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How An Unexpected Mentor Taught Me How to Handle Anxiety, Accept Decisions I Hate, and Help Others Face Their End of Life with Dignity

How I found an amazing business mentor, who soon after taught me how to let others die with dignity.

This week, #ThriveGlobal called out to their community to share stories of grieving the loss of a mentor who had an outsized impact on your life, and how their legacy continues to inspire you.  

This prompt hits so incredibly close to home for me. One of the toughest losses I’ve experienced was my mentor Tracey, so I knew this deserved a few moments of my time. She deserves it. 

I first met Tracey when I was 23 years old. This was the year of peak anxiety for me.

I was so used to being a top-achieving student, where the steps and obstacles to success clearly defined. After graduating and entering the real world, nothing then –– nor since –– has had the same guardrails or clear pathing. 

My father was into politics, and it had always seemed like a realm where I could do something meaningful and change the world. Naturally, it was the first industry I tried post-graduation. I quickly learned it wasn’t the world for me, which meant I was out of a job only a year after I left college. 

I was at a loss for what was next.

Adulthood was this intimidating, ambiguous thing, that I totally didn’t feel equipped for. As a result, I was crippled by anxiety and far too-high standards I had set for myself. I was going at it all alone, too, not talking about it openly with anyone, like so many of us do. 

I was trying to find my way, and struggling inch by inch, when Tracey Kaufman waltzed into my life. She unexpectedly became my friend, my mentor, and my support system.

How Tracey Came Into My Life

At that time, I was working at a tech startup and was the first non-engineer hire. I got tasked with a lot of things I had never done before. One day my boss told me he heard that all tech companies had Customer Success departments, so I needed to go figure out what that was and build it.

Having never done this before, I went searching for the best customer success executives I could find. The goal was to learn from them and enlist their help. I was a good student after all, and like I’ve mentioned, I was continuously searching for the step-by-step path to success school has once provided. I thought these executives might have answers. 

Tracey was the VP of Customer Success for my brother-in-law’s company in New York, Booker Software, so he connected us.

My first impression of was Tracey was: “Wow! That woman is a firecracker!” She had a lot of energy, though, and boy, could she talk! 

She spent an incredibly generous amount of time on the phone with me talking through how she’d design a customer success department from start to finish, then followed up with book recommendations, articles, and every powerpoint she had pulled together on the topic. It was all so incredibly helpful! 

It was my first work assignment I felt like I had totally nailed. 

A Move to Austin, Uncommonly Loud Dinner Table Conversations & When We Both Were Fired

Only a few months after I first spoke with Tracey, I got a call out of the blue from her to learn that she had accepted an executive position at a local startup and was moving from NYC to Austin, TX –– where I was living. She didn’t know anyone, so wanted to see if I’d like to grab dinner once she got in to town. I said yes, of course. 

I remember we went to Wink, a cute little French restaurant in an unassuming strip mall on just north of downtown. It’s a nice restaurant with fabulous wine, and their waitstaff is very laid back. Our waiter got to talking to us, and Tracey excitedly and loudly conversed with him, swapping stories back and forth, and roaring with laughter. 

I was both amused by her joie de vivre, and mortified by how loud we were as a table. But Tracey paid no mind, she was having a great time –– unapologetically. I look back and really admire that about her.  

I quickly learned that not only was Tracey very animated, but everything she did in this life was a game, a moment to spark joy and play, and to connect with others. I remember one time we went into a Whole Foods to get her vitamins, and you would have thought she was playing the Amazing Race. She was fervently comparing notes on different bottles, researching reviews on Google, and peppering the poor attendant with more questions than they had been asked all month.

Tracey in the vitamin aisle in Whole Foods.

You might call her high-strung, but it was in the most endearing, entertaining, and fun-loving way. You had to admire her passion –– even if her passion was for absolutely everything! 

This quality was particularly admirable when applied to work. No one advocated for customers quite like Tracey. She was always the executive brave enough to push back on the CEO if she felt it was the right thing to do. In fact, this got her into trouble with her first job in Austin, and the CEO fired her for disagreeing with him.

Ironically, I had just been fired, too, from the startup I had been working at, so we were both reeling from the experience and licking our wounds. In retrospect, it was one of the best things to happen to us, because it brought us closer together, and opened the door for the right opportunities.

Tracey got hired as the VP of Customer Success at a small, fast-growing startup in town called TrendKite. She was one of their first “grey hairs” she proudly told me. The rest were young people in their 20s, which was amusing to me because Tracey could run circles around all of them. She had the energy of ten 20 year olds! 

