How This Woman Channeled Immense Grief To Launch Her Business


I just recently moved and was rummaging through some old journals. As I was reading some of what I wrote over the past 17 years, I realized that opening my own business was something I often thought about. There were lots of ideas: skin care products, spas, boutiques, there was even a thought about opening a microbrewery. For a long time, those ideas all stayed in journals. I always found a way to talk myself out of moving forward. Fear was probably the reason. Fear of failure, fear of losing money or not having enough, and I am sure there were plenty of other excuses fueled by fear. I also had a very successful sales career in high-tech, a husband who loved to travel (how could I travel for weeks at a time and run a business) and an overall comfortable life. And then it all changed…

About Robin

I have been living and breathing fashion my entire life. I went to school for fashion and business management, determined to forge myself a career in the industry. Once I graduated, I started from the ground up, putting in my dues and gaining valuable insight along the way.

Robin Barrett Wilson

I began in retail management, then became a buyer, then a merchandiser, and, eventually, I turned towards the tech side of fashion, working alongside retailers (some of the best brands in the industry) to weave in software solutions that were right for their business. I have worked for and with some of the smartest people in their industry, from data-scientists developing AI solutions, to the most talented merchants and marketers. I have learned so much over the years that I have been able to take that knowledge and share it with others to help with their success. Truly rewarding.

In the prime of my career, I met and married my husband. It was love at first sight, at least for me. He was the love of my life. He was smart, funny and loved to travel. Our marriage was easy, supportive and loving. Filled with honesty and trust. He was my biggest cheerleader and advocate. He encouraged me to overcome my fears and take charge. From learning to ski at 32, to going after the career I wanted, to running ½ marathons, Michael was there for me. Always.

We learned of Michael’s illness in 2011, two months after we moved to North Carolina for his job. It was two days before Christmas when they discovered a blockage in his colon.

We had dealt with cancer before. A year after we were married he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that was easy compared to this. He had the surgery and recovered without chemo or any further treatment. This was not going to be the same outcome, this was stage 4. The cancer had already traveled to his liver and lymph nodes. Look up Stage 4 colon cancer on Cancer.org and you will see people who are diagnosed have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11 percent. Everything was about to change.

He had his surgery in January of 2012 and started chemo six weeks later. The side effects came quick. Everything tasted funny, the numbness in his hands and feet happened almost instantly and that damn chemo pump that came home with us for two nights in a row, every other week was a real downer. But in his normal fashion, Michael stayed positive, walked the dog daily and when he was ready he went back to work. Yes, he went back to work and he insisted I stay working, which I did.

Robin Barrett Wilson

What you don’t hear about is how much fear is coupled with this type of diagnosis. Of course, Michael was afraid. The chemo, side effects, how would he feel, etc. However, as the caretaker, I refused to express my fear. I wanted to be strong for him. I wanted to be the one who eased his discomfort and helped him cope. I came up with a plan, labels for pills, food I knew he would eat, clothing to keep him warm, journaling every doctor visit. I planned it all so we could collectively get over the fear.

We talked all the time about what was happening, we prepared for the inevitable and in the end (ten months after the surgery), he lost the battle. On a very quiet morning in October, two months after our 11th wedding anniversary, he left this world and me.

The New Normal

But I was prepared. Michael and I had discussed it all. The funeral, the estate and what I would do after he was gone. It was all wrapped up in a little package for me to execute and stay the course. Until I realized, I was completely devastated. The house was a shrine, I moved nothing. I drank and ate too much. I fell out of my routine of working out and socializing. I wanted to stay in the house and hide. I was afraid!

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis, and he was right. To show that I could handle the grief, I went back to work two weeks after his death. I wanted to escape, and working was the only thing I could think of doing. When my friends and family called, I lied about how I was doing. I wanted to be strong. All of this helped a bit, but not enough.

At some point, I realized I needed a plan. The fear and grief (although I couldn’t tell them apart) had me paralyzed. I decided I needed to find outside help. I needed someone who could “tell it to me straight” no matter what the thought or idea was.

