Episode 100: Liesel Mindrebo Mertes
0:00 / 32:48
Mothers of Misfits00:01

Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode!

Emily Melious00:18

Hey everyone! Welcome back to another episode of Mothers of Misfits. I have been looking forward to this conversation for a long time and fun fact,

Liesel and I went to the same college Wheaton College. We graduated the same year and this is a little bit of a reunion for us! We didn't know each other too well back then, but, uh, it's been really interesting and fun to follow each other's journeys professionally, personally.

But let me tell you a little bit more about Lisa and then we'll dive in. Liesel Mindrebo Mertes is an acclaimed workplace empathy expert. Having experienced her own loss and struggle.

Liesel emerged with a deep understanding of what people need to feel supported after a disruptive life event. She's the founder of Handle With Care Consulting and she helps people survive, stabilize, and thrive in the aftermath of adversity. you were here with us today to talk about some tough stuff, but some really important stuff.

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes01:16

Thank you so much for having me and for all those watching, I am not always in dark glasses. But when I, uh, I'm having a little bit of an eye reaction, I am in dark glasses. So it may contribute to the mystery of the conversation, but still glad to be with you today.

Emily Melious01:35

Yes. And for anybody who knows Lisa or follows her on her social media, she's got amazing personal style. So she is rocking some amazing sunglasses, do they for, for very practical reasons. But honestly of anybody here could just pull that off as being, you know, just a regular thing. It would totally be you.

If you're listening and thinking, like, what do you mean watching you all? Um, if you don't know yet we are on YouTube. So if you like the idea of watching us have this conversation and not just hearing us, make sure to check out Mothers of Misfits on YouTube.

The loss of Mercy Joanie

Okay, Liesel, the topic of loss, uh, unfortunately is extremely personal to you. Do you mind telling us about Mercy Joanie?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes02:21

You know, thank you for asking. Um,

Mercy Joanie is our third of five children. She was born in 2011. Um, when I was right in the middle of, um, the first year of a business school program and we had known in advance that she had a birth defect that had this large fluid-filled sack on the back of her skull and there was this wide range of outcomes.

They didn't know if it would be operable with just mild cognitive impairment. If it was something that would be terminal. And so I spent, um, you know, the, those last 20 weeks with my husband and just hoping and praying, but, um, it ended up as she was born that any intervention would be doing things to her and not for her.

And so she lived, um, for just eight days and that's, that's a marking story in the history of our family. Um, loss also, um, has gradations to it. You know, my, my youngest, Moses who's seven now, he has um, uh, a completely unrelated condition. He has a congenital heart defect where he's missing one valve of his heart entirely.

And even yesterday we spent the day at the hospital just making sure that that valve didn't have an infection after dental work. So, um, Yeah, I know that for parents that are listening out there, um, there's grief that results in the death of a child. And then they are, um, griefs of things that you just wish were different.

Um, but they're what we walk with in our own lives, or in the lives of our people.

Emily Melious03:54

I'm so glad you brought that up. I was actually gonna ask you about that. Because oftentimes we grieve what we had envisioned as being our family life, our child's life, our child's future. And especially if you know what causes them to be a wonderful marvelous misfit is some more challenging things. Uh, you know, there's, there's absolutely still a loss there. Uh,

how in the world did you pick yourself back up? I mean, how did you pull back together the pieces? And at that point you had two young kids at home, right?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes04:29

I did, uh, and a husband and we didn't have any pets at that point in time. Um, I do want to answer that question, but just touch on, you know, what you said. Uh,

Unrealized Expectations

there's a slide that I show when I'm speaking to groups that says grief is unrealized expectation.

Um, and I feel like that's congruent with what you said so many times, it just, uh, we connected most, um, intuitively to death. But it's really like the death of expectations, which is an invitation for people to ponder how grief shows up in lots of different ways.

