I took this photo on a recent flight from Las Vegas. The clouds were so beautiful and detailed that particular day, and as we soared above them my thoughts were solemn yet happy. Little did I know that this picture would serve as inspiration and comfort during a difficult time this week.

I’ve done my best to stay focused at work and bury myself in projects; albeit a distraction technique. However, the truth is that grief is a funny thing and despite best efforts to keep it at bay during the work day, it seeps in; often gripping your heart just after you say to yourself “okay, I’m better now. I haven’t cried in a few hours.” And then bam. You find your eyes sweating. Again. You fight back the lump in your throat. As you search for a tissue, look out the window and take a breath, you say to yourself “Good. No one saw that.”

You try to maintain your composure and professionalism because you are at work, after all. You have conference calls, and meetings, and everything in between. Not to mention a great team that motivates you, so you want to be there for them. Being off your game isn’t an option – at least not for you. You could work from home, but it’s a day when you need to be in the office.

Somehow you have to pull it together so that you are still you when you walk through those doors, up the stairs, and stop to check in with your team. Perhaps not as bright-eyed as you’d like to be but enough to simulate that all is status quo. Such as when your boss walks by your office and says his usual, and chipper, I might add, “Good morning” and keeps walking. Or so you think. Only to have him reappear and ask about how your meeting in NYC went last week.

Like a Stepford Wife, you turn on a dime and rattle it all off – all the while never letting on that inside your heart feels like it’s in a vice grip and not five minutes ago you were choking back tears.

After he leaves, you breathe a sigh of relief. But then it happens. There’s an eye-opening moment when you run into your friend in the kitchen. She sees the eyes that look like they cried all night, and when you say you’re “okay” she knows it is the exact opposite. And you feel…relieved.

It’s at that moment when you throw caution to the wind and remember: 

I am human.

So, you unleash your vulnerability and accept that it is okay not to be okay. You realize that while you can cover the blemishes and mask the flaws, the eyes are the window to the soul. And, undoubtedly, those who know you will likely notice that you are wearing glasses today and that your eyes are red as if you have been crying. Or, perhaps, that your voice is a little softer or that your spunkiness has lost some zest.

I spent a better part of Monday evening sobbing after learning that my aunt had passed away. I sat on my front porch in the dark in my Adirondack chair, which was shrouded by the shrubs. I may have seemed like a lurker, but I didn’t care. I had my blanket, an Angry Orchard, and my phone. I cried as I watched the moon and waited for my husband to get home. I tried to make sense of it all. The more I thought, the more the tears flowed. Grief had arrived front and center.

My aunt was my mom’s sister, and I don’t have many memories in my forty-something years that don’t include her. She became my rock, especially after my mom died four years ago. In many ways, she was like a mom to me. Before my mom died, I would call my aunt occasionally. But after my mom passed away, my aunt and I spoke weekly; unless I was traveling. We never said it, but I know that for each of us it was a way to stay connected to my mom and her sister.

I could tell you so many things about her. She was fiercely independent, strong, funny and one of the best storytellers I’ve ever known. She could make even the most ornery person laugh. She made the best Lemon Meringue pie and brownies that my brother lovingly coined “horse chokers.” They were amazing, and I swear 3” high with another inch of chocolate frosting. Her chocolate cake with boiled white frosting that was as fluffy as clouds left you wanting more. And if you are a toddler who wakes up before his parents and sees the cake basking in that frosting, you might climb on the table and dig in (this really did happen).

She loved junk food. Cookies, potato chips, and apple fritters were at the top of the list, always rounded out by a few grapes to make the meal “healthy.” Then there is the finger point. If you got that coupled with the stare – her eyes were black as night mind you-you knew she meant business. You didn’t mess with Aunt Phinnie.

She lived life on her terms, and she died on her terms too. Our bond ran deep. I love her, and I will miss her deeply.

Her death, even though we knew it was imminent, still rocks me to my core. In many ways, it is like losing my mom all over again. So, perhaps you can imagine the grief that accompanies this loss and why it can be so difficult to separate your emotions when you are at work.

I’m sharing this story with you because I’m in a different place and space then when my mom passed. My perspective has changed, and I am more akin to my surroundings and my emotions. My coping mechanisms are better than they were a few years back, and I am healthier in many ways. For a moment on Tuesday, however, I forgot about the positive and family oriented work environment that surrounds me each work day. So, naturally, I thought that putting on my mask was the best thing to do.

I was wrong.

You see, if I can’t be me and if I can’t embrace that I am vulnerable, and more importantly that I am human, then how can I pay it forward to my teammates and other coworkers who quite possibly are dealing with their humanness too? Why do we feel we have to hide?

We don’t.

We can extend ourselves appropriately. We form friendships and bonds with those we work with, and the exchange of human kindness should always be a part of the workplace. No one can do it on their own. And quite frankly, no one should have to. But I realize that we are all different too.

I’ve also learned that by sharing our stories and showing that softer side of ourselves doesn’t mean we are weak. It doesn’t say you aren’t a good leader, or manager, or person for that matter. It takes courage to take off your iron shield and let your heart shine.

Today, there were such thoughtful sentiments from coworkers, beautiful flowers waiting for me in my office, similar stories, and exchanges of laughter. Reminders that we are all connected on a deeper level outside of our professional sphere and a reminder that we are all vulnerable – even if we don’t want to admit it.

When it felt like my heart was breaking into a thousand tiny pieces last night, I turned to my creativity to help me process the loss. Guess what? Writing helped. Even as tears filled my eyes, it still felt good to be able to draw on inspiration and let the words help us heal. I never imagined when I took that picture from high up in the sky that seeing it last night would evoke such emotion. But, it did.

The words started to flow, and before I knew it, I had composed a poem in honor of my aunt’s memory. And I felt the healing begin.

I’m thankful for that picture. It was the impetus I needed to help me work through the sadness and at the same time remember one classy lady. I’m pretty sure that above those clouds there is one hell of a party going down.

As for the poem, well, here it is:

I flew above the clouds today

To a place you cannot see

It’s peaceful here and quiet too

A place that’s been waiting for me

I flew above the clouds today

Because my friends were calling me

So I floated high above the sky

To see them welcome me

Friendly faces, smiles, and warm embraces

Laughter and tears too

For suddenly while I’m up here

I can now look over you

I flew above the clouds today

At last I’m finally free

Of the pain that grasped the part of me

That I couldn’t seem to flee

I flew above the clouds today

They welcomed me with glee

I couldn’t wait to see them too

They seemed so far away

I flew above the clouds today

Because it was my time

I’m free up here

I’m whole again

I’m back to being me

I flew above the clouds today

But please do not be sad

You gave me love, you filled my life

With stories small and grand

I flew above the clouds today

So I could be at peace

I’m ready now, I’m steady now

I’ve found my missing piece

I flew above the clouds today

Leaving so many behind

To you I say be well my friends

You are strong and brave and kind

I know your heart may hurt right now

And tears may fill your eyes

But know that somewhere deep within

Lies a magnificent prize

The moments, the memories

The stories so grand

Cradle those times in your gentle hands

I flew above the clouds today

This earth I may have left

But I would leap through thick and thin

To see you once again

I flew above the clouds today

But I’m not really gone

I’m floating high above the land

I’ll always cheer you on

So when you feel that twinge of grief

Look up to the sky

Seek the cloud so fluffy white

And know that I’m nearby

She flew above the clouds today

Her time has come to pass

But I know this and you do too

She can still kick our ass

You’ll be missed so very much

Our hearts you filled with love

So we’ll sign off and bid adieu

To the one and only you

Originally published at www.linkedin.com