A big thank you to the industry in my time of grief

When my wife passed away last year, and in my whirlwind of grief since, my agency and the wider industry have made a dreadful time more bearable.

My wife, Ella, died on 14 November 2019 at the age of 32. She was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in the February while she was seven months pregnant with our first son, Teddy, who was born at the start of April.

That’s some opening to my first published article…

It was without doubt the hardest year of my life. 

ALCL is a rare, aggressive but typically treatable disease. Ella initially responded very well to the treatment and, as we had never entertained the notion of Ella not beating the cancer, it was a hammer to our hearts when after the fifth of six chemotherapy rounds it was noted that the cancer had become resistant to the drugs. We had a number of options still to play with and we tried them all. The cancer just grew too quickly and no matter what we or the fantastic medical team at University College Hospital threw at it, the cancer always seemed one step ahead.

But fear not, reader, this is not an article that sets out to depress. On the contrary – I would like to spend the rest of your time telling you what it feels like to work for a company and an industry that, when it is properly tested, really is human first. More than anything, this is a letter of love and gratitude. 

I had started at R/GA just three months before the diagnosis at the start of December 2018. So, just halfway through my probation, I dropped the news to the R/GA executive team and some of the colleagues I had been working closely with that Ella and I were about to be really put through the ringer. 

Over the course of the following seven months, there were frequent consultations with doctors, some paternity leave and time when I just needed to be with Ella and my young son. There were times when we were positive and there were obviously times when the news was less hopeful. Then there was the god-awful run-up to Ella’s passing and the following period in which I find myself – that of a grief that ebbs and flows like the Thames tide. 

I love to torture an analogy and in dark times such as these I have a predilection for pontification. As far as I am concerned, life is like a steady and slow walk up a mountain – one of life's great feelings is to reach the top of a mountain and look at the incredible view, and this is my best guess at what it may feel like the whole time at the great big party in the sky.

Along life's path, you walk next to your family, your friends, the people you work with. You carry on your back the things that are important to you and the things that sustain you. At some points along the walk, you will become weak for reasons you cannot control. Without hesitation, those walking with you stop to help lighten your load and give you a crutch to support yourself with. You are given the space to look back on the path and see how far you have come and think of all the memories you made with the people who walk with you. You take your time to gather your strength and then you turn back towards the mountain. Your friends help you do this because they know that along the way they will need you to do the same for them. You never walk alone.  

This is honestly what it felt like to be supported by the R/GA family. They were the embodiment of love and support. At every turn, they always said to me it is family first and, although I knew it, to hear it said brings relief. I knew the structures R/GA has in place and the type of people who are attracted to work in this industry meant, when I had to be with my wife, sometimes with just a moment’s notice, my colleagues would close around me, making sure that no balls were dropped.

Similarly, after Ella died, I was given as much time as I wanted before returning to work. I even tried to come back to work in mid-December and they just said things were slowing down in the lead-up to Christmas and that they’d see me when I was ready in 2020. 

The mental security and space that this gives you is simply invaluable. I am under no illusion that this meant I would have put my colleagues under greater strain as they picked up my slack. That is a gift that I will be more than happy to repay when any one of the people I work with gets pulled into a maelstrom beyond their control. On reflection, I know I would have been treated exactly the same at any of my previous agencies: TBWA, 72andSunny and Sunshine. 

This is because we work in an industry that maintains thoroughly modern workplace values, progressive employee policies and people who know that when the rubber truly hits the road, the work doesn’t come first – life does. These values allow people from all sorts of backgrounds to work together under a shared vision of the work we want to do and how we want to do it.

The policies are often invisible, only to show themselves in times of need. But it is the people who put these values and policies into action who most deserve my deep, deep gratitude. When they look you in the eye, see and feel your pain with you – they are the ones who go into battle for you. If you think you work at a place that wouldn’t behave like this, you might want to consider your choice of employer. Because sometimes life happens while you are at work and, without the actions and support of everyone at R/GA, a dreadful time would have become unbearable.

I am grateful that I was treated with the utmost kindness, empathy and respect by those around me at work. I was given the time and space to be with my wife as she fought right until the end. Then I was and continue to be supported as the whirlwind of grief carries me away to unknown lands.

As I plot my path home, regaining a semblance of the person whom I thought I was before this nightmare unfolded, the people who work in this industry will be the arm around my shoulder and the wind at my back. For that, I will always be grateful, and no matter how my career evolves I will forever be the greatest ambassador for our industry and for my R/GA home. 

Justin Martin is client services director at R/GA London
Picture: Getty Images

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