Rachael's Story

"I feel like I was completely ill-prepared for this kind of sorrow."

The story

I’m a Gen X social worker and designer living in the Midwest with my spouse and daughter.

In late March 2023, my dad was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. A cancer diagnosis—and a prognosis of only two months to live—was an absolute shock. Unfortunately, he declined rapidly and died two weeks later.

My sleep was immediately impacted, and I had recurring dreams of his last moments alive. I also had daily headaches and sudden bursts of weeping with any memory of him. I’ve learned that much of this is to be expected with complicated grief, but I wasn’t identifying it in a patient; I was seeing it in me, and I could feel myself slowly fading.

In my day to day job as a social worker and designer, I was on autopilot in March, April, and May of that year. I became my mom’s full-time care manager, which minimized and deprioritized my grief. When my dad was first hospitalized, I connected with my therapist as a preemptive measure and was able to see her the week before he died (and have increased to weekly since).

In talking to her and reflecting on all of it, I believe I will be navigating this grief for the rest of my life. Still, I am getting better every day, and at just a little over six months, the sadness isn’t as all-consuming as it was previously.

What surprised me most as a trauma-informed design practitioner is that even with all my knowledge and years of experience, I feel like I was completely ill-prepared for this kind of sorrow. If I wasn’t prepared, it is hard to imagine anyone could ever be. If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that we need trauma-informed and grief-aware workplaces. It’s a moral imperative.