother’s Day Sucks When You No Longer Have a Mother”. And I’m anticipating (a.k.a. dreading) how to tell people that “my mother’s dead, but happy Mother’s Day to you!” I anticipate the conversations I’ll have to have once this article is accepted somewhere. I anticipate the condolences I’ll have to deflect when I post on her next death-i-versary, or when I see some random family member for the first time since she’s died.
Now, I’m almost a year and a half into the grieving process—in a very different place from where I started, and in a very different place from where I’ll be tomorrow, or next week, or next quarter, or next year (must… stop… thinking… about… the future…). Of course, I’m still planning, paying attention to detail, and anticipating both in my work and home life. But I’ve now found peace in the way my brain has processed the last 15 months. Sometimes, yes… I’m pushing things down. Other times, I’m just dealing with them in the best way I know how. What I could have done on the day my mom died wasn’t sit in a ball on the couch and cry. But that wouldn’t have helped, so instead I started making phone calls and planning. The best thing I could do when I got too overwhelmed by the general thought of “Holy shit, she’s just DEAD,” was think about all of the very specific, weird things I love and miss about her. And when the last thing I could do was spend a bunch of time telling myself that I’d be fine once these holidays or anniversaries come around, I made sure that I wasn’t only taking care of myself, but those around me, too.