This time of year can be a joyful one, but also one filled with grief–the kind we have as individuals and that we share as families. The healing process only gets underway when we address that grief. So I thought I would share my story in hopes that it can help all of us to add to that healing.
I used to live what most people would consider an ideal life. I had a loving and handsome husband, three beautiful daughters, and a lucrative and fulfilling career. We lived in a beautiful house, went on many family vacations each year, and generally felt blessed and happy. But everything changed within moments of waking up one haunting morning 10 years ago.
It was November 10, 2004. The day started as any other day. Our nanny, Annette, came in the early morning to take care of the kids. My husband Chris and I went off to work. After work I came home a bit later than usual because I had a hair appointment, and Chris was home before me sitting in his favorite leather chair. He looked up and said, “You look beautiful” and smiled. I asked him if our girls were sleeping. He told me everyone was except Sarah, our oldest (she was five then).
It’d been a long week. Rachael, our one year old and youngest, was teething and not sleeping. Chris told me he was exhausted, and wanted to go to bed early. That struck me as strange, since he was usually a late-night person. I’d been up with Rachael the night before, comforting her. So even though he was tired he said, “I have Rachael tonight. You need to sleep.”
So to bed we went. I fell asleep immediately. I did hear Rachael cry in the middle of the night but, since I knew Chris was getting up, I didn’t bother to wake up or look at the clock. She was in good hands.
As he usually did when she woke, he took her downstairs so she wouldn’t wake anyone else up.
I awoke to a thump. Groggy, the next thing I hear is Rachael calling “Mama!” I jumped out of bed and run to the top of the stairs. Rachael was sitting on the landing.
I looked and saw Chris at the bottom of the stairs face down, arms stretched up to the landing, wearing his usual blue plaid pajama pants and a white T-shirt.
My first thought was that he was playing a game. I called out to him as I picked Rachael up, but there was no response. Then I leaned down to him without moving him and realized he wasn’t breathing.
Then I called 911. Remembering the thump first, I told them my husband fell down the stairs and wasn’t breathing. Later I will come to realize that as his heart stopped, after placing Rachael down, he just fell forward.
When I hung up I immediately called my parents. “I think he’s gone,” I said. My mom told me to call my neighbors. I realized that at this point I’m screaming.
Then I look up to see Sarah and Emma looking down at their dad. There’s an iron banister along the second floor hallway. They’re looking over it trying to make sense of why their mom is screaming and their dad is face down on the stairs. In a panic, I scream to them to go back to their room.
Then everything becomes a blur. My neighbor comes to the house. He tells me to go upstairs to comfort my girls. Sarah and Emma look scared. Sarah asks, “Did Daddy fall down the stairs? Is he okay?” We go into the spare room and I sit with them on my grandmother’s bed, covered by the black comforter from Chris’s old apartment. Rachael is on my lap, clinging to me. The girls want to know what’s going on. I try and comfort them, but I’m in a state of panic myself. The ambulance comes and I hear noises downstairs as they work on my husband.
My house starts to fill with neighbors. They take Rachael, in her purple flower pajamas, from my arms. They have to peel her from me.
I’m in a dream-like state, watching it all happening to someone else in slow motion. We get to the hospital, and I’m told that they’ll take me to my husband. I have a surge of hope that he might be okay. But then the doctor comes in and tells me that they did everything they could. “He is gone,” I can’t do anything but start screaming, “No.”
I need to make some calls but feel like I can’t breathe. The hospital Chaplin comes and tells me she’s there for me. She tells me to call family and then she’ll take me to Chris.
I call my parents first. I tell them Chris is gone. They’re already on a plane heading my way. They say everything is going to be okay. I think, “Is it?”
When they take me to see Chris, he’s in a very large room. I slowly walk to him. I feel sick and may pass out. I really don’t know what to do as I see him on the table. I’m overwhelmed, can’t breathe, it’s too much.
