I run a PR firm for small businesses. After my brother died in Iraq, it felt like my world exploded — here are the 9 steps I took to rebuild my life and career.
Picking up the pieces after a public tragedy is tough when you are self-employed. But it's doable.
In August 2007, my husband and I were living the dream — just four years earlier, I'd founded my own public relations practice just outside of Washington, DC. A few years after that, my husband joined me in the business and added his graphic and website design skills to our offerings. Our business prospered and we were busy taking care of our 3 kids from his first marriage, and dreaming about buying a home and getting pregnant or adopting.
Life was looking up, and we headed to the beach in Georgia for a week of much needed rest with some friends.
We spent one idyllic day at the beach with the kids swimming and all of us in the sun and having fun. I remember riding a beach coaster bike with fat tires and the basket full of sandy magazines, and feeling like all of my DC stress was peeling off with the ocean breeze. I still remember the sound of those wheezy pedals as I headed back to the beach house to get ready for a big meal with the gang.
Then our lives – quite literally – blew up.
I realized on the way back that I'd missed a call from my mom, so I called her back and she didn't pick up. I then called my aunt, who told me that my brother, US Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, age 22, was killed in combat that day when a roadside bomb exploded.
It felt like my life also exploded in that moment. I remember dropping the phone. I remember hearing someone screaming. Then I realized that the person screaming was me. It was the moment everything changed.
We hurried to my parents' home in Florida. A news release was issued by the Army after our family was notified, and soon I was managing reporters not for my clients — but on behalf of my humble and grieving parents.
Only 24 hours after I'd been carefree and pedaling on that beach bike, I sat down alongside my two surviving brothers to talk with our hometown newspaper and tried to sum up what the legacy of my little brother would be.
Those days in Florida were busy — our friends and family wanted to be with us, and we were also meeting with the military, planning a funeral for our hometown, and organizing a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Before long, one of my clients called.
I had turned in a magazine story just before going to the beach and she needed me to check my interview notes and fix something. I paused, told her what had happened, and said I would try to find time to fix it later that evening.
I sent the revised copy to her standing with the laptop at the end of the driveway using a neighbor's WiFi signal, as my parents were still on dial up. I also sent an email to our clients updating them on our situation and extending our time away to two weeks. I looked up at the stars and wondered how the hell we were going to survive this.
But survive it we did. His funeral was held in the church my husband and I had married in — and it drew hundreds of people — including demonstrators, counter demonstrators, TV crews, and hundreds of people who just wanted to show they cared. It was touching, overwhelming, and so much more all at the same time.
We flew home to DC the next day to get ready for the family to arrive for the burial service. I frantically vacuumed sand out of my living room carpet, bought towels because I had no time to do laundry, answered the door for floral arrangements and casseroles, and made a plan to get everyone to the cemetery on time in rush hour traffic with the army casualty officer.
Ten days after Chris was killed in combat in Iraq, he was buried in section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.
The media covered the burial with our family's permission, so there was footage on the news and in newspapers around the country.
I got up early the day after the burial service to say goodbye to my family and picked up the newspaper — there was a photo on the front page of the metro section of The Washington Post showing us getting our flag the day before at the cemetery. I made a mental note to pick up a few more copies and started to go back to bed — I was exhausted from the last 10 days.
My husband and I looked at each other and it was like a light bulb went off in both of our heads. It was our wedding anniversary. We agreed on cards and dinner. Then my husband said his stomach still hurt, and he thought he should see our doctor. I always think he's a hypochondriac, since my dad is a doctor, so I joked, "I'll even drive you to the appointment since it's our anniversary." It was such a normalizing moment — a reminder that we were "us" and life could somehow start again.
But even after all we'd just been through, life still had other plans.
Our doctor told us to get back in the car and drive straight to the emergency room. Oh crap, I thought.
In the hospital, they called a doctor out of surgery on someone else to look at my husband. Now anxiety began churning my stomach into ugly knots. I knew they wouldn't do that unless there was something really wrong.