Um, You know,

How to get through difficult times

it's interesting how, how you phrase that? How did I pull myself back up? Um, because I think that that is like, uh, an American association with how we get through hard things. Like even the, the pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, um, sort of a concept and whether it's like a, just something that we ended up saying or deeply rooted in our psyche of what we expect of ourselves.

Um, there were elements of things that, um, That I did, but really I think that, um, for people who move through grief, the communal aspect of it is huge. You know, I had a lot of healthy and helpful people around me that, um, didn't like shame me or give all the dimensions of the toxic messaging that, um, can come through.

Like, why aren't you over this by now? Or um, I, I put names to this, like in my trainings. I talk about, um, the, the Cheer Up Cherrelle response pattern. Like, uh, why aren't you happy by now or Commiserating Candice, which is like, oh, I'm going to overwhelm you with my, um, sad story of grief.

So I had people who brought me meals, who let me cry. Uh, being outdoors is huge for me. I spent, um, a lot of time walking, um, and hiking in the Hills of Southern Indiana.

I think if you have the chance to, you know, I also like pretty brutally made space in my schedule to honor my grief. Um, you know, I remember even like setting my classes for the semester afterwards and, um, and just looking and I was signed up for like this really complex spreadsheet analysis.

And I was like, I don't want to do that. And I was like, I don't have to. And just honoring some of that space of being like, if I don't have to, I'm not going to, um, and, uh, to not monologue for too long, because you know, uh, I'll pause for a second, but like I'm still grieving.

Um, you know, even, we're now in March, like the day we were recording this. February um, was marked 11 years. Um, and while I'm not grieving in the same way.

The long term effects of grieving

I'm still grieving. Even to the level of like this eye thing, is a stress-related response of a old, you know, injury that I got when I was one or two years old. And it manifested itself right in the middle of that week, I threw out my back on the day that Mercy died 11 years later, um doing, doing stability exercises, you know, things like that.

So our body, um, keeps the score I'm at a different place, but, um, yeah it's not like it's, uh, uh, completely in the rear view mirror sort of.

Emily Melious07:47

Mhm. We had another guest on that talked about grief and, uh, she really helped me to see that it's contrary to what I, yeah, the way I phrased my question, which is really interesting the way you made me think about that. It's not something we get over. It's just something we learn to have in our lives and it evolves and it changes and we change, but it's, it's not a point in the past.

Um, and my mother-in-law actually also, um, birth the child who did not make it, but a couple of hours. Um, but she, you know, you can still see the pain and the loss of expectation. And, um, I actually, I wanna, I want to come back to talking about community,

How do you answer the inevitable question, "How many kids do you have?"

I am really curious. I asked you actually, when we were just chitchatting before recording, I said, remind me how many kids you have.

Is that a really tough question?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes08:42

Um, it depends on the context and I allow myself a fair amount of wiggle room in, um, how I answer that. Because I don't think that there's like a right answer or a right way for everyone. There are days where, um, you know, if I'm just in like a, a business round table and it's just moving around quickly that I feel like it's fine to say 4 kids, because they're wondering like who I'm driving to practice and how they're going to relate.

Interestingly enough, um, where that question feels most top of mind. And you know, sometimes it feels important, especially with people I'm going to know for a while to say, uh, I have five children, four of whom are living.

Um, but there, there were times, especially in that year or two afterwards, whereas like I did an internal check and I was like, I don't think I want to go into it right now. I'm just going to say I have, I have three children, you know, I didn't know. I had birthed all my babies at that point, but one of my younger living children would be with me, like right at my side.

And they would look at me they would say, no, you don't. You have, you know, at that point we had three, they would say, no you don't, you have four. What about mercy? Um, and you know, especially as you have a audience of parents. That was something for me that I specifically integrated in those interactions, because I think it communicates something to your living children.

Um, how you acknowledge and honor a child whose past, because depending on their stage of cognition and awareness, that's also signaling something, um, subtle and shaping to them about,

Well what if I wasn't here anymore? Would I just ceased to be? And, um, so that was, that was a nuance that I hadn't necessarily anticipated. It was important to them in the moment, uh, to acknowledge Mercy.

