Dealing with Personal Loss and Grief with Mike Burkhart

Welcome to episode 109 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we discuss dealing with grief and loss with Mike Burkhart.

Original Recording Date: 01-28-2021

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Topics – Personal Grief and Loss

03:39 – A Different Conversation with Mike

  • Mike Burkhart is back as our first repeat guest!
  • If you remember, both previous interviews with Mike made our top 10 most downloaded episodes when we ran the stats during Episode 100.
  • This discussion with Mike is very different from our previous episodes with him.

6:18 – The Event That Triggered a Career Change

  • In our previous discussions with Mike, he had just taken a role at Nutanix as a Solution Architect in the Education space building content and improving lab delivery.
    • Many other certifications were created during his time there.
    • Mike misses his former co-workers at Nutanix greatly.
  • In June of 2020, Mike and his wife lost a child at childbirth.
    • The pregnancy was normal, and so was the birth. Thier son was born dead.
    • Many people experience loss of people they love, but loss of a child is confusing. It’s loss of potential, loss of possibility.
    • You never factor in the possible death of your child as you go through a pregnancy.
    • It’s really strange to know the company policy for paternity leave but have to go back to your boss and ask for bereavement leave instead. Paternity leave is 1 month, and bereavement leave was only a few days.
    • Likely no amount of time will be enough to allow us to grieve.
    • Mike’s boss have him a month off and offered to do whatever was needed to support Mike and his family.
  • After this happened, Mike cried from the minute he woke up, during eating, while watching his 4-year-old son, and while taking his dog out. To know that depth of loss is eye opening.
    • Mike realized if he could feel completely helpless, anyone else could too.
    • While his wife felt anger, he felt only sorrow and sadness.
    • Everyone at Nutanix was sending e-mails, texts, making calls, and doing what they could to help.
    • If you are suffering from grief over loss, reach out to others to get the support you need.
    • Here’s a pro tip for friends experiencing grief: Ask how you can help.
    • At the time, Mike didn’t really know how to ask for help. He was never suicidal but had to work through the grief.
  • At the end of the month of time off, Mike had the option to take more time (but unpaid). If you need that time, take it.
    • Grief is complicated because life does not stop. You still need to shower, you still need to eat, and you still need to take your dog out.
    • Mike has a 4-year-old who didn’t fully understand what had happened, often times asking "Dad, why are you so sad?"
    • At a certain point, you may need to seek therapy.
    • Even after the month off, Mike wasn’t functional enough to be effective at work.
  • The hours were long upon Mike’s return to work (sometimes 16 hour days to make ends meet and complete projects).
    • Listen to the story about a specific night Mike was in charge of putting his son to bed despite needing to meet a work deadline.
    • This caused Mike to tender his resignation that night.
      • He had a financial planner that had helped ensure the family was in a place where Mike could quit his job. This was an emergency that needed immediate attention.
      • Mike was ineffective and not happy with his outcomes. Work does not stop, and he could not take the stress.
      • There is no getting over grief but only working through it. There is no "unlosing" of something. Focus on the healing and the integration with your grief.
      • In an emergency, it is all about survival.
        • Reach out to your anchors (people, places, etc.) that root you to your humanity. These are the things that ground you and balance you.
        • Mike gives a great analogy about a spinning top with a weight on it.
        • We talk about being proactive vs. reactive all the time.
        • John mentions we cannot judge ourselves for our emotional reactions. We hope we put emotional funds in the bank to get through hard times, but it does not necessarily.
  • Mike wanted to be strong as the man of the house. This goes back to our conversations of toxic masculinity.
    • It’s tough to step aside from your own feelings and really analyze what is happening.
    • Nick makes the point that Mike had to help his 4-year-old through this tough time while he was also experiencing it.
    • Listen to the story of how Mike’s 4-year-old acted expressed the situation while playing.
    • The natural state before learning about cultural norms is to talk things out / or play them out.

33:41 – Experiencing Stages of Grief

  • Stages of grief were very strange for Mike. After quitting his job, Mike started to see a grief counselor.
    • "Life does not get easier. It gets less hard." – Mike Burkhart
    • There were days where he could not get out of bed.
    • Days when Mike did not feel awful made him feel guilt over not feeling worse.
  • In the United States, 1 out of 160 children die in childbirth, which means there are 25,000 – 40,000 parents grieving the loss of a child each year.
    • This is not a risk we want to consider, but it does happen.
  • When this even happened to Mike and people would express their condolences, he didn’t care. It was, more than anything, because he felt others did not understand what he was experiencing.
    • He still isn’t sure why.
    • There are communities formed around the loss of a child to help those suffering.
    • This feeling of grief is like nothing Mike has experienced, and his grief counselor is one of his favorite people.
    • Mike needed to know that someone else has felt the same as him. Being in the state he was in was like being in molasses.
    • Birth is a hectic, nerve wracking process. Add death to that mix, and it’s like someone unhitched a train which ran into a mountain with no tunnel.
    • It’s possible for people to recognize you are in pain without being empathetic. John makes the point it is challenging to ask for a Sherpa to help get through the process.
  • In Western culture death is taboo. We tend to say we are sorry for someone’s loss, but if we have a moment with the person, ask that person to tell you about the person they lost.
    • To reach out to someone who is grieving, to really be helpful, give the person what they need or ask for and not necessarily what you think they want.
    • It is important to set boundaries with others when you are grieving. Say no to things not helpful.
    • This is part of the reason Mike wanted to be able to speak to others who have experienced the same loss as his family did.
    • Mike shares some things not to say to people experiencing this time of grief.
  • Is asking someone what they need like giving the person homework? See Bonus EP 10 for more on this.
    • "I need you to come up with a way for me to support you" can be a homework assignment.
    • Sometimes the person just needs you to go away. You are giving the gift of solitude or space.
    • Mike didn’t know how to respond to this type of question.
    • Think about the basic needs of others during grief (food, Kleenex, etc.).
    • Many times this depends on your relationship with the person suffering.
    • Mike mentions The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman as helpful resource on understanding how others give and receive love.
      • Keep in mind multiple love languages apply to people.
      • One of the things Mike appreciated most during his struggles was when people would bring food.
      • Mike and family had a doula committed to working with them who helped with laundry, childcare, and even gave massages.
        • This level of grief takes a toll on the body.
    • Consider the most basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when trying to help others.
    • Another taboo of death is a hesitation to be around others who are grieving.
    • There are many models which can be leveraged to offer help, but many people use avoidance (the worst option).

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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