And he had emergency surgery that night for a condition that could have killed him — an incarcerated hernia that, thankfully, didn't go septic.
We never got the cards. Or dinner. An evil nurse threw me out of his hospital room.
I sat in the waiting room and wept into the same Washington Post I'd collected from my driveway that morning. In 11 days we went from being on vacation, to my brother dying, to that hospital waiting room. I was emotionally now at rock bottom.
Hopefully nothing tragic ever happens to you. While my story might be unique to me, all of us face struggles in life. It's challenging to figure out how to start again, after tragedy strikes. Here's what I did to rebuild, and my advice:
1. Start slow and take time off.
My husband had a month long recovery, so we did not attend business meetings or networking events for a while — and thankfully much of DC shuts down in mid-August. Yet client emails kept coming in. I mowed the lawn and we ate some of the casseroles people had brought, and read our email. We took our time to ease back into the rhythm of business life.
2. Continue to communicate with your clients and contacts.
After a tragedy is when your clients and contacts need to hear from you. Some of them will legitimately care about you and want to know you are OK or how they can help. Others will be concerned about the ongoing work you do for them and how their work might be impacted by what you've gone through.
3. Lean on people you trust.
This is where having a network is a huge bonus. I had a friend who typically helped cover press calls for my clients while I was out town on vacation each year. She helped me beyond that first week, and knowing she was there to help my clients gave me one less thing to worry about.
4. Keep your contact lists — not just your client lists — and communication systems up-to-date.
While I had a list of our active clients, I didn't have a ready-made list of some of our other contacts, like the people we networked with or former clients. We didn't have a business e-newsletter (like we do now) that I could easily send a message out to or a business Facebook page. Having those would have made letting people know we were taking time off, and letting them know when we reopened, a lot easier.
5. Signal when you are ready to start working again.
Only you know when you are ready. Some of your contacts or current clients may want to offer new work or get started on a project, but be unsure of your availability and not want to bother you. So you have to signal that you are ready again for business — whether that means you write emails, or you make phone calls, or send out an e-newsletter and make a Facebook post.
6. Remain open to new things.
In those first couple of weeks back in the office, I was sent two proposals and invited to bid on them. I looked at them and thought, wow, these would be great. I wasn't hopeful I'd win the work, but I thought writing responses to them would get me back into my groove. Just the act of writing them, would let me dream about doing new work and get my creativity flowing. Amazingly, we won both of those jobs, and a few months later, I took on a gig managing public relations for an organization that assists families of fallen troops.
7. Have good insurance and know your risk exposure.
Thanks to good health insurance, we didn't face a huge bill from my husband's emergency surgery. Because we are both self-employed, this event drove home how important it is to have good health insurance and to know what our risk exposure is financially if something happens. Every year, we use what my husband calls "the scariest spreadsheet ever" for open enrollment for work benefits during November and December, so we can evaluate the real financial impacts if a "major medical event" were to happen to one or both of us when we choose a health plan.
8. Keep a cash reserve in the bank that you can easily access.
We also had a cash reserve in the bank when our tragedy hit in 2007. We could afford to take some time off and not be stressed about paying our bills, but we also didn't want to dip too heavily into the kitty either. A good rule of thumb is to keep at least three to six months of what you need to pay the bills in easily-accessible accounts (meaning your funds are not tied up in IRAs, or investments with withdrawal penalties).
9. Seek help when you need it.
I began getting back "out there" at networking events and it wasn't all good. At a women in business networking event, everyone attending had to get up in front of the entire group and talk about their business and family. I did fine on the business part, but when I got to the family part I cried and felt embarrassed. The reality was that I had spent so much time tending to everyone else and their needs in all of this — that somewhere deep inside I had forgotten to take care of myself. I found help with a therapist and the peer support of other gold star families.
Life can change in an instant and right now we may all feel like we are living in a state of perpetual crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Making some preparations — whether it involves getting your finances or insurance in order, keeping your records and contact lists straight, or being flexible and taking care of yourself — can give you stability and boost your peace of mind.