Emily Melious10:35

I got chills. When you said that your, your, um, younger child said, no, don't, don't forget about Mercy and how sweet, um, and pure, and, uh, you know what, a reminder that our, our little kiddos teach us oftentimes, so much more we teach them.

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes10:53

There are moments where the awareness of a child like that is sweet and beautiful, but just acknowledge for parents that are listening. There are also moments where it's just horrible to have to walk with a young child who's trying to integrate the reality of death and loss.

I had a child who was three and a half? Four? It was within six to eight months after Mercy had died. And were driving around and she just started to go through, um, are you going to die? Is Nana going to die? Is Papa going to die? And I was, yes, yes.

It felt important to me not to lie to them. she just started weeping and just like from her soul weeping and I don't want to have to watch all of you die. I don't want that to happen. Um, I had another child who his processing manifested itself and being absolutely terrified of dying. Just like I can't even be in a room by myself or when I think about dying, it was just terror.

Um, and moving through that, you know, the things that we read, the songs that we listened to, the teaching of self calming techniques. From, as a person of faith, to be able to say that is true. I don't think that that is ultimately the end, but yes, it's true. Yeah, those are hard things to do, especially when you're in the midst of your own grieving and you're feeling like I am actually personally compromised and wrestling with these things, but it's so important to address them with you.

So it's, it's been huge in their developments. And I wouldn't say that we've done it perfectly, but we've tried to do it purposefully along the way.

Advice for parents helping their kids navigate grief
Emily Melious12:39

So what's one piece of advice, I know there's a lot of advice, but if there's one thing that sticks out as most important for parents who are helping their kids navigate grief, what would that be?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes12:53

I think you should think about the long game of how you're communicating. Um, I think there's a gut level temptation to want to make promises to your children that you can't keep, you know, to, to set them up because you so want to reconstruct a sense of safety that has come under assault. To say things like, you know, when someone asks, are you going to die to say, I'm not going to die because you're thinking I'm not planning on dying in the next five to 10 years and by then you'll be older, but um, to really address that in a way, um, that doesn't set themselves up for. You know, what, even bigger disappointment of like you promise something that you can't deliver on.

Also to, to adjust. I had a child who needed to go into, um, some, uh, a developmental pediatrician. She was dealing with grief, um, and, and at that point, and still as like a general value for our family, I have wanted Mercy to be integrated, um, into things to, to feel like she's acknowledged that her is on the wall. Um, You know that she's not erased, but, um, the, the counselor that pediatrician put forward, like what if that is not good for this living child right now?

Like what if that is throwing her into a tailspin? Um, and, and just like bringing up all of these issues too often for her. I had to confront, uh, an immediate anger. I was so mad. This was like in the near the, the child wasn't in the room. It was just me and my husband. I was like, and said, I said, I hate that.

Like, I hate that you said that. Uh, I hate the thought I would have to do that. And you know, this living child, I was like, she's taking from our family, like her and her stuff, you know? And it, it was just a very raw response. And I had to like feel that, I had through that. I can still feel it, even as I say it.

Um, but to really look and be like, but actually my care right now is for these living children and in stepping back and doing things a little bit differently, you know, I confront my sense of like, are we losing something important, but it's care for her. And it doesn't have to always be with, that way.

So all that to say, like a willingness to do some self examination and be adjusting to the children that are in front of you is also important along the way. Because it was important for that child at that stage. And it doesn't look the same, you know, now as it did. And I really needed people to process through my like big emotions with, and that couldn't be my child.

Um, so doing that as well.

Emily Melious15:37

I appreciate you sharing that and just being vulnerable, this whole conversation, being vulnerable with us about the goods, the bads, and the uglies of what this, what this is, uh, and the need to get it all out,

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes15:49


Emily Melious15:50

what it is. Um, making sure we're being very real with ourselves and those around us in safe places in the right context of course.