I start calling more people. At this point I should be at works so I call my boss. As the words come out of my mouth, it doesn’t seem real. I tell him my husband of 10 years died this morning, and then share the rest of the story—the way I will tell over and over until it eventually becomes automatic. I call Chris’s boss and then our closest college friends. Everyone is in shock. As I tell each person, there’s just silence.
My nanny of five years takes the girls to her house overnight. I can’t bear to tell them. When they come the next day, I sit them down in my living room.
Surrounded by my family, I realize that this is one of the hardest things I will ever have to do in my life: tell these three little girls that their dad is gone forever.
I tell them that Daddy died and went to heaven where he is now an angel. And that while he is gone, he will remain in our hearts forever and will always be watching over them. They look at me with their big bright eyes, wanting me to tell them everything is going to be okay- but its not.
I do my best to reassure them, but deep down, I’m not sure that we will be okay. I feel like life is over. I feel like a part of me died. I can’t make sense of this for myself, let alone help them understand. What I do know is that our life will never be the same.
My husband Chris’s heart stopped and he died. Doctors never really gave me a satisfying explanation about why. I had no way to plan or predict such a disaster—no way to prepare myself to lose my one true love and lover, my very best friend, closest confident, husband of 10 years, father of my children. No way to patch a heart torn asunder by an overwhelming grief and sadness. The rug had been pulled out from underneath me and I was left there alone, hopeless and paralyzed.
I was in shock for a long time. I just sat on the couch most days and looked out the window. I had visitors. People wanted to see us. I was open to it, but didn’t have much to say. I did my best to engage and tried to listen to what was going on in the outside world, but I found it all distracting. I just wasn’t able to focus on anything for very long. I couldn’t even watch TV. Nothing seemed important and I couldn’t do much to escape the pain.
My goal was to get through the end of each day so I could go to sleep. Sleep was the only way to escape my misery.
The months after Chris passed were a blur. I just focused on the next holiday or event to get through. Each event was a marker of time; Thanksgiving, our 10-year wedding anniversary, Christmas, Chris’s birthday, and probably the most difficult, the one-year anniversary of his death.
My body would physically feel these events coming. I would relive moments that had happened while he was still alive. I was in shock, pain, and spent much of my time in my mind reliving the past. Plus, not only did I have my own pain, but also witnessing my daughters’ was unbearable.
About 18 months after Chris’s death the shock began to wear off, and I began to see the affect my behavior was having on my children, family, and friends. I came to the realization that Chris was not coming back and it was up to me to make a change. I had been holding onto my grief for so long that it was the only way I knew how to be. I somehow believed that it brought me closer to Chris, helping me to stay more connected to his spirit. I had been thinking that consuming myself with this sadness was bringing me closer to him. But then, in one moment, the risk of being closed off to the world and myself suddenly seemed more painful than the risk of choosing to live. I didn’t want to live this way anymore.
I think in life this happens in many situations. We hold onto things or attach because we have fear of the unknown. I felt more comfortable clinging to the pain and suffering then to move to unfamiliar territory… of moving on with out Chris.
I remember walking into my bedroom and seeing Chris’s clothes that once provided me comfort. As I touched his clothes, as I did most nights, familiar memories rushed through my mind. Later I woke up with the realization that the memories bring me closer to Chris, not the grief. Something shifted inside. I needed to take the necessary steps to move forward. Be brave and have the hope that I could do this life journey alone.
I had not been able to move anything up to this point; clothes in the closet, a tray of his watches, the wallet on his dresser, his toothbrush in its holder. I decided that I did not want to live my life this way. He was gone and not coming back. He died but I was still living and my girls needed me.
Surrounded by his clothes and personal belongings, I lit a candle and promised myself to choose life. I placed many of his belongings out of sight. This would be the first of many steps to choosing life.
At first it wasn’t easy. It meant facing the daily activities of life: work, daily interactions and engaging again with my girls on a deeper level—being fully conscious. I took baby steps; it was moment-to-moment, day-to-day, as I made a conscious effort to allow myself to be present. I started to shift from just surviving to actually living, to showing up in life and living fully with myself and with others.
