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Back to Work

August 29, 2017
Back to Work

Tips for getting back into the workforce after losing a spouse to cancer, from Trish Pergament, Many vs  Cancer supporter.

Some people say that everything happens for a reason; other folks think that stuff just happens.  Trish Pergament’s husband Doug was 44 when the trouble started. He was strong, healthy and in shape; none of it made any sense to Trish. “Even though his prostate was huge, they said that they didn’t run PSA tests on men under 50, so they gave him antibiotics.”  After a few failed attempts at treatment, Trish finally got the doctors to run that PSA test on Doug: it clocked in at 1068. Doug was diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 prostate cancer; he was given nine months without treatment, three years with, to live. Trish and Doug were devastated.

Trish still lives in the same house in the same suburb in Michigan where she and Doug made their life with their two children, now ages 12 and 16. “The summer before Doug died he was feeling sick all the time. He was falling and not telling anyone. The cancer spread to his brain.”  Their son was becoming a Bar Mitzvah in the fall, and Doug really wanted to be able to walk and participate in the celebration.  PCF researcher Dr. Ken Pienta helped the family get through a series of medical hurdles, and Doug was there to make his speech to his son.

About 2 months before Doug died, at the prior suggestion of a therapist, Doug and Trish sat the kids down to let them know what was coming. “Doug had been sleeping in the basement, because it was less chaotic down there. We told them all together in his bed. They just burst out crying. We sat there for like an hour, and everyone cried. Doug got to say everything he wanted to say. He wanted the kids to know it was ok to be happy and have the best life. Then we dried our tears and got the kids right back into their routine.”

In February of 2013, Doug passed away from advance prostate cancer.  It wasn’t until about two years after Doug’s death that Trish started to realize she may run into financial difficulties without working.  “The funny thing is, all these years, we had done pretty well, but we didn’t account for how to raise two young kids, pay for health insurance for 10-15 years, college, and still be able to retire? I started to feel a little more emotionally stable and that’s when I realized I needed to work now, because at 60 I would not be marketable and my financial situation would not be good.”

So with 20 years of experience under her belt in HR and Purchasing at GM, Trish began her search. “I didn’t think it would be so hard, but it was. I looked and looked and tried and tried.  I used connections.  I got interviews –  they went nowhere, even though I had experience and a degree.  I didn’t know what I was going to do.”  Finally after about 18 months of searching, Trish found an administrative role after a friend mentioned a posting she saw on her local community web site.  With steadfast determination on Trish’s part, this turned out to be her door.  Something Trish and her friend had talked a lot about; when it’s your door, it will open. Having faith is important.

Trish emphasizes that our system is not set up well for women (or men) who are trying to get back in the workforce after an extended period.  “I went into the whole process really confident, knowing I could do a good job; but after I kept getting shut down, I started losing confidence. It was mentally difficult.” Now that’s she’s found a job, she says it’s like riding a bike.  To get there, Trish has these 10 tips for women who are considering returning to work after losing a spouse to disease.

  • Target your skills to multiple different roles and do your best to make a personal connection with the recruiter or hiring party. “Tell your story, but keep it short and don’t overdo the obvious sad parts. Just enough to make a personal connection and explain where you’ve been, where you want to be and what you can do.  The goal is to eventually connect with someone enough so they will want to give you a chance.”
  • Use your connections. “You can’t let your talents shine if you can’t get through the door.”
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate. “I was interested but they weren’t paying well. If you need more, you have to ask.  You don’t know until you ask and you have nothing to loose if you can’t afford to work for what they are paying.”
  • Be persistent. “It’s not always easy. It can hurt your confidence to hear no no no but you can’t give up.”
  • Make sure the job makes sense for your financial situation. “If I had taken a part time job or a low paying job with no health insurance, the income would have thrown us off our medicaid health insurance. If I had to buy my own insurance I would pretty much be working for nothing.”
  • Let people in. Trish notes that she was never the kind of person that reached out for help, or accepted it. Now, she’s had to become a person who can actually ask for help.  “Let the neighbor fix a sprinkler or bring a meal, they actually feel good doing it and you need the help” she notes.
  • Build a support system. “I have a group of moms I share rides with for sports and another neighbor I can count on as a backup if all else fails. Knowing my kids can still participate in what they love to do makes me happy.”
  • Be open to new connections. “Sometimes, when the going gets rough, it’s not the people you thought you would lean on who become your greatest resources. “
  • Offer to help. “It’s important to be a person who gives as well as receives.” Take what you learned about giving and offer it back. “People are embarrassed to ask for help. Don’t say ‘Let me know if you need anything; just do it. ‘I’m coming over, and I’m bringing dinner or taking the kids to a movie, etc.’
  • Get involved. “Every year, I wanted to do a prostate cancer walk but I was so busy with the kids and getting my life in order. I joined Many vs Cancer as a way to honor Doug and to make a difference in a way I hadn’t been able to do.”

Trish says that now that her husband gone everything feels like a transition, everything feels like work. Still, she keeps moving forward. “It’s easy to give up and feel sorry for yourself, but I have kids that are watching everything I do. I want them to have the best life possible, so I try to stay positive. It doesn’t mean you don’t have bad times, but you have to keep trying to see the positive side of things until the negative days become less and less.  It’s a lot of work but after a while it becomes more natural.”