A few years after losing my mom I made a big career change.
After 13 years, I left the safety and security of the four walls of my classroom, and took a leap into a position working for a educational non-profit where I would be able to make a greater impact on students and teachers on a national level. And because I would be working with educational systems all across the country, this new role would bring a new adventure into my life- a schedule comprised of traveling and working from home. It was also around the same time my husband and I tied the knot, which made it an even more exciting transitional time in my life.
At first the thought of this career change excited me (it still does… stay with me). But when the glitter and the “new-ness” of it all settled, grief started to re-surface. This new reality unexpectedly became a trigger for my grief.
Of course I wanted to share all of these new adventures with my mother, and the thought of not being able to was difficult, but that’s not the only emotion these changes bubbled up. Brian, my husband, lost his father just before I lost my mother. Our losses helped to connect us in such a beautiful way. We are more than just husband and wife. We are best friends, confidants, and true partners in this life. Everyday we reflect on how lucky we are to have found one another, and how amazing the timing was for us to meet. Our paths crossed at just the right time for the both of us, and we don’t take that timing for granted.
You see, experiencing multiple losses by the age of 31- a prior divorce and the losses of my mother, three grandparents, and cousins who I was close to- shook me to the core. Although all of the losses were significant, my mother’s death had the most impact on me. It took me almost a year to come to grips with what had happened, and how to figure out my path towards healing.
When I sat down and started to internalize the reality of what my new schedule would look like, specifically in regards to the traveling aspect of my role, I initially felt an overwhelming rush of dread around leaving my family and my friends-especially my husband- even if it would be for just short periods of time.
I can clearly recall thinking to myself- “What if something bad happens to me?”
In that moment so many thoughts flashed through my mind like a rolodex-What if I get sick or seriously injured far from home? What if I’m involved in a plane crash and die? What if I get in a car accident on some rural road in another state and I’m left for dead? My husband would be a widow. Would he be ok? What will he do without me? Would he be able to take care of the house? Our pets? Our responsibilities? Would he be burdened with all of that? Would he resent me? What about my family and friends? What would happen to them? Would they be ok? Would they remember me? Would they be angry that I took this job?
GRIEF. Big time.
Just when I thought I was on the road to deep healing, one trigger in the form of a big life change flooded all of those trauma-driven thoughts back into my mind.
I knew it was grief resurfacing because I remember having very similar thoughts shortly after losing my mom. I would often cry myself to sleep thinking things like “What if I get cancer too? Maybe I already have it. Maybe it’s already stage IV like my mother’s was. I don’t want to die. I didn’t want her to die. I don’t want to leave everyone behind like she did. What will I do without my mother? What will my family and friends do without me?”
These thoughts and fears are real. It’s totally normal and to be expected. When we experience a trauma or a loss of any kind, the world no longer feels like a safe, predictable, and reliable place like it once was. And that’s an uneasy and scary feeling to try and sort through. Attempting to figure out how to rationalize and move from these thoughts and fears uses up a lot of our energy, which is why grief is so exhausting. When these “what if something bad happens to me” thoughts are consuming our minds, it takes so much energy and effort to sort through and move past them, that we find that we have little desire to think about or do anything else-including healing.
With all of our energy being drained inside those cyclones of “what if something bad happens to me” type of thoughts, and limited energy left to devote to healing, suddenly those trauma-related thoughts become our “safe, predictable, and reliable place”. They’re safe because we know what to expect when they pop into our heads. They’re predictable because we know exactly how we are going to feel. They’re reliable because we know exactly what the physical response will be. And because of that, we somewhat feel “in control” because we know what to expect, and it becomes a familiar and “comfortable” pattern for our brains to settle into. And in the moment, spiraling into these thoughts of “what if” feels SO much easier than the alternative- putting in the work to rationalize our thoughts and fears so that we can begin this journey towards healing.
I couldn’t believe I had come back to this place. I couldn’t believe that a new job was triggering old grief. I couldn’t believe that I was dreading life because of paralyzing “what if something bad happens to me” thoughts. I couldn’t believe fear had returned, ready to consume all of my energy again. I felt like all of the work I had devoted to healing over these years was for naught. For the first time in a long time I felt like the weakest person in the world.