The death of Chris was my moment of truth, which led me to look deep inside myself and make changes. I guess I came to accept Chris’s death and grew increasingly grateful for my life. I started to focus on what was really important to me. I started to choose life repeatedly, in every moment.
The biggest change was to recognize the fear I had of being alone and to move through it. This was extremely scary and painful, but I have found a trust in myself that amazes me.
At first it was not easy, since living fully also meant feeling all my grief and sadness. When I lit that candle, I was committing myself to opening my heart and healing. I knew this wouldn’t necessarily be the easier path, but I trusted it would lead to a fuller life and allow me to be more present for myself, my girls, and other relationships.
So I had to shift my thoughts, know that I was not alone, and open myself up to experience life once again. In many ways, I let go of control, putting my faith in something bigger than myself. I was able to tune in to a sense of being part of something infinite and good—a presence of unconditional love. Whatever one’s religious beliefs, connecting to this higher sense of self is incredibly empowering.
The first step was moving through the fear that I couldn’t handle life on my own—that I needed someone else. In fact, my biggest fear after losing Chris was being alone, especially since I was raising three girls.
So, I began with hope. I cherished the hope that I could do it on my own. That “I” was enough. Slowly but surely as these habits became my lifestyle I noticed something wonderful beginning to happen: the pain in my chest was subsiding, my depression eased, and I was energized where before I was tired. More importantly, I was able to be more present with my girls and to love being a mother once again. In fact, I was more conscious and aware than ever before in my life. This new lifestyle was not only healing my soul but also leading me to a more genuine sense of my own self.
So I dug deep. And while the journey of grief never ends, and is never the same for everyone, there are tools to help us all heal that I’d like to share with you:
Move your body and breathe:
When I first decided to really live life again I immediately started running. It got me moving and breathing once again. It helped clear my head and I found it cathartic.
I decided to run a marathon four months after Chris’s death. I signed up for the Washington D.C. Marathon in the spring of 2005. I immersed myself in the training schedule, and I felt in control. The race was 12 days before the one-year anniversary of Chris’s death. I was ready. And when I crossed the finish line with my girls and good friends watching, I had an overwhelming feeling of empowerment. I believe this goal helped me significantly to get through those difficult months leading up to the one-year anniversary. I would continue to find running a great outlet and a great release for me.
Yoga can bring you to the pain of grief, both the emotional aspect and the physical. With the movements, you can find the postures grounding; with breath you can balance your mind and then connect to the present moment.
I know that if you can take that with you as you leave your mat, life is easier, and you can move through your day with grace and peace. When things come up to challenge us, finding our breath and staying centered can help us move through the issue. Yoga also connects us to breath and staying in the moment
I began to see the power of meditation in my life when I started a consistent yoga practice.
In yoga I learned to quiet my mind and let go. Once I had achieved this, I knew I had to take it to the next level. The next step for me was to find the time to sit quietly each day. Finding those extra minutes in one’s day to sit can be difficult, but the benefits are immense. I try and meditate each day, and recommend to my clients that they find the time to do then same even if only for a few minutes. Meditation nourishes the soul. I sincerely hope you will give it a try.
When I first started to meditate I focused on changing my thoughts; we all have the ability to create positivity. When I was going through my periods of darkness, it was through meditation that I began to realize I needed to take responsibility for my own life and happiness. Only I could create a happy me.
So I started with a few minutes of daily meditation and gradually have added to it. And I’ve found that when I have gotten away from it, I’m less in balance.
Meditation means different things to different people. I believe it’s important to set intentions in life, believe in what you want, feel it and then let go, and surrender it to the universe. One needs to really believe it and then feel it.
Once you quiet your mind, answers start to appear and it becomes easier to let go and surrender, creating the space to find joy, love and peace. When things come up, it’s important to let the feelings flow and not to resist. At times, it may be more difficult to breathe through the pain, feelings or thoughts. On those days I do my best and try and work through it without struggling.
