What Helped Me Contend with Trauma as a LeaderMar 12, 2021
After my first miscarriage, I had to return to work as the CEO of my team. Here is what I did (and what I didn't do) that helped me navigate this challenging time.
By Meghan French Dunbar
An Unexpected Blow
In the fall of 2018, my husband and I took a much-needed vacation to Belgium. As the co-founder and then CEO of Conscious Company Media, I had been working nearly nonstop for four years and desperately needed some time away.
As we approached our trip, I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. We were overjoyed with the news — I dreamed of celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary exploring the canals in Bruge and dining on all of the stroopwafels my newly pregnant belly could handle. The reality of our situation was vastly different: Upon check-in at our romantic bed-and-breakfast in Bruge, I miscarried our first child.
Rather than exploring the canals, we explored the urgent care facilities in the small town, and I traded my stroopwafels for an entire day spent in a hospital trying to communicate with doctors who spoke a different language. We continued on with the rest of our trip, forcing smiles and attempting to enjoy our time away together despite the massive black cloud that hung over our heads everywhere we went.
I remember boarding the plane to return to the US and feeling like I could barely face going home. I could scarcely imagine having to go back to work, lead our team, talk about budgets, plan marketing schedules — all while my heart was shattered, and I hadn’t gotten the break that I so desperately needed.
In this utterly fragile time, I did some things that were helpful for me, and some things that weren’t.
What Helped Me Heal
1. I told my team immediately.
On the Monday after my trip I called an all-team meeting first thing in the morning. There was no part of me that wanted to talk about what had happened with my team, but I knew that they would sense something was wrong with me.
Like it or not, as the leader of your organization your energy permeates everything about your business. Despite your best efforts to hide your shit, your team will notice if something is off. And rather than assuming something is wrong with you, they often internalize your behavior and start thinking something is wrong with them — that you’re not happy with their work, that the business isn’t doing well, etc. In the absence of information, we make up stories.
Knowing this, I walked into the meeting on Monday and gritted my way through telling my team about the miscarriage. I wasn’t able to get through it without crying, and I let that be okay. I let my team see me in my full humanity, at my lowest, heartbroken and in despair. And what I found was that my team held me. Some even cried with me. They asked how they could help. They provided me with support that I wasn’t expecting and that I very much needed. All of this brings me to the next thing I did well:
2. I asked my team to help me.
Usually when my team would ask if there was anything that they could take off my plate, my reaction as a founder was to thank them and decline. Perhaps I thought it would be easier if I just did it myself or that I didn’t want to pile more on to my team, but I was the worst at accepting help. Yet, during our Monday morning meeting, as my team asked what they could do to help, I finally accepted. I unloaded as much as I could onto my team. And I found that they were all thrilled to lend a hand. It gave them an increased sense of purpose with their work to know that they were doing something that helped me during my time of need.
What Didn’t Help Me Heal
1. I didn’t get professional help.
Despite the fact that my husband had told me all about the virtues of going to therapy, I convinced myself at this time that it was too hard to find professional help. I didn’t have the energy to try to find a therapist I clicked with, and I didn’t feel up to adding yet another thing to my to-do list. More than anything, I wish I had gotten professional help during this time rather than relying entirely on my husband to hold me together.
2. I didn’t take time off.
As I had just returned from taking a week off for vacation, I told myself the story that I couldn’t take any more time off. I convinced myself that my team and my company needed me too much. In reality, I was just filling my days with work to distract myself from my own heartbreak. I “moved on” and got back on the saddle as quickly as possible, but in reality I was simply repressing my feelings, which only served to prolong my healing. It wasn’t until more than a year later that I finally faced the consequences of not fully healing from this event, as I found myself contending with full-blown depression.
I can tell you now that it’s way better to take time off to help yourself recover, rather than continuing to show up at work as 50 percent or less of your typical self. Do what you need to do to heal and then come back. Your team will thank you. They’ll also feel safe to take the time for themselves should they ever need it — an invaluable benefit to any place of work.
3. I didn’t take care of my body.
Upon leaving the hospital in Belgium, I think the first thing I did was drink a beer. And then another and another. I found comfort in alcohol and food. I didn’t work out. I sat at a computer all day working upon returning from vacation. Throughout this time, I physically felt like total crap, which only added to the compounding sadness I felt.
Lessons From the Pain
Fortunately, we were lucky enough to get pregnant quickly after that first miscarriage and are now blessed with a chunky, hilarious son named Jack.
Nearing the end of 2020, we decided that we’d love for Jack to have a sibling, if possible, and were delighted to discover that I was pregnant right after Thanksgiving. There were so many conversations about how awful 2020 was and how lovely it was going to be to end the year on a high note. We told our friends and family and prepared for the holidays. Right before Christmas, though, our fortunes turned — and I lost the pregnancy, again. I spent the holidays in bed, drinking red wine and eating gingerbread cookies for lunch. I watched crappy holiday movies and cried nonstop for nearly a week.
However, taking the experience from my first miscarriage, I was able to handle this second one a bit differently. Again, I told my team right away (and found fresh-baked cookies and brownies and flowers on my doorstep the next day); I asked my team for help with things I couldn’t handle doing; I scheduled extra sessions with my therapist whom I’d found in the fall; I took weeks off from work; and, after the weeklong gingerbread-cookie-and-wine extravaganza, I started feeding myself with nourishing foods and gently working out when I felt up to it.
I also just let myself feel everything. When I was sad, I cried, no matter who was in the room. When I was angry, I’d scream into pillows and yell as I lifted weights. I let my parents, my mother-in-law, and my husband take incredible care of me during this time without apologizing to them for feeling like a burden. I simply let myself grieve, fully. And it helped so much.
I’m not saying that I am fully over it all, even as of this writing, but I will say that I was able to come back to work the second week of January with energy and excitement for the things that I was building. I’ve had good days and bad days since, but mostly they have been good. I continue to take care of myself in all the ways I now know how, and I have felt more creative in my work than at almost any time before.
My hope is that, in sharing what has helped me cope with traumatic events while I’ve been in a leadership role, that it might help others who are facing challenging times to not “put on a brave face” and push through it all. It doesn’t make you a better leader to repress your experience in the name of business — that will only serve to detract from your leadership as time passes and you realize that your unprocessed trauma is whittling you down. And if you’re reading this from a place of having experienced a trauma and looking for advice, I am so sorry for whatever you have been through. I see your pain and feel your grief. You are not alone.
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