It was a session with my counselor that pushed me forward, just a little bit. I was explaining how I had read all these books about being a widow (five to be exact) and every book said to do nothing the first year after a death. Don’t move, don’t make any big purchases, and keep everything the same. I thought my counselor was going to laugh herself silly. That was when she said, “Robin, there are no rules about grieving or what someone should or shouldn’t do after a loved one dies. Sell that house and move back to be with family”. You see, when we moved to NC, we knew no one. And then Michael died, so I was alone.

Robin's sketches

Overcoming my fear, I sold the house, downsized by selling some of my furniture and moved back to my home state, Rhode Island. A place I had promised, when I was 25 and moved away to pursue that fashion career, I would never move back to. Now here I was 45 years old, in an apartment and working a new job. Traveling every week and staying home on weekends, I found nothing had changed. I was still devastated and totally lost. I no longer loved my job (it seemed so meaningless) and I couldn’t find the motivation to get back to the person I used to be. Looking back, I know it was fear. Fear of starting over, of living without Michael, of not knowing what my future would look like.

Letting Go of Fear

I had to return to Montana to spread Michael’s ashes. It had been a bit more than a year since he had been gone and I found the trip to be therapeutic. Something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. I found myself dreaming again. Thinking about my future differently. I started to journal about starting a business in the fashion industry. I started to scout out locations, shop in local boutiques, and I started a business plan. Almost as if Michael was there encouraging me (Montana was his favorite place) to move past the fear and start again.

In November of 2015, I opened my boutique in Rhode Island. I also launched my website at the same time, not something I would recommend. For the first six months, I worked by myself in the store, skipped a salary, and worked on growing the business, a situation that would’ve once been very scary to me. When I think of what always held me back, fear comes to mind, but somehow, when it came time to make the dreams from my journal come true, fear was the emotion that propelled me forward.

As I stood in the store day after day, the strangest things happened. I would meet many women, all who had their struggles; cancer, parents with illnesses, children struggling to fit in, and other widows. I would find that during those moments, I had the ability to encourage and advise. To show that there is life again, although different. One encounter really stands out. This beautiful, 45-year-old woman came in looking for a dress. After talking, very briefly, she shared she had just lost her husband (colon cancer) six months prior. My breath caught, and I had to push back the tears. I ached for her. She was just starting (it had been three+ years since my loss) and I knew how hard this was going to be for her. I was afraid to say anything to this stranger. Who was I to share some insight? I didn’t want to offend, nor diminish her grief. But in the end, I said what I knew to be true. “You will always love him, you will always miss him, but you will get used to him not being there.” I was surprised at her smile. Her response, “Thank you, finally someone who isn’t telling me everything is going to be alright.”

As I locked up the store that night, I vowed never to forget that meeting. And since then, I have met quite a few women who have lost their husbands. Every time I am amazed and encouraged by their strength. I am also reminded that fear, something that once held me back is now something that drives me. I embrace it, plan, and move forward.

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Michael Bloomberg Can’t Handle A Woman With A Voice (aka Elizabeth Warren)

Elizabeth Warren majorly called out "arrogant billionaire" Michael Bloomberg for his history of silencing women through NDAs and closed-door settlement negotiations. Sound familiar? Probably because we already have a president like that. At this point, Bloomberg may just spend the remainder of his (hopefully) ill-fated presidential campaign roasting on a spit over a fire sparked by the righteous anger of women. A lesser punishment than he deserves, if you ask me.

At last night's Democratic debate, Michael Bloomberg could barely stammer out an answer to a question on whether or not he would release any of his former accusers from their nondisclosure agreements. His unsatisfactory response was basically a halting list of what he has done for certain nondescript women in his time at City Hall and within his own company.

But that certainly wasn't enough for Elizabeth Warren, nor should it be, who perfectly rephrased his defense as, "I've been nice to some women." Michael Bloomberg is basically that weird, problematic Uncle that claims he can't be racist, "Because I have a Black friend." In a society where power is almost always in the hands of straight, white, cisgendered, men being "nice" to a lucky few is in no way a defense for benefiting from and building upon the systematic silencing of all marginalized communities, let alone women. Stop and frisk, anybody?

