Reflections on 2019: My Takeaways from TragedyJan 13, 2020
CALM SEAS ARE WHERE YOU’LL FIND PEACE, BUT STORMS ARE WHERE YOU’LL FIND POWER.
On January 1, 2019, I woke up groggy and tired, not from the New Year’s celebrations the night before like most 30-year-olds, but from my husband, Ian, tossing and turning from excruciating cancer pain all night. In the early morning I rolled over to ask how he was feeling. He looked at me anxiously and said that he couldn’t feel or move his legs. Instantly alarmed, I jumped out of bed to help him. I bent his knees attempting to swing them around the bedside so that he could stand, but they flopped back down on the mattress like two dead weights. I immediately dialed 911.
An ambulance arrived and Ian was transported to the closest hospital. MRI results showed a tumor compressing against his lower spine and doctors started prepping us for emergency spinal surgery — or Ian would be paralyzed from the waist down. It was a skeleton crew that New Year’s morning and the odds of Ian walking again, even with the tumor removed, were extremely low, but we decided that spinal surgery was our best bet.
I remember bursting into tears when the surgeon delivered the news that the surgery went well … but he didn’t think Ian would be able to walk again. I knew that if Ian couldn’t walk, let alone run, swim, surf and enjoy all of the other activities he loved, then the fight would be over. Cancer would win.
When the nurse informed me that I could visit Ian post-surgery, I cleaned up my red eyes and tried to push my fears aside for the moment. As he laid in the hospital bed, I leaned over to give him a kiss. He looked back at me with his playful smile and said, “Happy New Year, Emily!”
After two weeks of rehab, Ian left the hospital … walking.
If anything this last year has taught me it’s that we never truly know what each day will bring. We live in the unknown. As soon as we accept this fact, instead of fight it, we can just be in the moment and appreciate each day for what it is.
Now, we will not always like what each day brings. And when this occurs — because it will! — we are tasked with turning inward to gain a sense control. By focusing on our reactions to people, places and events; our minds; the voice within; the questions we ask ourselves; the choices we still have, we can experience freedom despite anything life hands us!
This way of thinking is entirely new to me. Before Ian died, I was not required to look inward because my life seemed perfect. It was everything I ever wanted. I was in control. Battling cancer and ultimately losing Ian was my rude awakening.
2019 has been a year of painful lessons. Lessons that have caused profound, beautiful shifts within, but at the cost of losing a human life — the love of my life. My children’s father. A son, a brother and friend to so many. These are lessons that I would unlearn in an instant if I could have him back. But the reality is that I can’t.
These twisted life tradeoffs are in my mind best described by The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” (Listen here if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Not just the lyrics of this song, but the tone, melody and overall mood allude to the overwhelming tragedies that occur throughout life, but once experienced, add more clarity, beauty, love and appreciation to it.
I’ve made a list of some of the tradeoffs (or takeaways rather) that I’ve personally experienced in the past 365 days — and yes, it’s taken a full year to realize that good can come from tragedy. I’m hoping that by sharing them, you can learn these life lessons without experiencing the tradeoff. Or, at least maybe change your way of thinking about the world.
Because the truth is that we are all battling something. Maybe not cancer. Maybe not losing a loved one. Whatever the hardship might be, if we stop asking “why is this happening to me” and start asking “why is this happening for me” (thank you Mark Groves), we can start to see the silver lining and grow.
Takeaway 1: The pain makes us stronger.
As much as it’s cliche, its just as true. Discomfort promotes growth. Yet, as a survival tactic, our bodies are biologically trained to avoid discomfort. In addition, society teaches us that discomfort, pain, and struggle are bad. So we tend to shy away from anything that is perceived as challenging or hard. We stay in our comfort zone. Content, confident … complacent. Often we don’t know how strong and capable we truly are until life kicks us out of our comfort zone.
When our world is rocked — brutal breakups, tragic deaths, unpredictable layoffs, terminal diagnosis — we are faced with two options*:
1.) Bury ourselves in the rebel
2.) Rebuild something stronger
These are the defining moments. Some of us stay stuck in the pain — buried — allowing the defining moment to define us. Why me? Asks the victim. Some of us stay stuck in this state the rest of our lives — and therein lies an entirely new tragedy.
Survivors ask what now? (nod to Dr. Edith Eger). We embrace the hardship, feel all of the emotions, dig deep within ourselves for strength, and lean on our communities when we can’t find it within. We put one foot in front of the other not because we know where we are going, but because we can! We can keep living! The process itself is painful and hard, and in the thick of it, we might actually feel weaker. But with time we gain the gift of perspective. We look back and see just how far we’ve come and how strong we really are.
