What it feels like to grieve your business after COVID-19
I slide my chair into my desk now to write. I choose to take this time for myself in the hope to have something perhaps or somewhat of a journal of these past few months of my life. In the hope that it will help with continued healing. In the hope that, if I ever choose to publish, it might just help another who is or has experienced grief or loss and likely both through COVID. This is my own personal story of what it feels like to grieve your business after COVID-19.
In 2009, I embarked on a journey creating a very special business. I won’t go into detail, but I do know that it is and always will be one of the greatest gifts of my life and one of my proudest achievements.
Very late in 2020, it was all too suddenly apparent that I could no longer hold on to the captains’ wheel and steer my beloved business and team through this pandemic. I didn’t see it. I was too busy navigating through the storm. Steering for a huge amount of hours that I became so fatigued to see anything much. The sudden trauma and emotions I experienced were so raw. The phrase ‘gut-wrenching’ is so apt.
COVID-19 saw many small businesses have to pivot like they never thought possible. We went from being a highly successful cooking school, hosting open to the public cooking classes and high-end events, including overseas, to having to shut all of that down. We then threw our focus and energy at cooking and delivering nourishing and lovely home-cooked meals to keep our team and community together. I launched this new business just two months before the impact of COVID and forced business closures. We were suddenly an essential service, and I knew too that this was my only business lifeline for the time being. It was our chance of getting us to the other side. It’s just that none of us knew how far it was to this infamous ‘other side’.
Late in 2020, the Victorian government made further announcements regarding restrictions. It was going to really hurt us. We still couldn’t sustainably reopen our cooking school. The business, as we knew it, had been closed for 8+ months. I called an emergency meeting with my ‘brains trust’. My husband and two of my closest friends – all with strong varying skills and an enormous will and want to see us get through. Within an hour of my call, they had dropped everything, and suddenly, there we were, all around the large table at Relish Mama. We were ready. I couldn’t love these three people more than I do.
For the next couple of hours, there was a lot of feverish writing on whiteboards. You’ve got to love a whiteboard in moments like these. God, that marker holds a whole lot of power and potential. There was a little excitement brewing as we workshopped the next pivots to help steer the business through this next phase. Not knowing how long you have to ‘weather’ through something like this is one of the hardest parts, but I felt okay. I had a plan.
I was exhausted; I knew that. I was running on adrenaline. I knew that too.
A day or so later, I made a phone call to a family member who is both a top-notch human and a highly regarded professional. I love him dearly. I turned to him to discuss our next steps. He gathered the facts and went away for a couple of days. It was hell for me. I felt such an urgency to put our next pivot into place, and yet, here I was, suspended and waiting. I am very much a ‘we need to do this NOW’ kind of girl. I was not blessed with the patience and fact-gathering gene that I admire so much in others.
A few days later, I received a callback. I love and admire this person who went through a couple of scenarios with me and a couple of options. They were options that had never been on my radar. I was peddling god-dam-it. His voice tone changed, and it slowed. When you are chatting with someone you know well and a straight shooter, you hear that change with such clarity. Suddenly, I could hear & feel compassion and love coming down that phone at super speed.
“Nellie…..you can’t trade out of this. With the restrictions in place and what that means for your classes & what you have already lost as a business, it will take you years to trade out of this. Years to be viable again”.
As I type now, my eyes are red from crying, and the lump that I feel in my throat is not just a feeling…..it is an ache. Fuck, I remember this day too well. More than anything, I remember the sudden sickening pain. The ‘gut wrench’.
In the immediate days following, practical problems had to be dealt with, yet I wanted to go to bed more than anything. To be quiet. To sit with myself and the pain. Instead, I had to sit with my special team and let them know what was going on and what this meant for them. I had to address our community and our customers, and I wasn’t ready or up for any of it, to be honest. Usually, I would write it down and navigate the right path, but it would take me days to find the words when nothing was making sense to me, and so I sat at my desk and filmed myself and our reality. I sent this out to our social channels without ever looking back at it. It could only be a one take. There was nothing in me to do it again.
