Diana O’Neill – The Good in Goodbye

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Nelson Mandela

On December 12, 2017, I retired as Executive Director of the Long Island Volunteer Center (LIVC) after 20 years.  It was a symbolic date for me–the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Joan Imhof (the LIVC founder and my dearest friend) passed away on that day 6 years ago and we opened “Hope Floats” in her memory on that day 5 years ago to ramp up for Superstorm Sandy, which I consider the apex of my career in the volunteer industry.  That and the New York State Volunteer Generation Campaign grant secured in 2011 which named LIVC a NYS Regional Volunteer Center, putting LIVC squarely on the map.

While I stayed on as the Treasurer and a board member, retiring from day-to-day in the trenches with a purposeful view of advancing the human condition was very hard on me. For all those 20 years, I did the work as a volunteer.

My paid position was Office Manager to my husband Peter’s busy medical practice, a job I started in 1995, with a nine-year break when my sister took on the position—she gave it back in 2004.   The practice was acquired by a local hospital effective February 1, 2018. I was asked to stay on to help with the transition but was advised, due to conflict of interest, that no wives could work in the same practice (this was shared during the negotiations, but it didn’t fully register with either of us the full consequences from that directive).  So, not only no more “mom and pop shop”—no more “mom.”  The intensity of the transition, while exhilarating, ended abruptly on April 30, 2018, my last day associated with my husband’s life work. I felt totally heartbroken with a sense of loss that I couldn’t shake. Not only had my volunteer job gone away, but I was also relieved of duties by the state to support my literal “work husband.”  It was a double whammy in a four-month period. My comfort zones were completely abandoned.

What to do next? I threw myself into projects at home—organizing, decluttering, redecorating.  Next, I caught up on unread books, joined the local Rotary, volunteered at the Junior League Thrift Shop, traveled multiple times to my mother’s Pennsylvania home to help her downsize for an upcoming move to senior housing/assisted living, and signed up for Hofstra University’s adult education program which met four times a week.  Then the coup de gras happened when all the new-found frenetic busyness came to a grinding halt – on August 1st, I fractured my wrist while ice skating on a cruise ship. Thank goodness I was wearing a helmet, or this could have been a much worse situation.

Surgery that required plate/pins and something that looks like a gardening tool installed to hold the wrist together was needed. You cannot believe what you cannot do with this kind of injury.  The details are a bit humbling, so I’ll spare the reader. Suffice to say I was brought to my knees and the “pity party” continued in earnest with occupational therapy three times a week. It didn’t take long to realize, though, that all I really needed was downtime—to relax, renew, rejuvenate and embrace the day with whatever it brought.  The healing has been slow, but the self-introspection was necessary. Intention, gratitude, and hope have replaced the nostalgic sadness and uncertainties about the future which plagued me daily. Maria Shriver’s book “I’ve Been Thinking” also became a remedied source of inspiration.

There is a silver lining to this story which shows the interconnectedness of life circumstances. At a Rotary meeting in the fall that my husband and I attended, he introduced me to a doctor from the local hospital who was there to give a talk about programs and activities. I explained my background and that I was interested in finding another position in health care. He paved the way to reach a placement specialist in Human Resources who sized me up and immediately sent me over for an interview with the hospital welcome center (the person who was going to take a job there declined over the weekend right before I walked in at 10 am that Monday). The next day I was offered the job. What interested them in me was not just the time spent in medical practice, but also the years spent in the human service industry!  I started there January 7, 2019, and now I help connect the dots from the public to the hospital by getting individuals to needed programs and services to improve their quality of life. The office also organizes and runs supports groups that bring people together to bond and to heal. What a great fit for me! My new manager asked each staff member to select a word to reflect on throughout the new year that would be a goal to work toward. I chose “mindfulness.”

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”  I was so blessed to have had such rewarding professional life opportunities at both the LIVC and my husband’s office. The people I encountered along the way (like Joan Imhof, Lana Gluck, Anna Lyons, Anne Sprotte, Patricia Moynihan, Patricia Sands, Simone Leo, Patricia Force, and Valentina Janek to name a few) made me a better person, and the experiences from both settings yielded indelible memory markers.  It was a particular honor to support Gwen O’Shea (who then led the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island) ramp up to meet the needs from Superstorm Sandy—that work brought out the best in all of us. We felt the kind of sympathy that means, “I suffer with you.”  If I had to pick my one word for this region’s response to Superstorm Sandy, it would be “community”, how we unselfishly came together to help those in deep distress by pooling our strength and sharing the work and the responsibility.  I have never witnessed or experienced anything like it—manifestations of true camaraderie and genuine human kindness. It was the greatest privilege of my life to have a front-row seat at the LIVOAD (Long Island Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) Volunteer Recovery Center seeing all the myriad organizations easing human suffering together on such a grand scale.

The knowledge that being a volunteer doesn’t depend on what we do, what matters is that the exchange has been one of reaching out to be a partner in the human condition, in making that connection where you know something profound has happened. It’s not an ideal or intangible objective, it’s real life and certainly embodies the adage, “Volunteerism is not what you give, it’s not even what you get, it’s what you become.”

I have just a handful of learnings to pass on:

The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

Find that intersection of passion and purpose and live it out on purpose.

Faced with apathy, act.

Faced with conflict, seek common ground.

Faced with adversity, persevere.

Surround yourself with positive, thoughtful people.

Be kind.

Be grateful.

Find the good in goodbye.

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