The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you deal with personal distractions while pursuing your career?” is written by Ora Pescovitz, M.D., senior vice president and U.S. medical leader of Eli Lilly and Company.
As a physician and healthcare executive, it’s my job and mission to relieve suffering. But I didn’t know just how important my vocation would be in my own life until tragedy struck. My life was shattered on December 12, 2010, when my beloved husband, Mark, a transplant surgeon at the Indiana University School of Medicine, died in a car accident during a winter storm. He was 55 years old.
In an instant, I lost my partner of 31 years and our three children lost the father they adored—a man who mixed a brilliance for medicine with a quick wit and an exceptional zest for life. The grief that followed was overwhelming. My loving children, family, and friends gathered to “sit shiva,” as is our Jewish tradition. For seven days, we cried and laughed and remembered. We grieved, each of us in our own way.
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Then we had to face the world again. My children went back to work and graduate school, and I returned to my job—just two weeks after Mark’s accident—as CEO and executive vice president of medical affairs at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.
I realize that some may grieve by stepping away from their responsibilities for a while. But for me, plunging right back into work—hectic, complex work on behalf of patients—was just what I needed. It gave me a sense of purpose, and helped in other ways, too:
Work crises absorbed my attention
In overseeing a large budget and thousands of employees, there were always issues—big and small. Those problems helped me focus on productive solutions and forget everything else. At the same time, work challenges seemed less dire. I thought to myself: “I know what life and death issues are, and this isn’t one of them.”
I relied on a support system
Working in a hospital system, people knew how to help; they knew about the stages of grief. A psychiatrist on staff approached me and insisted that I meet her for breakfast and accept her help. To this day, I’m grateful for her kind and honest guidance. No matter where you work, the key in times of terrible grief is to reach out to those you trust—and then accept their support.
It put things in perspective
All around me, I saw people suffering from devastating diseases and losses, many without the support system and resources that I was fortunate to have. Caring for others in need helped me begin to heal my own pain.
Community service filled the gaps
I threw myself into causes that I admire. That year, I chaired the fundraising campaign for the United Way of Washtenaw County in Michigan. In redoubling my charitable efforts, I savored the chance to focus on others. While working in healthcare helped me through my worst days, I believe that any kind of meaningful work contains this healing ability.
Slowly, joy returned
Our family believes in tikkun olam, a Jewish principle that tells us to “repair the world.” Diving back into work and community service after Mark’s death—and continuing that noble mission today at Eli Lilly and Company—fits perfectly with the way my family lives, works, and sees the world.
There was a time when I thought I’d never experience joy again. I had met Mark in September of 1974, when we were both students at Northwestern University. It was a day before my 18th birthday. Since then, Mark was a part of nearly everything that I associated with joy: my children, gorgeous places in the world, and opera, just to name a few.
Yet slowly but surely, joy has returned. I have found a new rhythm to life. Our children are happy and successful in their careers. We’ve had two weddings, followed by the birth of three darling grandchildren.
And my work continues to soothe the pain. Every day, I’m reminded that as we help patients who are suffering, we make our own lives better, too.