Here is a brief clip of the Warren v. Bloomberg exchange, which I highly recommend. It is absolutely (and hilariously) savage.

But let's talk about the deeper issues at hand here (other than Warren being an eloquent badass).

Michael Bloomberg has been sued multiple times, yet each time he was able to snake his way out of the problem with the help of his greatest and only superpower: cold, hard cash. Each time these allegations have come up, in Warren's words, he throws "a chunk of money at the table" and "forces the woman to wear a muzzle for the rest of her life."

As reported by Claire Lampen of The Cut, here are just a few of his prior indiscretions.

  • Pregnancy discrimination—Bloomberg reportedly told a former employee of his to "kill it," in reference to her developing fetus.
  • Sexual harassment—You could literally write a book on this subject (someone did), but for the sake of brevity...
"I'd like to do that piece of meat" - Michael Bloomberg in reference to various women at his company.
  • Undermining #MeToo—Not only did he defend the accused, but he went on the disparage accusers every step of the way.
  • Defaming transgender people—Though he claims to support trans rights, he has also been qupted multiple times as referring to trans women as "some guy wearing a dress."
Yeah... That's not a winning formula for me, Mike.

Furthermore, Warren points out the simple fact that if, as Bloomberg claims, these instances were simply big misunderstandings (He was just joking around!) then why go to all the trouble to cover them up? Does Michael Bloomberg think women can't take a joke? Or can we only surmise that the truth of these events are far darker and dirtier than we could even imagine?

Certain commentators have called Elizabeth Warren's debate presence "agressive," especially in regards to this instance but also continually throughout her entire campaign. If asking poignant questions to known abusers who are seeking to further their own political power is considered "aggressive," then I am here for it. Bring on the aggressive women, please and thank you.

Calling a woman aggressive for being confidant and direct is a gendered complaint. You don't see anyone whining that Bernie is "aggressive" when he goes off on a screaming tangent. Also, have you seen our president? He's basically the poster boy for political temper tantrums. But still, it's Warren that is deemed "aggressive," for honing in on the exact issues that need to be considered in this upcoming election.

This type of derisory label is another aspect of how our society silences women—much like Bloomberg and his NDAs. Because "silencing" is more than just putting a "muzzle" on someone. It's refusing to listen to a person's cries for help. It's disregarding what a woman has to say, because she's too "aggressive." It's taking away someone's power by refusing to truly hear their side of the story. Because if you aren't listening, responding, or even just respecting someone's words, they may well have said nothing at all.

"Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard." - Renecca Solnit

Nondiscolusure agreements are a legal gag for people who have experienced harassment and abuse at the hands of those above them.

Gretchen Carlson, possibly the most famous person subject to an NDA, is one of these people. Her story is so well-known that it has even been immortalized on film, in 2019's Bombshell. Yet she is still forced to maintain her silence. She cannot tell her side of the story even when Hollywood can. She was cajoled into her current position after facing harassment in her workplace. She didn't have the power then to do more than accept her fate. And now, she doesn't have the power to tell her story.

She was, and still is being, silenced.

After her experiences, Carlson was moved to fight for all women to have the power over their truths. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times she declared: "I want my voice back. I want it back for me, and for all those silenced by forced arbitration and NDAs."

Carlson may still be tied to her NDA, but there are those who go a different route. Celeste Headlee, who wrote an op-ed on SWAAY about her experience, chose to break her nondisclosure agreement. Though doing so undoubtedly opened her up to numerous legal ramifications, she knew that she could no longer "sign away [her] right to justice."

Because that is what an NDA is all about, signing away a person's right to justice. Their story is their justice. Their NDA is a lock and key. Headlee may have broken through that lock, but she must face the consequences.

Neither Carlson nor Headlee are any less brave for how they have handled their journeys. They are both actively working to shift the cultural and political norms that led them here, and their work will, with hope and time, lead to real change. But they are just two drops in an ocean of women who are held hostage by their nondisclosure agreements, by men like Michael Bloomberg, and by a society that would rather silence them than let truth and justice be had.