How to Grieve Like a Spy and Turn Loss Into Strength

Andrew Bustamante | August 11, 2021

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Greetings Everyday Spy:

Everyone will experience loss in this lifetime, but spies know how to grieve and turn loss into strength.

Grief is the only pain you are guaranteed in life. But that pain does not have to destroy you.

I grew up believing I was born a bastard child; a son without a father from a mother without a husband.

For most of my young life, it didn’t really bother me much. I had my mother and grandmother to raise me, and their love together was enough to fill my childhood days with love, laughter, and constant encouragement.

It wasn’t until my mother remarried and gave birth to my two half-sisters that I started realizing I didn’t have a normal family.

The truth about my biological father came to me in small pieces over the next 10 years; rumors from my grandmother, stories from my mom, and chides from my new step-dad. 

I learned that my father was alive when I was born, but not for long. He died when I was 1 year old, killed in a nameless California town by a stranger who was high on drugs.

I was a junior in college when I finally took the trip to visit my father’s grave — I had no idea what would happen when I first saw his headstone.

I felt so many emotions all at once that I couldn’t tell where one ended and the next one started. 

I felt anger, betrayal, humiliation, jealousy, loneliness, sadness, fear, loss and more. All for a man I never met. For a face I’d seen only in a handful of faded photos.

Grief is not an emotion, it is a process. And all processes can be optimized to bring you powerful benefits.

When I found my father’s grave at 20 years old, I did not know how to grieve. I was not yet trained to optimize my grief and turn my loss into strength. Instead, I tried to ignore the pain and push through with everyday life.

But those dark, sad, angry feelings never went away. Instead, they festered inside me. 

They grew, mutated, and started to leak into other areas of my life: school, work, family life, dating life. 

During my recruitment process into CIA, the psych assessment dug into my unresolved grief.

And the interview said something I’ll never forget…

“Your loss can be your handicap or your advantage; but you have to choose how to use it.”

I walked out of the interview pretty sure I wasn’t gonna get the job. But I was wrong. 

A few weeks later, I got my formal CIA acceptance letter.

Once I started at CIA, I learned how to grieve like a spy using a powerful 3-step process:

Step 1: Embrace the life that happened 

Every life will eventually end; it’s unavoidable and non-negotiable.

When you look past all the things that make people different — from politics to religion, culture to education — the certainty of death becomes a strangely comforting similarity.

Even more powerful is that every life lost comes after a lifetime of accomplishment.

Achievements that were only possible because of that one individual.

Sometimes it’s the loss of a child that had a magical way of making you laugh; or a loving spouse who put themself second to you. Or a parent who played a role, no matter how small, in making your life possible at all… like my father.

You have to embrace the life that happened, not the person that was lost, if you want to turn loss into strength. 

Because one day you too will die. But today is your chance to make the impact that only you can make.

Step 2: Bring honor to the dead 

CIA honors every officer who falls in the line of duty by engraving a star on a marble Memorial Wall.

Every morning and evening, thousands of CIA officers walk past that wall on their way into and out of the Old Headquarters Building. It is both humbling and empowering to be one of the few who get to touch the stars on that wall.

When you lose someone close to you, your emotions take you to a selfish place.

That’s what happened to me when I saw my father’s headstone for the first time. I was hijacked by emotions centered on me, my life, my pain. That instinctively selfish focus is destructive, but it can be turned into something constructive.

You bring honor to the dead when you reflect on what they cherished, loved, and honored during their life — instead of focusing on your own pain and loss.

Every star on CIA’s Memorial Wall represents a life given proudly in service to a nation. Your loss is no different. Every life lost has joys, passions, and goals, and you can honor them by recognizing that they died proudly in service to others. 

Step 3: Amplify their memory 

Life is full of choices, and many of those choices are not helpful, positive, or good.

My father chose the role he played in my life. He chose to leave, he chose to be absent, and he chose to miss the one year he could have had with his only child.

But those bad choices do not have to define the memory of my father.

He was also a veteran. He was also an athlete. He was also a loving son and protective big brother.

Grief can make bad memories play over and over in your mind, overwhelming you with regret and anger.

And when you don’t know how to grieve, being overwhelmed leaves you weak.

When you choose to focus on the best memories left after your loss, your subconscious will amplify those memories and make them stronger and easier to recall.

And those positive memories become a source of motivation, encouragement, and power. Not just for you, but for every life touched by the same loss.

When you lose brave, brilliant people you’ve served with side-by-side, grief is unavoidable.

You feel pain. 

But that pain does not have to be the end of something great.

It can be the beginning of something even greater.

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy

Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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