I knew I couldn’t live like this.
I knew I was about to embark on an amazing opportunity for growth in my career.
I knew deep down that I was strong enough to do it.
I knew that I could not allow my energy to be used up on “what if” thoughts because I had a life that I deserved to honor.
I knew I needed to dig deep and lean into the path I had taken before.
I started by reflecting on my journey after the passing of my mother and thinking about all of the strategies that I had learned and used, especially in that first year, that have helped me be the person that I am today.
I thought about the ways I have chosen to honor my own life. I thought about the connections I have made through this blog, my grief healing group, my friendships, and my relationships. I thought about how I am able to see the bigger picture and how I recognize and respect grief’s purpose in my life. I thought about the ways that I have cultivated self-compassion, self-forgiveness, grace, joy, strength, and understanding. I thought about what my inner voice has evolved into over the past few years. I thought about the conversations and friendships I have with others who are grieving, and how we support each other’s grief journeys. I thought about the spiritual relationship I have formed with my mother and how special that is to me. I thought about moments when I showed courage, hope, and resilience-like going through that first mammogram after my mother’s passing. I thought about the steps that I have taken to live in the present, to be mindful, intentional, and deliberately choose joy every single day no matter what. I thought about how I live and breath all of these actions every single day out loud for all the world to see.
And that’s when it hit me.
My grief journey these past few years has been 100% public. I have shared my truth authentically, transparently, and passionately to everyone and anyone who wanted to hear. I have given my grief journey heavy boots to stomp with, without fear or embarrassment. My grief has become a badge of love and strength, not shame. It has become a part of who I am, in a positive way. I have been able to talk about it every single day since April 11, 2012. I have talked about both the most difficult sides of grief and the sweetest sides as well. And because I have grieved out loud, I think I have been able to show others that there is life after loss; that there is healing after loss. That there is, in fact, joy after loss.
I am ok. In fact, I am more than ok. Of course there will still be days that are hard. There will still be triggers that I have to navigate through. Grief is certainly not a perfect process. And I will always, always miss my mother, but overall my life is good, and full, and happy because I have decided that is what I want my story to be. I want people to remember me as someone who lost their mother at a very young age, but continued on believing in and uncovering the good in each day. Because I have grieved out loud for all the world to see, I have been able to rest in the idea that everyone else will be ok too because they’ve seen people like me. People who are truly OK even after all that we have been through. When my mind starts to wander through thoughts of “what if something bad happens to me” I say to myself- “It’s ok if something happens to me, because I know I would leave behind a strong, capable, resilient, and loving circle of family and friends who have seen what healing looks like. Who have felt what joy after loss feels like. Who have listening to and read about how beautiful and full life can be after loss. Who will be more than ok because deep in my soul I believe they will.”
When grief rears it’s face, and tries to drag me down into “what if something bad happens to me” thoughts, I don’t picture my husband as a devastated widow. I don’t picture my family and friends with sadness or anger in their hearts. I don’t picture their lives ending. I don’t picture hopelessness, helplessness, or weakness. In those moments I choose to envision strength and resilience. I envision happiness. I envision them laughing over memories and funny stories of years passed. I envision them living full and peaceful lives. I envision them speaking my name the same way I speak of my mother’s- with joy and courage. I envision them finding the good in each day. Because I choose to envision love, I am able to move forward, without fear, because I believe that everything, and everyone will always, always be OK.
If you are on a journey towards healing and you find yourself struggling to take that next step towards overcoming fear, scary “what if” scenarios, or other paralyzing thoughts that are getting in the way of living a full life after loss, stop responding to the question “What if something bad happens to me?” and start answering the questions “What good things are happening to me/us right now? What do I believe I/we are capable of? How do I/we show strength, resilience, and courage? How do I/we spread joy, hope, love, and compassion?”
Focus on the good of right now so that you can build upon it. Focus on the strengths that you have cultivated within your inner circle of loved ones. Together, you will all make it- no matter what happens.
Believe that you are strong. Believe that you are capable. Believe that you are resilient. Believe that you are loved.
Believe that you are, and will always be, OK.