How The Death Of My Son Has Changed My Understanding Of Work-Life Balance

04/24/2017 01:51 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

Dangling on the mountainside, connected to a cable threaded through an iron spike in the wall of the canyon, my excitement mixed with panic mixed with the grilled hammour I had for lunch and bubbled up from somewhere deep in my gut. I was climbing Jebel Shams in Oman, the “Grand Canyon of the Arabian Peninsula.” I was here. I was doing it. I reached for a secure foothold and transferred the carabiner from the cable to the other side of the iron spike and slowly made my way up the mountain. Onward I pushed, past wild pomegranate trees and sheer cliff faces all under the watchful eye of an ancient and abandoned Bedouin village. It was April. The Poinciana trees I had seen at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat the day before were just beginning to bloom in implausible fiery reds and oranges. The beach I had walked on was lined with royal palms and coconut trees. The comparison to South Florida was unmistakable. The Poincianas back home wouldn’t be in bloom until July but the sand under my feet and the thick salty air felt like home.

As I climbed on, I got into a rhythm. Every ten feet or so a new iron spike was hammered into the rock face. I had never heard of “via ferrata” or “iron way” before. Justin, our guide, explained that the via ferrata originated in the Alps during the First World War to help troops move through the mountains. Once I got comfortable with the climb, my mind began to wander to what I had been doing this time last year while still working at the firm in Florida. I couldn’t remember exactly, but no doubt I had been stressed. No doubt I had felt overwhelmed and under stimulated by life. No doubt my life was one dimensional, filled with discovery, motion calendar, conference calls, and billable hours. No doubt I had not spent much time with my wife, or watched many of the beautiful Florida sunsets, other than from the window of my impressive office. I smiled at the thought that here I was, three hundred and sixty-five days later, climbing a mountain in a country I had never really heard of before moving abroad on what would normally be considered a “trip of a lifetime” but for me was just one of many trips that year. Was this really my life?!

For lawyers and other professionals, work-life balance is something we talk about often. If we aren’t talking about it we are at least thinking about it as we watch our lives tick by while we sit behind computer screens pecking out emails and memos, living our lives in tenth of an hour increments. We were the smart kids, the ambitious ones. We sat proudly at graduation while they called out our names thinking about a lifetime of achievement ahead. We pushed ourselves and sacrificed to build impressive careers hoping one day we would arrive. We would make it. We would succeed.

“Sure I’m sacrificing,” we tell ourselves, “but it will be worth it in the end.” “Someday I will have time to do all those things I want to do, but now I’d better get back to work.” The problem for many professionals, however, is that someday never comes. Deal leads on to deal, case leads on to case, day turns to week turns to year turns to decade turns to lifetime and we find ourselves spent in every way. What can be done? How can we find balance in our lives?

Recently, my twenty-month-old son Henry died tragically and unexpectedly. The death of a child causes much soul searching, but this story isn’t about death. It’s about life, and how we live it in a meaningful way. In 2008, I moved abroad to an in-house legal position, in large part, to find a better work-life balance. My perspective continues to develop. What is my purpose? Why am I here? My definitions of “success” and “wealth” have changed. I still haven’t figured out how to perfectly balance life with career and I am convinced I never will. However, here are some of the lessons I am learning.

Reevaluate Your Identity.

The last time you were at a party, how did you introduce yourself? Likely, by what you do to earn a living. But your work is only part of the story. You are many things: a husband or wife, a significant other, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, a member of a community, a musician, an athlete, an artist, a linguist, a gourmet cook, and the list goes on and on. When we define ourselves only by our jobs, we are forced to seek validation from them. When my identity is tied up in my means of earning an income, the job has power over me, and when it has power over my self-worth, then it becomes an altar upon which I willingly sacrifice all the things that make a life worthwhile – close and honest relationships, family, friends, marriages, being an active and contributing member of my community away from work, watching my children grow up and being there for the little moments – all the things I tell myself are the most important. I have started the daily habit of running through the list of who I am – a husband, a father, a son, a member of a community, a friend, a flawed and broken human being trying to make my way in the world – and as I do it, it helps remind me that at the end of the day, a job is a job. There will never be a job that can tick all the boxes in my life. I will not find my job soul mate. It is a way to earn a paycheck, but it can’t be the only definition of myself.

Upsize Your Experiences. Downsize Your Possessions.

