Navigating Grief in a Startup

Aug 10

They say time heals all wounds. It’s been a year since my friend passed away and I feel it’s time to let go of the grief and focus on the memories.

In 2017 I lost my good friend to suicide. The story has much more details than that but for the sake of his legacy I’ll spare the most painful details. I met him in 2006 at my first sales job in the nonprofit world. We worked together at 4 jobs after that. He earned his reputation for leadership as his reps respected and looked up to him.

Our relationship started with me being his subordinate and eventually the relationship flipped. He became one of the managers I brought with me in sales leadership roles.

It was summer of 2017 and I was celebrating my birthday with my girlfriend. We drove down from SF to LA after work on Thursday and I took Friday off. We spent the day having fun at Universal Studios.

My girlfriend was holding my phone so I would enjoy the day. Around 12p we took a break for lunch. I turned on my phone for the first time that day and I had 20 missed calls, 10 Voicemails, 50 texts, and tons of Slack messages. My friend and the person subbing in for me that day had not shown up to work. Students called me, our small team of 5 called me. It was crazy. No one knew where he was. Panic ensued.

By the end of the day we filed a missing persons report. To say I was a mess would be an understatement. Saturday came by, nothing. Sunday came by, nothing. Every few hours someone would text or email me if I knew anything. I didn’t. Monday came by and I showed up back to work, still with no new information.

We had a cohort to run and numbers we have to hit. But nothing was normal. Everyone was still asking me every hour if I had an update. Then came Tuesday. We had a team outing at Giants game that night. I talked with some Advisors and Mentors and decided it made sense to keep the team outing on the books. So Tuesday we walked from our office in SOMA to the San Francisco Giants Stadium.

On the way over I decided to stop by my apartment to pick up some blankets and jackets in case it got chilly later on. During the walk from my apartment to the stadium I got the call no one ever wants to get.

It was call was from the Coroner’s Office. They updated me because I had filed a missing persons report. My friend had taken his own life. I thanked them for calling me, cried hysterically for a few minutes and then kept walking towards the stadium.

Brushing my tears away, I told myself to stay strong — the team cannot see me like this — the company needs me right now more than ever and our team outing was not an appropriate place to break this news.

Here is a picture from that baseball game. The double scotch I had helped a lot.

The next day, I came into the office knowing how tough the upcoming conversations were going to be. As each team member arrived I pulled them aside and told them the news.

People cried, we hugged. It was a very traumatic experience. Emotionally, I had completely shut down. It’s something our team never recovered from and it almost cost me the company.

He was my friend and my employee so I was playing this weird balancing act of what news I was allowed to share. As his employer he and his family still had a lot of rights regarding what information I was allowed to reveal.

I shared the news with our investors that week. They were very empathic and supportive which I appreciated. We needed a crisis counselor for the team, but being a start up, we could not afford it. One of our investors stepped up and said they would foot the bill.

As part of the VCs offer, I was able to get counseling for myself from a grief counselor who was also a hybrid executive coach so it was a really helpful, healthy and a life changing experience.

I asked our VC if I could see the grief counselor a few more times but they declined my request stating “they don’t think it is helping”. Tell me anything else. Just say “No, we don’t think we should be paying operational costs from our portfolio companies”. But they didn’t. They picked their words very carefully and I went into shock again. I could not handle of all this. It was just too much.

During my grieving process I lost the entire team and almost lost the company. The trauma of losing one trainer had paralyzed me from hiring another. I was struggling to make basic business decisions. Towards the end of December 2017 we had just thousands of dollars left in the bank account.

When 2018 began I thought “should I sell the company?” One of my investors told me to sell, or they would never talk to me again. I declined their advice, stating “ I’m not selling. I can still do this, no else is better at training and helping salespeople and the world needs this.”

So we started rebuilding. Brick by brick.

What kept me sane and the business alive, is remembering the purpose for the business; helping amazing people getting life changing jobs via community, integrity and transparency. I also stopped beating myself up for not being Superman. That journey was the hardest thing I had ever gone through, but I never gave up. Along the way, I discovered I’m more resilient than I ever knew possible. So, one year after the fact, I’m letting go of the grief and focusing on the memories of our friendship.

I’m ready to move on.

I know my friend would be proud.

If you are struggling with suicide you can call the hotline: 1–800–273–8255.

You can also always call or text me, even if we’ve never met in-person: 510–701–2284.

You’re not alone and people care about you.

If you want to know more about my passions and what currently drives me, you can take a look at that here.

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