perfect day on a beautiful beach

Note: This series is an exploration of my own grief in the wake of my mom's cancer diagnosis and ultimate death on June 24, 2013. Skip to the TL;DR section at the end for the takeaways if you're not in the mood for a long read.

In the first segment of this series, I outlined the timeline of my mom's final months and how I tried to find a familiar routine despite traveling significantly more to visit her and my dad. Today, I'll explore how I structured my workdays and recharged.

Scheduling and Prioritization

One of the understated benefits of going through a personal crisis is that everyone in your life gives you a break. Friends understand when you want to spend a weekend solo, coworkers don't follow up on work-related tasks outside of business hours, and "Can you do X for me?" becomes "What can I do to help you?"

Why we don't afford each other these courtesies outside of a crisis, I'll never know. What I do know is that this experience has made it crystal clear where my priorities lie.

Family, self, others.

That hierarchy made scheduling my week fairly simple. First, I blocked out the time I planned on spending with my family.

Then I blocked out a couple hours each day to devote to recharging my spirit. I prioritized activities that fill me with happiness and reminded me of pleasant memories: Pilates, hiking, window shopping, exploring San Diego, digging my toes in the sand, trying new restaurants, cooking. I reorganized the house and cleaned it from top to bottom, telling myself that a clear work-life space makes a clear mind.

Then I scheduled in all the other necessary stuff that makes my lifestyle possible: Work, clients, learning and skill development. Although this was the bulk of my week, it placed third on my list of priorities. I knew that to be effective, I'd need to spend every moment dedicated to work with full focus and energy -- no small task when your heart and head are elsewhere.

Cranking Up Compartmentalization

While my mom was in a coma, I felt like I was two different people: the person who went up to L.A. on the weekends to cry with my dad, visit my mom and organize finances, and the San Diego professional who went to Pilates and worked from home with clients around the country. Most of the time, I was able to work a full day and then catch up on my feelings in the evening.

Sometimes the two identities merged. I'd hit a wall in the afternoons and suddenly lose all focus, context and even emotion for the work tasks I was doing. I honored this as best as possible, remaining responsive via email and phone but not going above and beyond. Fortunately, this came with an upside: intense periods of focus in the mornings, when I found that I could accomplish as much in three or four hours as I used to in a whole day.

I let my focus levels dictate my workload. When I was firing on all cylinders, I'd churn through as much work as I could. But when I found myself staring at the screen, devoid of ideas or creative energy, I'd walk away and do something else, work-related or not, until my attention returned.

Occasionally, especially during my mom's coma, my mind would wander and I'd think about Mom and her situation. How vibrant, intelligent and full of life she was just a few months earlier, and how neurologists told us that the higher-level brain functions that govern thought and personality were damaged in the "code event" and would not return.

I can't say that I had a magic trick or strategy to restore productivity and focus when those thoughts arose. So I gave myself permission to fully experience them. When I needed to, I walked away from the computer, put my phone on silent and let myself cry... knowing that later that day or the next, I'd have a chance to tie up any loose ends at work.


  1. Who are the top handful of people in your life? Have you told them how much they mean to you? (If not, what are you waiting for?) What are you currently doing to help them flourish?
  2. Let your life's priorities dictate the order in which you schedule your week.
  3. Do your best to be fully present, no matter what you're doing. In times of crisis, this may mean compartmentalizing your emotions and granting yourself permission to vent at specified intervals.
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