For a few days following, I did go to bed. I felt such loss and pain. I knew this feeling. Many years earlier, when I was pregnant with Ettie, our third baby, I miscarried her two siblings. Ettie survived, and we often think of her now as our three-in-one deal. She is so very special. All of our daughters are.
So what I was feeling….. was grief, and it came at me like a steam train.
With zero energy, I stayed where I was. I feel like I am still there somewhat. Still grappling with it.
When I pressed send on the video, I didn’t have it in my mind that our daughters would all see it. Of course, they would. What teen is not on social media these days? I know full well how awful it was for them to see their Mum hurt so badly. Grace, unbeknownst to me at the time, was keeping a keen eye on socials. She was looking out for anyone who was out there to be unkind. Oh, how the tables had turned. She would come into my room from time to time and tell me of the love pouring in. Sometimes, she had tears in her eyes. I know they were all so moved to receive and experience this kindness, and I will be forever grateful they were offered this during such a challenging time.
Over the coming weeks, I did have to muster the energy to deal with the practicalities. My small team were terrific in working through these too.
Over those weeks, too, our community were wonderful. There is something extraordinary about the Relish Mama community and what I am very sure of is that I want to return to nurture that; however, that looks moving forward. What I wasn’t prepared for were the hurtful communications I would have to see and read. I was too close to it to take heed of the advice others would offer to me like “Don’t even look at them” or “Don’t take it personally, Nellie” or “This is more about them than it is about you” and yes, perhaps they were right, or maybe they were protecting me. The best way I could deal with it was to say to myself, “hurt people hurt people”. Perhaps these people were experiencing their own trauma or hurt. This is not written to shame anyone. But for anyone considering writing something that might hurt, break or damage others, please understand that that person or business is already hurting. For those that wanted to see me down, trust me, I was already there. Keyboard warriors are uncool. Leaving harmful Facebook comments and reviews without all the facts in front of you is not just unkind. What it is, is acting without thought or concern. It is damaging and unfair.
As an entrepreneur, you see your work as pretty central to your life and future hopes and dreams. Your identity is closely tied to your business, and I know with all my being how difficult it is to separate professional ‘failure’ from personal ‘failure’. Still, I am taking steps and working on it.
Over these past few months, I have experienced and ridden the many varied grief stages. I’ve become tired of ‘googling’ where I am up to. Grieving is not linear, as it turns out.
It has felt lonely at times. People stop reaching out or checking in. Some don’t ever ask how you are. I think the pain or the perceived answer might be too uncomfortable. People have their own lives, their own griefs, their own joys, their own traumas. I feel I am more compassionate as a result of all of this. I am also kinder and gentler on myself. Being kinder to myself was needed; I know that much, and so thank you, universe, for this one little win.
Often you need to look back to move forward. I admit that I am a little scared about what ‘moving forward’ looks like, but I know we will be okay with some regained clarity & strength. It’s going to look different, but it’s going to be okay.
I hope to write more…..I love writing so much. I also look forward to being a little more ‘slow’, and I look forward to sharing beautiful food and reconnecting with a community and family that I care so much about. I hope that it can be a beautiful space and a place to all share our journeys and days with compassion and kindness if you see me working and creating (whatever that looks like) unreal! I am a mother of three teenagers, and we’re in the thick of it. I have always loved what I do and create, and the reality is that I need to work.
I have sent this now to Michael to read with fresh eyes. I have told him that I have decided to publish it. Perhaps it will help another person who needs help.
He phones me to reply. He is so close to this story that he is crying. It has bought a lot up for him also. I can hear it in his voice. He is conflicted. He wants me to share my writing, but he fears some unkind people will come out once more, and it will be too hurtful.
“Do you feel strong enough to shield yourself from that again?” he asks.
“No” is my reply, but I have too much to share and hopefully help with to stay silent. I also don’t ‘do’ silent very well.
And so, I will press publish.
Grief will break the heart open. It will shatter the sense of safety and belonging. So, take the time you need to sit and heal when grief enters. It has, in fact, entered all our lives with the Covid-19 pandemic. Be kind with yourself and patient, also with others. Through sharing your sadness with others and witnessing theirs, you will reconnect with life. Things won’t go back to normal, yes, but you will belong again in a deeper way.