I landed on my feet at another tech company in town called BigCommerce. I had a great job, a lovely boss, and a wonderful boyfriend, and yet I was struggling with some of the most paralyzing anxiety I had yet. 

The Onset of Unprecedented Anxiety, and How Tracey Saved Me

I didn’t open up about my anxiety to many people. Instead, I secretly started going to an anxiety doctor. I felt myself struggling to get any work done and feeling like I was losing my ability to connect with others.

Sometime around then, Tracey decided she wanted to become a certified executive coach on the side so she could coach CEOs on reaching their fullest potential, and no doubt better focus on their customers.

It was an intensive program and she needed a guinea pig so she could get coached on her coaching. She asked if I’d like her to become my official coach and mentor, and of course I agreed. And so the next chapter of our relationship started – with me going to her house every single Sunday for coaching. 

My handwritten notes from one of our coaching sessions in 2014.

I had one year under Tracey’s warm wing, and in that year I learned so much. It took very little time to develop a close and trusting relationship; she was one of the people I could tell my darkest secrets and be most vulnerable around. 

I told her about the anxiety I was battling day in and day out, and she took it as her moral imperative to help me get to the other side of it. That woman wouldn’t give up! 

An example email she would send me with a round up of all the mindfulness tools she had put together. 

She sent me hundreds of books, articles, quotes, and pictures nearly every day. Every time we caught up, she would have already designed an exercise or homework that I had to do and come back to her with. 

Tracey would randomly text me quotes like these throughout the week. 

That’s one lesson I learned from Tracey: to keep your mind open and your library stocked. She consumed so much information and was always reaching for another level of understanding in everything she did. 

What It’s Like Watching a Mentor Live Out Her Advice

Tracey loved the expression: “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” What was amusing about this one was that this didn’t come easy for Tracey! 

As I’ve already portrayed her, she was talkative, lively, and passionate. It was hard for her to sit still and listen for too long. And yet, I watched her actively work on that, and put the effort in every day to get better at it. 

At times she would get excited and wanted to talk over me, but then I’d watch her stop, bite her tongue, and let me finish. I really appreciated the effort and noticed that I felt validated when she let me finish. It helped me really internalize the wisdom in that saying –– because I experienced it first-hand watching my own mentor and coach work to better herself through a saying she believed in, but that didn’t come naturally. 

The endearing irony about Tracey was that while she was high-strung, she simultaneously didn’t take life so seriously. She always found the levity in a situation. When a problem arose at work, she didn’t get caught up in the stress, the frustration, the “what should we do?” Rather, she got everyone rallied around the bright side, and the fun in problem-solving.

In the same vein, Tracey taught me that there are trade-offs in life, and we should just embrace them as part of our story. Tracey accepted her life as a middle-aged and single woman. 

She said, “Yes, it would be nice sometimes to have a partner, but I’m not unhappy. I love the people in my life. I’m happy with myself. And, I can find other sources of family without needing to create one myself.”

I remember her telling me: “Just love the hand you have, be grateful for it, and don’t get fixated on your neighbor’s side of the fence.”

The gift Tracey really gave me, though, was the feeling of unconditional support, love and confidence at a time in my life I needed it most. I realized investing your time and energy in someone is the greatest gift you can give, and we all have the power to make someone feel worthy. 

When she asked if I wanted her to coach me I was so excited. It’s such a rare offering. I have no idea how I was so lucky. If you think about it, there are a lot of stray animals out there: people who feel alone, lost, and abandoned. Only a few are ever noticed, nurtured, loved, and saved. 

I feel like I was one of the fortunate ones.

She made me feel special, that I was someone worthy of her time and investment, and it made such a difference to have someone to share my challenges with, reframe them in the right mindset, and take actions towards growing beyond them.

I got beyond some of the toughest years of my life because of Tracey, and that anxiety has never come back. 

It felt like we had trained for a triathlon together. I put the work in, but she kicked by butt and pushed me further than I would have pushed myself. 

The Fateful Phone Call –– and Then a Second Call

Unfortunately though, we didn’t get to celebrate the sweet victory of my finishing that race, because Tracey passed away in November 2015.

I remembered where I was the day I got the phone call. 

I was walking down the street in Napa Valley, and Tracey asked if I might be able to sit down. I didn’t expect I needed to, so I told her to just tell me. 

She said, “You know that back pain I’ve had that the doctors can’t explain? I figured it out. It’s stage 4 pancreatic cancer.” 

My heart sank into my stomach. Of course Tracey figured it out. She always had the answers and after digging through a lot of medical journals, she found the answer we all didn’t want to hear. 

