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.

3 Min Read

Help! Am I A Fraud?

The Armchair Psychologist has all the answers you need!

Help! I Might Get Fired!

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

What's the best way to be prepared for a layoff? Because of the crisis, I am worried that my company is going to let me go soon, what can I do to be prepared? Is now a good time to send resumes? Should I save money? Redesign my website? Be proactive at work? Make myself non-disposable?

- Restless & Jobless

Dear Restless & Jobless,

I'm sorry that you're feeling anxious about your employment status. There are many people like yourself in this pandemic who are navigating an uncertain future, many have already lost their jobs. In my experience as a former professional recruiter for almost a decade, I always told my candidates the importance of periodically being passively on the market. This way, you'd know your worth, and you'd be able to track the market rates that may have changed over time, and sometimes even your job title which might have evolved unbeknownst to you.

This is a great time to reach out to your network, update your online professional presence (LinkedIn etc.), and send resumes. Though I'm not a fan of sending a resume blindly into a large database. Rather, talk to friends or email acquaintances and have them directly introduce you to someone who knows someone at a list of companies and people you have already researched. It's called "working closest to the dollar."

Here's a useful article with some great COVID-times employment tips; it suggests to "post ideas, articles, and other content that will attract and engage your target audience—specifically recruiters." If you're able to, try to steer away from focusing too much on the possibility of getting fired, instead spend your energy being the best you can be at work, and also actively being on the job market. Schedule as many video calls as you can, there's nothing like good ol' face-to-face meetings to get yourself on someone's radar. If your worries get the best of you, I recommend you schedule time with a qualified therapist. When you're ready, lean into that video chat and werk!

- The Armchair Psychologist


Dear Armchair Psychologist,

I'm an independent consultant in NYC. I just filed for unemployment, but I feel a little guilty collecting because a) I'm not looking for a job (there are none anyway) and b) the company that will pay just happens to be the one that had me file a W2 last year; I've done other 1099 work since then.

- Guilt-Ridden

Dear Name,

I'm sorry that you're wracked with guilt. It's admirable that your conscience is making you re-evaluate whether you are entitled to "burden the system" so to speak as a state's unemployment funds can run low. Shame researchers, like Dr. Brené Brown, believe that the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is often rooted in the self/self-worth and is often destructive whereas guilt is based on one's behavior and compels us to do better. "I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."

Your guilt sounds like a healthy problem. Many people feel guilty about collecting unemployment benefits because of how they were raised and the assumption that it's akin to "seeking charity." You're entitled to your unemployment benefits, and it was paid into a fund for you by your employer with your own blood, sweat, and tears. Also, you aren't committing an illegal act. The benefits are there to relieve you in times when circumstances prevent you from having a job. Each state may vary, but the NY State Department of Labor requires that you are actively job searching. The Cares Act which was passed in March 2020 also may provide some relief. I recommend that you collect the relief you need but to be sure that you meet the criteria by actively searching for a job just in case anyone will hire you.

- The Armchair Psychologist