How to Deal with the Unexpected Loss of a Mentor

What my first mentor taught me about life and myself.

Ann Yuni/ Shutterstock
Ann Yuni/ Shutterstock

My first mentor died, and I didn’t know it.

Carol Bivins Gouzie was a force of nature. Smart as a whip and fiercely creative, she was a gifted writer who parlayed her skills into a successful corporate communications career. I met her in December 1988 when she served as the Vice President of Communications for Days Inns of America. On the hunt for my first corporate job, I landed an informational interview with Carol. We talked about great deli food, with me being the daughter of a delicatessen owner, and she a native of New Jersey. My thank you note included a loaf of good rye bread. When an entry level opening manifested in her department a month later, I got the job.

She was the kind of mentor I needed at that time. Kind, and with an outstanding work ethic, Carol led by example. We all adored and respected her. There was no hoop I wasn’t willing to jump through to get the job done. And the best gift she ever gave me was a hard dose of truth. I had been employed as a Public Relations Coordinator for about 10 months when she called me into her office. Carol said I had great creative talent, but was disorganized, and things were slipping through the cracks. In my support role, being able to handle multiple priorities was critical, and if I couldn’t improve, it wasn’t going to work out.

Consumed with disappointment and a sense of failure, I bawled while driving home from work that evening. But I knew she was right. Once my truncated pity party passed, I signed up for a seminar on how to become organized, and embraced it with the fervor of a religious convert.  Those newfound planning skills helped me soar. With Carol’s strong trust and support, I ended up creating award-winning programs and got promoted. The change was so deep that in taking the Myers Briggs personality assessment over the ensuing decades, I toggled back and forth in the Judging vs. Perceiving category, which showed that my acquired behavior for things to be orderly and established had become just as strong as my natural desire to act spontaneously. 

The lessons I learned from Carol influenced much of who I am today, like getting to choose with how I deal with adversity. She taught me to lead with kindness, while delivering the gift of honest feedback. Her zest for life, travel, and meaningful experiences inspired me. I also take mentorship seriously. At this point in time, I “officially” have a wonderful mentee through my local Public Relations of America Chapter, and a terrific manager from another department at work asked me to be her mentor. All of my great current and former employees have a lifetime mentorship guarantee where they can access me for coaching, cheerleading, or general smack talk when needed. I’m also aware that you can be a mentor for a moment, inspiring someone else to reach their potential, get unstuck, or grow in some way through your actions, words, and conversations.

While we stopped working together over 25 years ago, I stayed in touch with Carol for a long time. She retired from corporate communications and resumed writing. I saw her regularly in the 1990s and early aughts, then intermittently in the following decade. She and her husband David enjoyed traveling. When her beloved children Danny and Miriam had kids, Carol especially relished being an active, present grandmother. I last saw her about seven years ago, when we had dinner one night and watched an impromptu writers’ group perform their works. Then life got even busier after I got remarried, went back into corporate America in 2014, and dealt with Crohn’s Disease. With my energy depleted, I unconsciously let a number of people I cared about but didn’t see much slip away, and she was one of them. 

Then, a few months ago, I got a message from my former Days Inns co-worker Fran on Facebook. She had stumbled onto Carol’s obituary, learning that our former mentor had passed away a year earlier. The news punched me in the gut. I felt a deep sense of loss in reading her words; tears filled my eyes then, as they do now writing about it. I mourned the family that loved Carol so very much, and the world that no longer got to have her within it. Sadness permeated my being because I wasn’t part of Carol’s world at the end. But what looms largest now is gratitude, for myself and others who had our lives touched by such an incredible woman.

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