When Luke died in August, I was already in the throes of a classic mid-life crisis. I had just turned 35 in July and was questioning what to do with the rest of my life. This stemmed largely from turmoil I was grappling with at work. The previous fall, my department had undergone a reorganization. My responsibilities expanded and I took on new direct reports. To put it mildly, the reorganization was not implemented well by certain managers, and things got real ugly, political, and personal. The team who felt they’d had things “taken away” from them not only were nasty to our faces, but they tried to sabotage us behind the scenes. Pettiness, gossip, and the worst of human behavior ensued all around; I myself, pushed to the brink, was guilty of this too.
This was at a large nonprofit where I’d worked since 2006 and had envisioned myself always working, for a cause I believed in deeply, and still do. I’d started at an entry-level position and, through hard work, moved up to middleish management.
In the spring, I’d found out about a master’s degree program in environmental biology at a local college. It sounded intriguing but was completely different from my first career track, journalism. It seemed too daunting to go back to school and I didn’t know if I was cut out to be a scientist. But as things got increasingly contentious at work, and as I found myself everywhere confronted by signs of climate change, I started to think about the master’s degree more and more. In July I met with the program director, asked her a bunch of questions, and began to contemplate if and how I could make it work.
Then Luke died.
Mean girls gone wild
First of all, let me say that—in contrast to the response over at Zack’s workplace—many, many work people provided so much incredible, appreciated support. They called and wrote beautiful notes. They checked up on us. They subscribed to my blog. They raised over $1,000 in Luke’s memory. Some went to the charity of my choice, the Star Legacy Foundation for stillbirth awareness. Some went to a food delivery service. And some went to a getaway for two at a birding hotspot, since Zack and I are nature nerds. The secret Facebook group of moms at my workplace rose up and showered me with letters and love. I still have a card from one of them taped to my bathroom mirror, reminding me every day to carry faith over fear.
Then there was the other team, the one that felt they’d had stuff taken away from them and didn’t want to share the playground nicely. Led by one particular individiual who was the worst instigator, and without asking me my wishes, they started a competing fundraiser, collecting donations in Luke’s name for an organization I don’t support. The instigator, who hadn’t said a nice word to me in months and had never once even bothered to acknowledge my pregnancy when Luke was alive, apparently sent a sickingenly sweet, and blindingly obviously insincere, email asking for money and saying how bad she felt about what had happened. Multiple people later told me they couldn’t believe she sent it and that it came off incredibly fake.
I never heard once from any of these individuals in the weeks after Luke’s death, not on email, not on text, and certainly not via that most personal of touches, a card in the mail. So it was really curious when I found out later from several sources that these people apparently dominated a group session that HR had set up with a counselor from our employee assistance program to talk with people about how to support me upon my return. The room was filled with people who actually cared, but my sources told me these individuals turned it into a session all about them. Which was just so typical, but it was heartbreaking to see that even after the worst of tragedies, they couldn’t put their egos aside.
Then, just a few days before I was about to come back to work, a card arrived in the mail. It contained a thank you note from the organization they’d sent their money to, the one I don’t support. And there was a card that they’d all signed. Except instead of signing it with individual notes like “I’m so sorry for your loss; please let me know if there is ever anything I can do”—you know, the normal type of thing you put on a card—they all just squeezed their signatures into the space under the text on the righthand side of the card. Seriously, the signatures were all just packed in there, surrounded by a ton of blank space. I couldn’t have dreamt up anything more insincere, with less thought or time or effort put into it. Then I noticed a bracelet inscribed with the words “Forever family” wedged into the envelope. My only response was to laugh out loud because clearly someone was playing a practical joke on me; these people had never once treated me like I was good enough to be part of their exclusive family.
But wait—there’s more!
A few weeks before I was to return, my team members reached out to me about what had happened during my leave. All throughout the acrimonious summer, we’d been meeting with a consultant who was evaluating our department’s structure and functions. The reorganization would be tweaked somehow, we knew—strengthened, we hoped. Among the options on the table were taking the reorg further in the direction that had already been started and sharpening the department’s focus on strategy by eliminating fiefdoms. Also, eliminating the conflict of interest wherein the manager of the team that didn’t play nice was two reporting levels below her husband, a C-level executive. Uh huh.
Before Luke died, I had just been hoping they would make the decision before I was out on maternity leave. Well, they ended up making the announcement on the day we buried him. I never in a million years imagined they would undo the reorg, but that’s exactly what the C-level executive—the very same one implicated in the conflict of interest—decided to do. As part of the changes, a new reporting structure did finally eliminate the conflict of interest, but everything else felt like punishment raining down on the whistleblowers.
And so my poor teammates, the very same ones who’d been reaching out and taking care of me in the ensuing weeks, had been, unbeknownst to me, also trying to fight for me and for them, trying to get the decision overturned—and trying to figure out how and when to tell me I’d essentially been demoted, my responsibilities cut in half and my team of direct reports decimated. Right after my full-term baby died three weeks shy of his due date followingly a seemingly normal pregnancy. Yeah. And they were having to do this last part all on their own because no one from HR, and no one from any of the mangement teams, was helping them do it. It seemed that to those folks, I was an afterthought at best.
In fact, it took several weeks before I was able to get an in-person meeting with our new department head, who took all of half an hour to meet with me, arrived five minutes late, and basically told me, in so many words, that I should quit. He said he would be really pissed if he were me and he would leave, and that was about it. This person also hadn’t bothered to send a card or to even once utter the simple words, I am so sorry for your loss.
Here comes the cursing
For a while after I returned to work, I was afraid of running into members of Team Mean in the hallway, because I just didn’t know what I would do or say. For a time, shouting Get the fuck away from me! was one of my fantasies. Eventually I decided I would just ignore them. Because I had withdrawn from virtually all meetings at that point, I ended up encountering Team Mean only once, when I briefly and awkwardly had to walk alongside its most openly mean member. Her response upon seeing me was to laugh. I’m sure that it was nervous, guilty laughter, but still! What. The. Fuck. Somewhat miraculously, I managed to not murder her.
So, even though I’m still not sure whether I believe in signs, it was hard not to feel that the universe was sending me a giant one, something along the lines of Get the hell off the Titanic as soon as heavenly possible. Especially after I had the vision I described in a previous post, in which Luke seemed to be showing me the planet and saying it’s urgent for us to save it.
And so I did. 113 days after I delivered a lifeless, beautiful, delicate baby boy who uttered no cry and took no breath, I got the fuck out of Dodge. I envisioned my teammates clapping and cheering for me on the way out. Some of them are not far behind.
That was a dark, terrible time that passed in a haze. On top of the crippling grief of losing a son, I was blindsided by the secondary grief of losing a job that I’d naively allowed to become part of my identity. It was hard to make the decision to leave. To leap from a career I’ve been mostly successful at into unemployment, full-time schooling, and a profession where I don’t know if I can make it.
I’m only six weeks out from that decision. God willing, my first classes will start sometime this week, whenever the D.C. area can dig out from the blizzard. But I can honestly say, to my surprise, that I actually haven’t looked back. I don’t miss the place. I thought it would be hard to let go, but in reality I rarely think about that hotbed of dysfunction. I miss the people I love and respect. But that’s it. Now I’m simply focused on the path Luke showed me. I hope I can make him damn proud.
(Oh, and also—I returned that stupid fucking bracelet.)