We regularly interview people who have experienced loss or burnout. Everyone experiences and responds to hardships in different ways, there is no right way or wrong way to grieve or handle stress. We share these stories in hopes that their experiences will support you in your journey – which ever side you are on – working through the process or supporting a loved one. If you are interested in sharing your story, please reach out via our home page.


Adrienne Nolan-Smith

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I live in New York City and I’m the founder of WellBe (and @getwellbe on social channels), a media company that launched in July 2017 to help bridge the gap between the healthcare system and wellness movement. As you’ll discover below, wellness and preventing chronic disease is super important to me. So for fun a lot of the things I like to do include taking care of myself. I love being in nature, whether that’s hiking, being at the beach or skiing. I love live music and karaoke and dancing to 60s-90s music. I love going to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and I love going to museums and traveling to see new places.

Who in your life has passed away? When did this happen?

My mother committed suicide in December 2010 just a few days before Christmas. It was a horrific time. For five years before her death, she struggled with Schizoaffective Disorder. She was heavily medicated with antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs. She hated the way she felt on them and would try to go off of them. I don't blame her one bit. On the drugs, she was a total vegetable, a zombie if you will. Drooling, shaking, no sleep, gaining weight, depressed. It was awful to watch, but still I was shocked when it happened.

In 3-5 words, describe your life during this time.

I had enormous guilt, I was angry and I had so much regret.

What helped guide you through the grieving process?

I was working at IBM at the time and had been studying for the GMAT to go to business school. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to pursue there, but I knew that I didn’t want to stay at IBM the rest of my career and business school might help me figure it out. I was in the middle of writing my applications when my mom took her life and I swore at that moment, if I could find the strength to finish my applications and actually got into any of the schools I applied to, I would dedicate my life to solving what I believe to be the biggest issue in the healthcare system, which is the lack of a holistic approach to health and healing in conventional healthcare, especially mental health.

At the time of her death, I was living with a friend of mine in an apartment in NYC and I had just decided to go on a break with my boyfriend of five years two weeks before she passed away. He was my first call after I found out, and he was there for me consistently such that we sort of forgot about the break for another 1.5 years until we eventually broke up for good.

I moved home to be with my dad and my younger brother came home from college in Baltimore the night it happened. We actually didn't tell him until my father took a train down to Baltimore to tell him at 6pm so that he didn't have to be alone when he found out. He packed a few things and they took the train back to New York an hour later.

We received so much outreach from so many people that loved my mom, and they kept coming over to the house and writing us and spending time with us.

I saw a therapist for six months after her death weekly. I thought she was a great therapist except that she kept trying to offer me medications as I was going through the grieving process. Obviously it was hard and there were sleepless nights and a lot of sadness but I refused. I knew that I needed to work through these stages of grief or I would just be delaying the inevitable if I tried to numb the pain. Six months after her death, I did go to business school and I moved to Chicago by myself where I knew basically nobody. Luckily I found a roommate that was a friend of a friend and who had also lost her dad from a sudden heart attack when she was in college.

I’m so happy I didn’t attempt to live alone in that period of my life. My roommate turned out to be a terrific support for me, talking with me all the time about everything I was going through. I also found that I was not as studious at business school as I had been in college and just kind of wanted to enjoy myself – lots of late night dance parties, going out quite a bit, drinking more than I should have honestly (although business school culture is a lot of heavy drinking, whether you're grieving or not)!

Sometimes I would find myself getting down or mad at myself for not doing more of the homework and spending more time on exam prep. It took me until the second year to realize that I needed to let myself take some time and that after a major trauma, the healing process can take many forms. In my case I literally just needed to dance and let the last 5.5 years of watching my mom go in and out of mental hospitals, and having conversations with her where she seemed so far away, watching her turn into a drooling, shaking zombie...melt away.

I graduated, luckily, and still have small regrets about some of the classes I wish I paid more attention in and/or done the homework in, but overall the two years of business school in Chicago were two of the most cathartic, fun, memorable and wonderful years of my life and I know now that that was exactly what I needed after such a tough time.

What advice would you provide others dealing with loss?

I would recommend other people grieving from a loss listen to themselves. If you need to be with others recognize that, if you need to be alone recognize that, if you need to go traveling recognize that, if you need to dance recognize that. Obviously don’t harm yourself by becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict but do listen to yourself. Your intuition and your gut are generally pretty spot about what your body needs to heal.

What advice would you provide those who want to comfort those dealing with loss?

My advice to people who are comforting somebody who have gone through a loss is to write an email, even if you’re not that close to them. Every single email I received meant so much to me during the months after my mom died. I would re-read them when I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night and saved every single one. I would say if that person you're comforting doesn’t have a therapist to talk to, and it feels like they just want or need to talk – just listen and let them talk. Most people want to give some advice, but really there’s not much advice to give if you haven't gone through it. And even if you have, the best thing is just an ear.

I would also recommend planning things that will get them out of their pajamas and out of the house, and maybe even wash their hair! Things that will be enjoyable, something low-key like a museum trip or a pedicure or a park picnic, not with big crowds or loud or stressful in any way, but just something that will show them that life is worth living again.

I would say do not make them feel as if they should be over it by now or healed, because everybody takes a different amount of time and you’re never truly healed, it’s just that eventually most of us reach a point where we can resume normal life again and put our grief in a closet like an old sweater. This old sweater, it doesn't go anywhere and we always know where to find it, and it's in the same closet with all of our other clothes, so we see it regularly in passing. But we choose to leave it there in favor of new exciting sweaters that represent today, tomorrow, hope and finding happiness again.

In honor of Mother's Day, what is the best advice your mom ever gave you?

My mom's best advice - despite the fact that she was a management consultant before staying home to raise the 3 of us after my older brother was born and her work travel schedule became too difficult to manage with kids - was to follow your passion. She would say "I don't care if you major in basketweaving at college, as long as that's what you love and must do". It was annoying when I was growing up because I hadn't figured out what mine was yet! But now I see she really just meant, "get fired up about life, and whatever it is you are most fired up about and just love doing, do that.”

#mothersday #grief #griefstory #grieving #suicide

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