Lessons in life, death and change

‘Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.’ – Steve Jobs

Recently, I raced back to the UK to be at the side of my father who was at end-of-life. For the final six days of his life, my sister and I didn’t leave the hospital. During that time, I watched the comings and goings on the ward. As it was a large and very busy public hospital, there was always plenty going on. Time and time again, what I witnessed made me think of change and its implications on us as practitioners and as an individual.

The dust has since settled and the fog has lifted since my father passed away. I know that not all change is as hard as death, but for some, it can be. For some, change is a loss, an ending, but for others, change is the start of something new.

My experience has made me think even more about how important the work we do is, and it has influenced how I work with clients even more.

In the spirit of generosity, I wanted to share my personal experience and my insights with you:

We need to like people – even when they aren’t at their best side. I’ve always thought that people who work in change are generally (or should be!) good at building relationships and trust and have people at the forefront of everything they do. However, if you want to see real people-people, you can’t go past nurses. Watching them deal with patients, families and each other in a bright, cheerful way day in, day out on 12-hour shifts, left me in awe of them and their ability to connect with people. Nothing seemed too much for them – from getting bedpans/commodes, to cleaning up patients, to dealing with sometimes demanding family members. Imagine if we as change practitioners could deal with the least appealing aspects of our jobs and the most challenging stakeholders in the same positive manner? Maybe, working in change needs to be a vocation?

Communication is key. Watching the shift changes take place with their handover briefings etc, it was clear to see when this had been thorough. The nurses knew exactly what was needed and when. And their communication with the patients was also always positive, frequent and, at times could have seemed politically incorrect if taken out of context (lots of ‘sweetheart’, ‘darling’ and ‘gorgeous’), but which was totally appropriate and endearing on the ward. It’s not like we had all the experience in the world about this change. Every death is different. But the nurses knew what was coming, what we needed to know and had been through it before. It made me realise that they were the experts and I knew nothing about death and dying.

Treating people with dignity. Even though my father was semi-conscious and couldn’t speak, all the staff (doctors, nurses, cleaners and support staff) still treated him with dignity and talked to him before doing anything with him, such as turning or washing him. He never became just a body, he was always a person. I could also feel the empathy that they had for us and what we were going through. They gave us space to just be with him. Can we say that we always treat and respect our impacted people as individuals – or do they just become a number to us?

The voice of authority. Just as needing to hear from the sponsor in change, it was always the doctor who provided the updates on my father’s condition. The nurses, as helpful as they were on the operational matters, seemed unwilling to provide any authoritative advice and always said to ask the doctor when she came on her daily round of the ward. This was at times frustrating for us as we were dealing with the uncertainty of what was happening. For me, this was like the supervisors and managers not being able to provide answers to their people – and adds to the confusion and ambiguity of change.

Are we ever truly ready for the change? I was ready for my father’s passing. His life over the past few years had not been easy as he struggled with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. In fact, I would say that at times I welcomed the thought that he wouldn’t have to live with the indignity of not being able to do even the most basic of things for himself.

Being familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, I was pretty sure I had reached the Acceptance stage of her model.

I mean, this wasn’t the first time I had had to rush back to the UK, and my Dad was in his mid-eighties, so the change wasn’t unexpected. However, once my Dad had gone, the finality of it all hit, I realised I wasn’t ready after all. There was no reverting back. I’d never get to give him a hug again or see him smile whenever I walked into the room. Now all I had were the memories. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a great support system around me – from my family, my FOLD7 ‘family’, my friends, and my clients – which helped me in the first few weeks after my return.

Change in business isn’t usually a case of life or death. However, even though people know it’s inevitable (as effective change practitioners we have hopefully prepared them as best we can for what is to come), are they ever truly ready for the reality of it? We shouldn’t underestimate the impact the change will have. What support systems do you have in place post-change to support people? And when that inevitable change happens and you find you’re not as good with it as you thought – be kind to yourself and realise that things take a long time to change quickly.

So where am I now? Certainly, I’ve come to terms with it. It still doesn’t mean that I don’t find myself thinking about him. He is a constant part of me, but as in the rest of life, change is inevitable, so I keep moving forward. Even in death, there are still people who teach us what we need to know.

Change is inevitable. Change is constant.’ – Benjamin Disraeli