I told her that we were going to fight through this together, just like she had fought with me. I felt an urge to protect her from her thoughts. “We have to stay strong, Tracey!”

Two weeks later, Tracey called me again. This time I was at my boyfriend’s house. She told me she went in for her first chemo treatment and that it was excruciatingly awful. So awful, that she had made her decision. She was going to to stop treatment. 

While the first phone call was tough, this one was like a punch to the gut. I didn’t know what to say to her. I only knew how to be strong and fight. I didn’t know how to support her giving up. 

After we hung up, I just sat down on my boyfriends patio and sobbed. How could she just give up like this? I didn’t understand. I was devastated, and even angry with her. Tracey wasn’t a quitter. 

The cancer added a whole new layer of complexity to our relationship. I had to learn how to support her through a decision I didn’t agree with, and how to prepare for her eventual death. 

Helping Her Find Meaning in Her End of Life

Tracey’s aunt and uncle came to stay with her, and take care of her in her last few months. They’re some of the most angelic, selfless people I’ve ever met, so Tracey couldn’t be in better hands.

Tracey & her Aunt Teresa.

Visiting someone who is sick and dying is very difficult. You see them lose their spunk and sparkle. But it also helps you realize how much you love them, which is very special. I remember stroking her hair and holding her hand, and being overwhelmed with gratitude for her role in my life. 

One of Tracey’s greatest fears and anxieties around her terminal illness was that she was dying before she got to leave her legacy. As someone who always had a big vision and lofty goals in life, she felt like she was falling short of it all, and therefore might not be remembered.

When she told her Aunt Teresa this, Teresa went on Facebook and created a group: The Tracey Kaufman Fan Club. She then went and found everyone that knew Tracey from all walks of life. From elementary school to high school to graduate school and beyond, and asked for people to share stories they remembered about Tracey, and how she had impacted their life. 

The Tracey Kaufman Fan Club Page that Aunt Teresa Started.

Teresa read these stories by Tracey’s bedside every night, and made her smile, laugh, and cry. One of the last things that Tracey said was: “Thank you. I accept that I have left my legacy.” 

A Business Idea to Honor Tracey, and Those Like Her

Tracey chose to be cremated, and asked her aunt if she could divide up her ashes among the people she was closest with. I received some of Tracey’s ashes so I felt called to do something special for her, something I knew she would love. 

I went online and started researching what to do with ashes, and I couldn’t find anything. There were urns or little vials you could wear around your neck, but it all felt trinket-y and cheap. 

Completely separate from this personal project, I was starting a business with my friend Garrett in the lab-grown diamond industry.

One evening we were sitting over dinner with a diamond scientist and he casually mentioned that it was possible to extract carbon from ashes and grow a real diamond.

I was blown away, and knew immediately this is what I had to do for Tracey. 

So, I went to start the process with another company, but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable sending Tracey away to them. They just weren’t transparent about their process, and this was one of the most important people in my life. I couldn’t risk not knowing what was happening every step of the way. 

My business partner Garrett and I felt like this was such a need and just being executed on wrong. So, we ended up pivoting our business, and Tracey’s became the first diamond we ever grew!

Continuing to be a My Mentor, From Wherever She is

I picked a black diamond for her because I thought of her as my ski instructor. 

My black diamond for Tracey.

Someone once told me that life is like skiing, if we’re not a great skier, we play it safe and stick to the blue squares. But we’ve all had that time where we stumbled upon a black (or double black!) diamond, and that was the only way down. In that moment, we can either panic and fearfully slide down the hill, fixated on the cliff we could go off of, or we can channel fear into courage, get focused and learn how to turn so we can control our way around the moguls and down the hill. 

Skiing black diamonds is how we challenge ourselves, and show us what we’re capable of. Once we do one, we have more confidence that we can do it again. And maybe one day, we’ll willingly tackle a double black diamond.

While Tracey was here, she would challenge me to do the things that scared me or felt hard, and now that she’s gone, she’s my reminder that life is too short to not go for the black diamonds. 

These days, every time I look at her diamond, I feel a surge of confidence and purpose. I know that if whatever I’m about to do feels scary, then it’s probably the right thing for me to be doing.

At Eterneva, we talk a lot about the “second death,” which is the idea that we all die once when our physical body is no longer here, but there is a second death after that, when our name is uttered for the last time. We believe it’s our responsibility to prevent the second death, and ensure remarkable people aren’t forgotten. 

I talk about Tracey every time I talk about Eterneva, which is practically every day. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to get to share her with the world, and keep her vibrant spirit alive. 

And whenever I need her strength, I give her diamond a kiss, and find comfort in knowing a part of her is physically with me always. 

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