How should community rally behind those grieving

So on that note, let's talk about community.

Because I would think, uh, that loss actually makes us retreat from community. And your speaking about how loss should propel us into community. Uh, how, how do we get ourselves to want to be in community where, we may just want to be alone?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes16:27

I do think that grief is one of the most profoundly isolating of emotions, uh, and I'll follow with and yet. But in the level of isolation, because no one will know, no one has the relationship that you had with the person who's lost. Um, so there's the sense, there's this always like I can go so far with you but not further

Even, even with like an intimate partner or a sibling, like, um, and because people are at different moments. You know, I, in a journey of loss might want to just be by myself. My husband might feel like it's really important for me to be with. It can cause these huge disconnects of like we're at totally different places and you are supposed to be the person who gets me more than anyone.

What, you know, whatever relational dynamic you can suddenly. You know, it's not only that you're missed, but you can pour all of this emotion into it. So I don't necessarily think, especially in early grief that the onus is on the grieving person to be in, like it should propel you into community. It should be a signal to community to be able to give care to the effected individual.

Um, I think it was in Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, I don't think it was, it's it's their graph, but, but I first saw the image there and it was of these, these concentric circles of, um, you know, affect. If you're closest to the interior, you've suffered the most profound grief and loss. And then maybe, uh, exterior to that, our extended family members who have also, you know, in my case, grandparents, who've lost their grandchild.

Uh, next level out, maybe coworkers, you know, they, they know they're affected, but that care should uh, flowing inward from the outermost levels know, to pour in towards the people most effected. And I think for community. um, when you see someone who's going through something hard, especially in our American context, we, we, um, we are ill acquainted with grief.

We don't have cultural touchstones. We don't wear black anymore. We don't like all go see the body. We don't have these community links.

We're profoundly out of our depth and we don't teach people how to do it. We just wish it would go away. It's like sanitized. Um, so that's, that's one part of the work that I do, like in businesses and with individuals is to realize that actually loss is one of the most common human experiences.

And in, when we can clear some of these like behavioral, you know, um, roadblocks within our own story of like stupid things that people said to us when we had you know lost someone that we're just reduplicating because we're uncomfortable. Um, and, and to look at some of those things, And to realize like actually when people go through a hard time, um, a deep fear is that they will be completely alone in this. No one will get me. No one will move towards me.

Um, I can only carry it myself. And that actually ways to meet people in that fear and alleviate some of it aren't half as complicated or hard as we make them out to be when we're just stuck in our own heads.

Emily Melious19:32

And honestly, that's a lot of my vision and heart behind this podcast is because we can feel pretty lonely when our kids are misfits for one reason or another. And, and we can feel like we're alone, um, in our advocating for them. In our experience. And having, you know, this is a community of moms, but I love that you say the onus is on the community to rally around the person, not for the person to go seek out community.

But let's be real. Like you were talking about. It feels really awkward because we aren't given these skillsets. And what's great about what you teach about is that, um, empathy isn't just a personality trait, or isn't at all. It's a skillset, but we didn't have that class in college or in high school or in life. Right? And most of us, what we know to do is sweep it under the rug.

Right? So that means we create so much, I'll speak for myself, a lot of awkwardness around somebody who's grieving. So

What can we say or do for those who suffered a loss?

how can we be better friends, colleagues, family members, to someone who just suffered a loss? And maybe even more specifically to someone who just suffered the loss of a child?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes20:46

Yeah. Having a learner's mindset is a great heading into this conversation. Like I teach this stuff, I get paid to do it. I continue to learn and iterate and grow in this, um, baseline. I would say um, doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. There, there, there are some things that are like you know, toxic or like judgemental... those are not the things.

But like, if you think, oh, should I say something or should I just be quiet? I don't want to make it worse. Even saying something like, it's hard for me to even know what to say right now, but this seems so horrible. And I just wanted to let you know, I'm so sorry.

