Hard Times

Running a Business While Dealing With a Personal Loss

Running a Business While Dealing With a Personal Loss
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Not many people know that I lost my two children on Jan. 20. After years of struggling with infertility and 27 hours of labor, Eric David and Alexis Rae arrived stillborn.

Loss is often unexpected. Even though I’d been admitted to the high-risk pregnancy wing a week earlier, I never thought I’d lose the twins. But even if a loss is expected, this doesn't make it any easier.

Entrepreneurs aren’t used to asking for help. Many are accustomed to being the heroes, solving everyone else’s problem and excellent in responding to an outside crisis. Yet some business leaders are not so great at caring for themselves and attending to their own needs.

Nine months later, I’m still grieving my loss. I have been answering the following question for myself and intrigued by the response of others: How can entrepreneurs keep a business running while suffering a tremendous loss? I have reached out to other entrepreneurs across the country who shared their wisdom and advice about handling this sensitive time in the following 10 steps.

Related: In the Face of Sudden Tragedy, How This CEO Was Able to Rise Anew

1. Have a plan.

Last January when I was admitted to the labor and delivery area with contractions that were three minutes apart, I had the presence of mind to text members of my team. Luckily, we had already set up a maternity leave plan so my extended absence went pretty smoothly.

My team wrote to clients informing them that I’d be out for a period of time and notified them of our plan to keep moving forward with account activities. My employees encouraged me to take all the time off I needed and let them know if they could help in any way.

Having a maternity leave plan made it possible for me to focus on my life without having to worry about my business. Entrepreneurs can lose someone close to them at any time, so it’s best to have a plan ready for alast-minute extended absence from the business.

If the loss creeps up suddenly, have someone else at the organization develop and execute the plan. Determine which people will need to fill the shoes of leadership and delegate tasks to employees as needed.

2. Communicate with staff. 

Four years ago Agnes Huff, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Agnes Huff Communications, unexpectedly lost her husband of 41 years. She relied on her team to keep her business moving forward while she grieved.

“Your loss takes a toll on your staff, too, and it's important to share the journey with them," Huff says via email. "You still need to be the person and leader you were before the loss, but it's OK to be human and feel sad and alone, even with supportive staff.”  

Adds Huff: “If you are not so great at delegating, now is the time to perfect that skill. Take a chance and you will see that many of the tasks you assign to junior team members will be done well. They, too, can have the chance to rise up to the challenge.” 

3. Don’t put a timeline on grieving.

After the funeral service for my twins, I had a hard time rising from bed. A born entrepreneur, I never before had felt like nothing mattered. I told my team there was no sense in my returning to the office until work had meaning again.

My mother arrived to help out around the house the day after I had been admitted to the hospital. By late February, I realized I’d never get out of bed and rejoin society if she stayed and continued to care for my every need. So I sent her home and started working again, part-time at first and eventually full-time.

4. Seek expert help -- as long as it helps.

My husband and I started seeing a grief counselor who specialized in dealing with the loss of a child. I’ll admit that while it was tremendously helpful in the beginning, I didn’t get much out of the sessions after a couple weeks. We loved our counselor, and I’m sure the process can assist many people, but it just wasn’t right for my husband and me long-term.

Do not skip this step altogether. Consult a grief counselor and see how things go.

Related: Because Life Isn't Easy: 4 Secrets of Success Amid Adversity

5. Reach out to community.

I’m a fairly private person. On Facebook, I’m only friends with people who are truly my friends or family members. But as soon as I knew I was going to lose the babies, I posted the details on Facebook.

The outpouring of support warmed my heart. Since January, I’ve also undergone three unsuccessful in vitro fertilization attempts and  friends and family have helped me keep my spirits up the whole way.

I feel that Americans are often taught to not burden others with problems, but I cannot imagine going through this without the support of my community. These individuals remind me how strong I am, even when I don’t feel like it's true.

Ana Rodriguez, founder of Miami-based Tribute Code, lost a son three days after childbirth. Although this was the most painful experience of her life, she made a promise to share her son’s life with others.

“In my desperate attempt to treasure my short time with him, I designed and developed a way that I could create an online memory-keeping tribute page for him with his photos, videos, music, life story and pretty much any detail that would allow me to always remember him and his life legacy, Rodriguez writes. She now has "the ability share it with family and friends that could not attend his birth.”

6. Figure out what will help.

For months, I wrote letters to my twins and posted them on Facebook. I’m a writer, so it felt natural. But there came a time when that no longer helped me progress forward, so I stopped the Facebook letters and moved on to something else.

In 2009, Valerie Staggs, president of Ryan William's Agency in West Palm Beach, Fla., lost her husband unexpectedly. 

“Running and writing were my two therapies after my husband's death," Staggs shares via email. "I would leave my son with my staff and take an hour before we closed for the day to run along the Intracoastal Waterway next to my office,” she recalls. “At night I wrote what eventually became a memoir about the year after my husband's death.”

7. Don’t apologize for feelings.

While I was coping with a miscarriage last month, I spoke with a potential business partner. She told me some pretty exciting things that normally would have set my heart racing and send my brain into overdrive, but I couldn't muster a reaction.

Knowing this, I apologized to her and explained my situation. “Don’t apologize,” she told me. “Don’t ever apologize.” Afterward, I realized she was right. As alone as I feel sometimes, everyone has experienced some type of loss, and anyone halfway decent will understand and sympathize.

8. Set achievable goals and work toward them.

Once I started to think clearly enough to not only show up for work but also actively participate, I became determined to land a handful of new clients. This was not an outrageous goal. I just wanted to add a few new accounts to give me something else to focus on.

Now it seems my company will have its best financial year since I founded the company in 2008.

Peter Dawyot, founder of the boutique advertising agency Publicus Community in Raleigh, N.C., learned of his mother’s passing while traveling on business to secure a contract with a client.

The big break "was happening at the most difficult time in my life emotionally,” Dawyot writes in an email. “Having this experience of a loss at such a pivotal time in the growth of my company was a tremendous challenge."

Dawyot continues, "But it also prepared me as a leader and showed me that by focusing on the day-to-day tasks at hand, I could cope, represent my clients to the fullest of our company’s abilities and still honor the memory of my mother.”

Despite Dawyot’s loss, the work his agency produced for the client following that difficult trip won an Addy Award and a gold medal in North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Awards

9. Forgive.

I’ve often blamed myself for the loss of my children. After all, they were in my care -- inside my body. Of course, I know deep down it wasn’t my fault. But learning to forgive myself has been the hardest lesson of all.

Learn to forgive when a personal meltdown takes place. Allow for taking more breaks than previously. Forgive the more frequent bouts of anger. Forgive what comes along that didn’t used to happen.

10. Look at the past and also the future.

Entrepreneurs are all about looking ahead, but loss changes a person. Suddenly, there are regrets about the past. Staying in the present is difficult -- never mind thinking about the future.

Know that it’s OK to remember the past, whether with happy or sad thoughts.

But don’t get stuck in the past. Make plans for the future, even if small ones.

Entrepreneurs feel the need to be strong for family members, the business, employees and clients. Yet loss is unpredictable, and it's impossible to be completely prepared. Allow for being vulnerable to the pain experienced. Then it's possible to learn how to cope with loss and discover a momentum to become a stronger entrepreneur and leader for the future.

Have you experienced loss as an entrepreneur? How did you regain your strength?

Related: How Letting Go and Connecting With Faith Saved My Business