Delegating Emotional Work

Me & My Dad – May 2005

My dad was 94 when he died and by that time, most would agree that he had lived a long and full life and his body was reaching its natural point of surrender. At the time of his death, my dad and most of my siblings still lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I had been born and raised. I on the other hand, was living over three thousand miles away in Honolulu, Hawaii. Talks with my sisters often centered around how dad was doing and how things were looking for him. The month preceding his death, the discussions with my sisters were getting more and more specific around how much time he had left.

The conversations in my head were a series of ongoing debates about when I should go home. Was now the right time? Would my husband and son be okay with me gone for a while? What projects at work were in progress or looming that I’d needed to deal with? Should I plan on doing work while I was back home? What would it cost for the airplane tickets? I’m ashamed to even write that last question, but that was all going into my mental calculus at the time.

In a way, I felt so grown up, thinking so clearly about this difficult topic. It wasn’t playing out the way my mom’s death had played out ten years earlier. I was a wreck. At work, crying over the phone while talking to my mom’s hospice nurse. Desperately asking her to tell me what I should do. I didn’t want to own the responsibility of making a choice about something so big as missing an opportunity to see my mom alive one last time. But I was older now and knew how to handle this kind of thing. I’d have a plan and when the time came, I’d execute my plan.

Then the call came from one of my sisters that it wasn’t looking good and I should come home as soon as I could to see my dad. I calmly got off the phone with her and called my boss to let him know that I was going to need to take some time off to head home. He immediately dropped out of work mode as my boss and dropped into being a human being. He was understanding, compassionate and empathetic, but I was still in my head. I was thinking about what to pack, setting my out-of-office email, what information I needed to give my husband about my son’s school schedule, and what my team needed from me for the project we were working on right now. Thinking, thinking…planning, planning.

Then my boss asked me the question that undid me, “How are you doing?” And I lost it. Big aching, hurt-filled sobs came rolling out. The kind that actually make your body shudder and quake in a way that you simply can’t anticipate or even really comprehend where the energy comes from to create that kind of motion. I slumped against my bedroom door and let out a tearful and jagged, “I’m okay.”

Then I said something that has always stuck with me and has become part of my own playbook for life. I said, “I think I made a mistake. I gave my head a job to do that belonged to my heart.”

All along I thought I could think myself through grief…think myself through painful memories…think myself through loss and fear and hurt. I knew how to think. I was a good thinker, a critical thinker. One step to the right of thinking was planning and I was a hell of a good planner too. I could think and plan my way out of it. Done! I had solved grief!

Well, not exactly.

While I was a great thinker, I was, however, not a great feeler. Is there even such a thing as a great feeler or critical feeler? I guess that would be Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. She was good at handling her own emotions and excelled at sensing the emotions of others. I was definitely no Deanna Troi, I was more like Spock or if I’m sticking with the same franchise, Data the android.

Once I realized that there was no amount of thinking that I could do that would save me from the hurt and ache of losing my dad, my heart could then begin to do the work that it was uniquely designed to do.

Unlike thinking and head work, heart work is messy, evolving, and completely contradictory. It has this way of simultaneously emptying you out and filling you up. It’s like fully and completely emptying your lungs until you just can’t push any more air out. You simply can’t keep emptying them forever, and so you take a big breath in and when you do, you get that fullness and that freedom of easy breathing back.

This work is also super inefficient and in many ways unmanageable. You can’t always see the way forward or how it will resolve. You can’t set a timeline for it. You can’t expect certain feelings to show up when you want them to and let you know when they are done so you can carry on with other plans. Heart work is hard, challenging, necessary and so worth it.

Now, when things seem stuck or like they are going in circles, I check to make sure that I haven’t delegated the work to the wrong part of myself. I ask myself, “Did I give my head a job that my heart needs to do?”

It’s amazing how much better it all is when I’ve delegated the work appropriately and not just given it to the part I’m most comfortable using. I don’t think I’ve reached “critical feeler” status, but I’m making progress one project at a time, just the way my head likes it.

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