Like even that basic is better than saying nothing. Um a text, I am, I'm thinking of you in this hard time. And especially when we're talking about death, but it's not just death. It's, you know, any sort of thing. There are always people that are listening and I, I can see it. Like I can see the connections they're making and sometimes they say it like, they're thinking like, Oh, my gosh, I totally dropped it with so-and-so three weeks ago.

Um, I, I would want it to be there. I wasn't, I was too busy. I was too awkward. There's also the realization of like, um, grief is not like a momentary intersection in your story. And then it's done, um, follow up, like, you know what? I wanted to say something a month ago and I just didn't. And I'm sorry, I want to check in, um, and just tell you, I'm thinking about you.

Okay. Practical things. Don't say, me know how I can have. That feels like a good thing to do.

And it's better than nothing. Don't say that because somebody who is going through something hard, they are just trying to survive and like have clean underwear for their people and all these basic levels.

What, what you're actually asking is for them to do some of the creative imaginative work of like, okay.

How could you help? Then what if they asked you to do something that you don't want to do? What if they say like, could you let my dogs out and you hate dogs? Much better to offer something specific and tangible.

And this will require doing self-inventory. What are things that you can give? And that you're good, like maybe you make great bread. Maybe you can buy somebody a gas card because they're driving back and forth to the hospital. Uh, we were at the hospital with Moses yesterday. Somebody texted me who in my school community.

And she was like, can I make lunches for your kids tomorrow to save you the hassle? And I was like that, what a fantastic thing. Yeah. I don't really want to be making lunches. So just thinking specifically, maybe you're like an acts of service person and it's fall and the leaves have come down and, you know, somebody is just like in the thick of it and you're like, can I come over and rake your leaves?

It's easier now than ever. I, again, we were in the hospital yesterday this morning, somebody sent me a Grubhub, $50 you know gift card, um, and said, hey, I just want to help, you know, probably with dinners, you'll be a little behind. So, um, offer something specific instead of saying, can I do anything to help? Is one really like actionable thing you can do.

Emily Melious24:05

Yeah, you just blew my mind with that. I am so guilty of... let me know if there's anything I can do to help you. Cause I think I'm trying to be fragile or, you know, um, I'm trying not to be pushy, but yeah, I I'm totally putting the onus back on them. And uh, I'm even applying this, not just to, uh, serious, difficult life events, but happy ones like the birth of a child, which are still very disruptive and we have good friends that just had their second child.

And rather than saying, hey, let us know if you need help. Um, actually I did say, can I come and get your older son and take him bowling so that the three of you could just have some family time? But there are definitely plenty of times where it's kind of like, let me know, and I'm going to make sure that I, I get more specific and that I choose the thing that I know I can do well and that I want to do.

That's a good, that's actually just a really good point there too, because if we leave it open-ended it really, it doesn't benefit any of us.

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes25:06

And it could set you up for something that you don't really want to deliver on. It's actually really freeing to know what you're good at and what you can deliver on. Uh, and then on the backend, don't be personally invested in whether they take you up on it or not. You might offer something like, hey, I I'd love to take your son bowling.

And they actually might really want to be having family time or something like that. It's something like as you get deeper into it, It's it can be like relationally messy. If you're someone who you're trying to do good job. And you're like, I offered something specific. I try to be a good friend and you're not taking me up on it.

So you're not signaling back to me that I'm a good friend. Like just realize they've got a lot going on and they might take you up on it. They might not. And if they don't, that's an invitation for you to offer maybe again in a week, the same thing, maybe something different in a couple of days. But like again, those concentric circles, you're probably the more stable one. Act like the more stable one.

Um, in a unrelated, non endorsed post. One of my favorite things to do lately has been these mini cupcakes Baked By Melissa. People love these mini cupcakes. They ship anywhere in the US they're close enough to my price point of what I'd want to send, but, um, they've been great. I figure, who doesn't want like a delightful array of, you know, 25 cupcakes that they can eat all themselves or share depending on how they feel.