When I’m meditating, I feel centered. I also believe that when you’re balanced, achieving this through diet, yoga and meditation, there is synchronicity. Things just begin to flow. You attract good things and people into your life and start to move towards your intentions. When you find yourself struggling, meditation can allow you to take a step back and gain perspective and a connection to your higher self.
Challenges present opportunities for growth. If you don’t take the time to sit with the challenge and bring awareness to it, it’s hard to see them as opportunities. In most cases, challenges or obstacles give us the contrast we need to see things more clearly if we allow it.
Whatever obstacles we are faced with, it’s up to us to make choices about how we want to lead our lives. When we dig deep and look at ourselves and live in truth we can find joy, love, and peace even in the most difficult situations. Honoring our feelings in these difficult moments allows these feelings to flow and us to experience our Selves more fully. Meditation is one tool for finding your deepest, most authentic self.
In the darkest of moments, it may be hard to find gratitude. But it’s so important. What I’ve learned through all my challenges is that it’s critical to find even the smallest moments of joy. I always think it’s interesting that even through our time of deepest grief, my children could shift from tears to joy so quickly. I didn’t understand it then, but what great teachers children can be. I recommend keeping a daily journal in which you write down what you’re grateful for each day. When you’re able to be grateful for your life, more good comes to you. When we focus on what we don’t have, we never have enough.
What you attract into your life depends on where you’re putting your energy and focus. When I was down and out, I felt like all these horrible things continued to happen, events and people coming into my life were vibrating at the same level as me. In that way you can actually attract negative people and things into your life. It’s with meditation and finding gratitude that you can be aware that you control your thoughts. When you choose gratitude and goodness, you attract it into your life.
Nourishing my soul through my diet:
Awareness of the foods I eat and the effect they have on my body, mind, and spirit has been instrumental in my growing happiness. When I started to make shifts, at first slowly and then with a greater awareness, things really began to open up. I felt alive for the first time in a very long time.
Juicing made a huge impact on feeling alive again. But also putting healthy foods in my body and for my kids made a huge impact.
My kids forced me at the beginning to stick with a routine. I was forced to get up with them to get them to school or activity. But overtime I realized that I found peace in the routine.
I was always so frustrated when people would say, “Time heals.” While the pain never goes away, with time it does soften. I still think of Chris daily, and especially on our anniversary, his birthday, or holidays. At many of the girls’ events, I think, “How can he be missing this!?” But the pain has shifted, and now I can even smile when I think of the memories, or tell the girls their dad would be so proud.
Relationships and community:
After experiencing such a deep loss, it was hard for me to relate to other people. When Chris died, a part of me died too. I felt empty inside. I also felt that no one understood what I was going through, not even those closest to me. I often felt alone even in a room filled with family and friends.
We were all grieving the loss of his presence in our lives. For me, I knew he would no longer sleep in my bed, give the girls a bath or kiss us goodnight. At first, I wanted everyone to understand and it hurt when they didn’t.
But I did have lots of loving support from family and many friends. They were there for me and I’m forever grateful. They helped with my girls, especially in those early days when I was barely aware of what was going on around me, and they’re still there today. I couldn’t have done it without each person.
It taught me a lot about who my friends were. While I lost some friendships during this time period, maybe because they didn’t know how to handle my darkness, I’m grateful for those who stood by my side and the new friendships that developed. But I realize now that the people who weren’t there didn’t have the tools or the ability to know what to do. I know that people gave me what they were capable of giving at that time.
But the truth is while I could not have done it without friends and family, there was little they could do for me as a person. I owned that; they couldn’t make it better. I came to understand that I was the one responsible for my life and healing, and that I needed to reach out for support to my friends for help, but the inner work had to be done by me. I’ll never forget what one of my counselors at my grief group said on my first day: “Everyone has their own journey through grief, but you have to go through it, not around it.” Years later, that now makes an awful lot of sense to me.