“On Grief, Inside Out, and Resiliency”

The past three years my family has been impacted with an extraordinary amount of loss and change. This essay is an attempt at outlining the connections I’ve started to see between grief, OODA loops, mindfulness, and system and psychological resiliency. It sounds like such grab bag! A sad attempt to find something out of the pain. Maybe so. In any case, apologies in advance for this essay, and thank you for reading, if you do.

Inside Out

Have you seen “Inside Out”? In the movie, Riley, a healthy, happy 11 year old, experiences disruptive change due to their family’s move to a new home. Understandably, the stress of the move causes conflict among Riley’s emotions. Her family inadvertently makes matters difficult by invalidating those emotions. In one case her mom tells her to fake how she feels for her father’s sake. As a consequence, Joy and Sadness are lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving behind only Anger, Fear and Disgust to navigate the world. Riley runs away, almost leaving on a bus, to what would have likely been disastrous consequences.

Only by regaining access to the fullness of her emotions, her Sadness most importantly, is she able to be resilient and adapt to the change she’s going thru.

Resiliency, Executive Function, and OODA Loops

Resiliency is a property of all systems, organizations, and people. There are many definitions, specific to the context they are used in. I am going to use a rather abstract definition for my purposes, apologies (again!):

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to disruptive change, retain what is essential, and move forward.

Many have said the loss a loved one, sudden or not, is like a punch in the gut. Your fight/flight/freeze response fires, sending signals to your mind and body, as it takes the blow, and absorbs the shock, to prepare for the next immediate hit. You bend over, protecting your soft parts. Your breathing tightens. Your vision narrows, making things more black and white, more sharp. There’s a cost to staying this hyper vigilant though, a physical and mental toll that takes resources from you, and your executive functioning gets squeezed.

To go on the offensive, to learn, or make a change, you will need to allow yourself some vulnerability once again; to observe things clearly, to make decisions, and to act, instead of merely react.

United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd coined a term for this, calling it the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). It describes the cycle you go thru to survive uncertainty in a changing environment. In order to be resilient and adapt, it’s crucial to be able to observe clearly and interpret your predicament. In order to adapt to change, you need to be mindful and aware.


Being Vulnerable, Being Open, Moving Forward

The sudden loss of a loved one, and its response, makes this difficult. With time, and help, you learn to open up once again, arms falling at your sides. Making vulnerable the soft parts. Allowing Sadness and Joy their roles. Incorporating the Joy of the person you loved into your memories, while recognizing the Sadness of the loss.

Otherwise, you grow unhealthy, physically and mentally. Eventually losing the ability to see clearly, a fight/flight/freeze response triggered by the slightest of shadows or whispers. PTSD, and Complicated Grief, here we are.

Moving forward doesn’t mean “snapping back”. Our relationships change us. Their absence changes us. How that change carries in us, and how we are able to interpret it, makes a difference.

There isn’t a “snapping back” to a previous state. That isn’t possible. There is no ”moving on”. But hopefully, there is a going forward.

Bringing it back to Riley, and us

So, imagine if you were Riley, and you got off the bus, and on the way home got a text message that your aunt died (this movie just got _grimdark_). Maybe you still made it home, but then a then couple weeks later, another close aunt passes away. Then a month later, a neighbor. Then a grandfather, and then…did your eyes just blur over then? Me too.

Throw into the mix a lack of people in your life to share your grief with, like Riley, an only child, whose family, rather than meeting you where you are, and sitting in the pain with you, instead attempt to fix things, or deny the reality of things, because they too, are hurting from _their_ grief.

Well, to spell it out, recently, our family has had a run of “Inside Out” events, one or more occurring every few months, for a stretch of three years, starting with Shell’s sister Rose passing away, and just a short while ago, her Uncle, Dad, and then my brother Al, doing the same in quick succession. In all, six members of our family, and one friend, passed away with little time to breathe in between. Amidst all this, some family moved far away, and we moved to a new home.

Counting upon your perspective, two uncles, two aunts, a mother, a father, a daughter, a husband, two grandfathers, and two siblings have passed away. It just sounds so unreal cataloging it, all this loss to navigate, and adapt to, during three short years.

Our hearts left reeling, feet without footing. Some days it still feels like a storm that’s hard to believe will ever let up.

What’s helped?

The following is a list of pithy practices, that may not apply to anyone, that we’ve been learning how to do, more or less, in our home:

  • Eat right, sleep right, and stay active
  • Keep faith, have hope, and practice love and kindness for yourself and others (Inspirations: 1 Corinthians 13 and Mr. Rogers)
  • Practice mindfulness:
    • Listen to ourselves, uncritically, and to each other – don’t invalidate feelings. Banish shame
  • Seek out help (therapists, doctors, support groups, books, music, and friendship).
  • Drink water.
  • Express gratitude, often.
  • Laugh.
  • And take it a day at a time.

It goes without saying, most days we slip on a few of these. Some days, many! And if we were dealing with greater financial or health struggles, it would be all the more difficult. I believe these are skills, which we’re still learning (especially me), and they help keep our own internal OODA loops from breaking down *too* far.

Everyone is hard on themselves. We can’t control the cards we are dealt. So I pray to get better every day, and that that the cards are favorable for a bit for all my loved ones.

Hopefully writing this doesn’t tempt fate.

Resiliency Analogs for Engineering Teams

Change is constant, no matter where you work, but I believe even more so for software engineering teams. Change brought about by rapidly evolving requirements, or environments, immediate change brought on by system or dependency failure, upstream and down, or surges in demand. How teams and systems can deliver value, adapt to change, and be resilient to demand or failure, largely determines their success. Do we learn, do we incorporate what we learn into how we work? I believe I’ve been part of a few teams over the years that exhibit these properties, most recently, the team that develops the APIs supporting Comcast’s Xfinity Stream. What follows are some cultural elements and practices, that have helped us adapt to change, and deliver value:

  • Having an ownership culture where teammates are encouraged to improve how we work.
  • Having a Devops culture, where everyone takes part in operations and deployments.
  • Practicing CI/CD, where we perform multiple, small releases weekly, sometimes daily, keeping risk minimal, with a massive automated test suite all team members contribute to.
  • Working in Kanban-influenced style: anyone can take any work that is incoming. Work continuously flows in and out of the org.
  • We actually watch Work In Progress limits!
  • API design that enables teams upstream and down to evolve at paces they require.
  • Adopting infrastructure-as-code (really anything-as-code) techniques to enable our team to apply the same peer-review/test infused process to infrastructure, as we do our applications. Infrastructure delivery is the same CI/CD process as our apps.
  • Peer review is accompanied by peer support. You’re never out on a limb alone on this team and we support each other’s success. It’s a team.
  • Having leadership who encouraged these properties, practices and cultural qualities.
  • Lastly: encouraging psychological safety. Whether it be running blameless postmortems when issues occur, to how we work as collaborators, not competitors, we have a challenging, fun team. When it’s safe to be honest, it’s easy to pursue improvement.

Wrapping Up

I’m thankful for the health I have, the work I have, and the people I work with. The therapists we’ve engaged with. All the friends and family who have reached out, given unexpected hugs, or a kind word. All these are privileges, without which any lessons offered probably has no weight at all. And most especially Richelle, my partner day by day, who keeps us in the here and now, and the tomorrow, in faith, hope and love.

Here’s to today, and to tomorrow.