Emily Melious26:30

I love that. Yes, we will have to go find those cupcakes then link to those in the episode insider's newsletter. So my last question for you is. Let's put this in the workplace space, because I feel like a lot of the things we've talked about, feel more, more natural, more easy in a family or a friendship, but at work, a colleague, that gets hairy.

Right. And we're all, I think just hyper mindful of what we say and how much we're getting involved in each other's personal lives. Are the strategies any different? Should we still say something over not saying something? Should we still offer to help with something specific? What is it, how does that change or not change?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes27:16

Well, the great thing about, uh, the workplace setting is you're still working with people and there is a, a through line that is there. And the reality is also, I mean, the pandemic has only, um, know, increased churn. But like, we're, we're more enmeshed with like life involving work and being all involved. So yes, there specific like um, concerns that are addressed with HR parameters of the workplace. And that's like a whole, uh, conversation to unpack, but still. Doing something is better than doing nothing. And I'll close with just, um, like, like a closing image, because sometimes at work, people are really concerned of like, uh, I'm not a trained counselor.

I don't want to get into legal trouble. It's like all of these mental pivots that move us away, um, from people and the reality is like we can be workplace first responders at an level. And what that, how that's helpful is a work response. A first responder is someone who has like a basic skillset that can help physically stabilize you to the next level of care. In reaching out to people, in acknowledging the loss that they've had.

You know, I, I know that you're going through the divorce right now and you're still in the thick of it. I imagine that's a lot on your plate. Is there anything that would be, is there any project that I can take right now that would be helpful? Or you know, I, I know that your, your child is in the hospital all last week. I am so sorry. That is just exhausting.

Statements like that. This is like, the skillset of a first responder that can help just stabilize them in the workplace. That doesn't mean that you have to be. You know, in the physical realm, first responders, not orthopedic surgeon, not ambulance driver, like they know the extent of their training.

In the social and emotional realm. We're trying to do the same sort of thing. You are not someone's pastor, their rabbi, their small group leader, their psychologist. Um, they might need all of those things. Or they might not, just like with a first responder. Or maybe somebody gets an ACE wrap and they're fine. Maybe they need a total knee reconstructive surgery.

But if you can just help with that stabilizing care, those create workplace spaces people they're attractive, they retain people and you know that the data points at work. Whether it's being published in Harvard Business Review or Forbes, like are craving this and it's really in the midst of this great realignment, um, influencing their workplace choices.

Emily Melious29:50

When, as you said so many times, that loss is a great equalizer for all of us and COVID exaggerated that and helped us to see the need for these kinds of conversations for giving us skillsets to deal with grief and the loss of what's expected even more so now, more than ever.

How to work with Liesel

Liesel, for those that want to learn more about you and the amazing work that you're doing, how can they do that?

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes30:18

You can check out my website, which is LieselMertes.com. Uh, I'm also the host of a podcast it's called Handle With Care, Empathy At Work. And it's where we talk about stories of disruption at work and tips to make you a better manager, coworker or friend. So that's linked on the website. You can also find that you get your favorite podcasts.

So, um, yes. Handle With Care Consulting.

Emily Melious30:42

Yeah, you can check that out and Liesel has got some great videos out there. You can watch those. Definitely want to check out her podcast and we'll be sure to link to all of that in your Episode Insiders Newsletter, which is the email that we send out every time we drop a new episode on Tuesdays. So you get all the stuff about our guests, extra resources, all these links to make sure you're signed up for that on MothersOfMisfits.Com. Liesel. Thanks again, I have just been enriched by this conversation today, and I know that's true of everyone listening.

Liesel Mindrebo Mertes31:14

Thanks, Emily.

Emily Melious31:16

Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. We also invite you to visit us at MothersOfMisfits.com!