What does it mean to be wealthy? When will you know you are wealthy? How much do you contribute each month to your 401k? Similarly, are you maintaining a 401k of experiences? Lawyers are often pitifully poor in experiences. The thing about experiences is that they stay with you in a way that material possessions don’t. My experience climbing Jebel Shams in Oman still feels fresh in my mind. I can pull it up and be there on the mountain any time I want. I don’t really remember the clothes I bought that year or what electronic gadgets I had. It is easy to fall into the acquisition trap. We spend what we make in order to acquire things we don’t need, to impress people who don’t care and aren’t paying attention anyway. We never really get ahead. This means we never escape the cycle of debt and demands and never have the opportunity or time to fill our lives with experiences. Material possessions break. They need to be repaired and replaced. Experiences reach us at our core in a way possessions don’t.

When Henry died in August, I had just come off a ten-day road trip through Iceland and a twelve-day visit with family in Florida. During Henry’s short life, I spent nearly every night at home with him. We ate dinner together, went to the playground, crawled on the floor, and read stories. If I had been billing hours at a law firm, that wouldn’t have been the case. That is not to speak negatively of law firms; I love the excitement of life in a law firm. However, we all have a limited time on Earth. No, you can’t have it all. You must make a choice. After losing my son, I can honestly say that I have no regrets about how I spent my time with Henry. I took full advantage of our time together. Those experiences are dearer to me than any material possession I will ever have.

A few years after moving abroad, I was at a series of work meetings in Germany. During lunch one day, I was speaking with two German engineers. One of the engineers was getting married. He smiled as he told me about a recent motorcycle trip he had taken in the U.S. He had rented a Harley-Davidson in Las Vegas and explored the Grand Canyon. We discussed family, work, travel, his favorite German dishes and beers, and of course, the meaning of life. His colleague questioned out loud why Americans had so little vacation and why, even when they did have vacation, they never took it. She was incredulous. “Josh, you Americans are strange I think. In Germany, we work to live. In America, you live to work.” After losing my son, I am so thankful that I realized the folly of living to work while I still had time with Henry.

Since moving abroad, I have traveled with my kids to thirty-nine countries. I can smell the fresh cut hay in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland and hear the faint and steady clanging of the bells on the cows grazing in the field. I can feel the steering wheel of our Škoda rental car in Sarajevo and the worry as I get pulled over for speeding. I can smell the faint scent of spring as I lie on my back and lift my two-year-old into the air on my feet underneath a canopy of cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. I laugh at my wife’s appalled face as I pull a leech off my ankle after walking along a river outside of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Experiences matter. Is it any wonder that professionals are depressed and stressed out when they are literally starving for experiences? Many professionals in the United States are handsomely compensated, yet we live our lives deprived of experiences, and for what? Of course financial stability is important, but let’s be honest. Our acquisition of and drive for money is more than just meeting our basic needs. It is an obsession. When I feel the same obsession growing in me, I remind myself of what my Grandmother has always said, “Life is like Monopoly. At the end of the game, the money goes back in the box.” After Henry’s death, I understand just how quickly and without notice the game can end.

Realize The Impermanence Of Everything.

Losing a child has helped me understand the impermanence of everything – my career, my youth, my health, my relationships, my house, even my children – I am only a temporary caretaker for all of them. We are not in control. We hold everything like sand sifting through our hands. It is futile to try to hold onto things beyond their season. We can’t. This may seem depressing at first but it is freeing. It frees me to live fully in the present. When I am reminded through tragedy that my children are not mine, it shatters the illusion of perfection and control and frees me to live intentionally in the now. Living as an expat means building close relationships with people who ultimately move away. Having friends who may move to another continent next year forces you to live in the present, enjoying your friends, savoring dinners together and evenings spent laughing and sharing one another’s company. Living in the present sounds too touchy-feely for grown up actual professionals to practice, but it is a gift each of us can give ourselves.

Accomplishment Is Meaningless.

No matter what you are working on, it probably isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. In ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now, will it really matter? Will it even be remembered? Without looking it up, who won the World Series five years ago? Who played Donna in the original London production of Mamma Mia? Who won the Nobel Peace Prize ten years ago? Who won the men’s 100-meter race in the track and field competition in the Beijing Olympics? My point is not to make light of those accomplishments, but rather to demonstrate how fleeting fame and accomplishment really are. There is a good chance that what you are working on today at the office is significantly less important than any of the accomplishments listed above. If you can’t remember those accomplishments, will anyone really remember yours? Give yourself the freedom to enjoy your life rather than clinging to possessions, status, titles, and accomplishments that are only temporary anyway.

The death of a child is a reminder that life is precious and short. We have been entrusted with a gift more priceless than anything money could ever buy – time with family and friends. You are ultimately responsible for your work-life balance. No job, no boss, no coworker makes you live an unbalanced life. You do. You are writing a story with your life. Make it a good one.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.

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