When Ian’s cancer first metastasized I often thought about what my life would be like without him — and it terrified me. I couldn’t fully comprehend it and doubted my strength to survive a loss of that magnitude. Ian was my world. But when the nightmare became my reality, I saw two choices — become another tragedy or become something stronger. Looking back on the past year, I’m not just becoming strong…I am.
*Credit to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B
Takeaway 2: The heartbreak opens us up to love deeper.
Love. Hate. Excitement. Surprise. Anger. Frustration. Heartbreak opens us up to not only love deeper, but to feel deeper. After losing Ian and learning about grief, how thoughts drive emotions, and how feelings are a product of the mind, heart and body, I can honestly say that I’ve never truly felt like this before (in more ways than one!). I mean that my ability to feel and awareness of my feelings has been intensely heightened.
Before my heart was broken open, I lacked genuine empathy for others’ hardships. I heard their stories and saw the the pain in their eyes, but I didn’t truly feel it. Now, my body literally reacts when I hear of someone else’s struggle. My throat tightens, my breath shortens and the tears start to well up. And when this happens, I don’t disguise my sadness — or whatever feeling I’m experiencing. I embrace it and find so much beauty in the gift that I can finally FEEL what’s happening within.
My friend Amelia sent me a quote something to extent of “We have a tendency to judge our emotions. Love, joy and happiness are good. Sadness, anger and pain are bad. Feelings are just feelings. They all deserve reverence.”
Yes, my heart broke when I lost Ian. It broke it open so that I have more room to feel it all.
Takeaway 3: The loss helps us see all that we already have.
As I walked down the beach on my recent trip to Hawaii I wondered how Ian must have felt during his final days in his hometown. I imagined him crinkling his toes in the sand, questioning if this would be the last time he felt the beach beneath him. I cried thinking of him watching our kids play in the waves, potentially asking himself which one of his friends would teach them to surf if he wasn’t around to do the job himself. I listened to the wind and the sound of the ocean and recalled Ian lying still in his hospital bed in the back room of the beach house that overlooked the Mokoluas. Where he held on to the last sense the cancer couldn’t rob him of — sound.
Watching a loved one fadeaway is one of the most painful, heartbreaking events I’ve experienced to date. I’ve realized that every breath, every heart beat, every pain-free movement — is truly a gift.
We tend to forget this in the hustle of life. We get comfortable. We get complacent. We start taking our loved ones, our jobs, our cushy lifestyles for granted. We treat people and ourselves unkindly because we are stressed out over the small stuff, when we don’t realize what a privilege it is to simply be alive.
Losing someone opens our eyes to the only certainty in life — death. It blatantly reminds us that nothing is permanent, our time is limited, and to embrace and appreciate all of it!
In the months after Ian’s cancer metastasized, Ian woke up every morning to sit on our back deck that overlooks the Denver skyline. Sometimes he would read or the kids and I would join him for breakfast. But, more often than not, he would just sit there. He would soak up the sun, feeling the warmth permeate his skin, and fully appreciate what a gift it was to see another sunrise.
Takeaway 4: The questions drive us to live into the answers.
I thought I had all of the answers. Until that one tragic day that I didn’t.
Now, all I have are questions. Lots of questions. And, I’m learning to be ok with that.
This is perhaps my greatest takeaway from the year. Instead of fearing the uncertainty or getting over anxious about rebuilding my life without Ian, I’m seeking the silver lining in discovering this new unknown world. And honestly, I’m at a point where I can say that it’s kind of exciting! (Please note — this is a recent shift! Ask me this six months ago and I would have burst into tears overwhelmed by the bleakness of my loss and new normal.)
There are many people who will try to answer our questions for us. Tell us how we should behave, what we should care about, who and when we should fall in love, and what career path we should take. But what I’ve learned in the last 365 days is that when a storm hits, you need a strong foundation to weather it. The storm forces us to find our inner strength — our power — put one foot in front of the other even though you don’t have a plan, and simply keep asking what now?
In 2020, I plan to be my own guide.
I want to understand my authentic self. I want to trust myself and my intuition. I want to take risks — not mistaking that I need confidence to try new things, but instead courage. Courage to just do it, not because I know that it will work out, but because I believe it will. I want to let go of the future story and instead, let the story write itself.
On January 1, 2020, I woke up groggy and tired, probably from partying my ass off with all of my incredibly friends in Hawaii, like most 30-year-olds do. The sun shined brightly. The sky was blue. And the sea was calm.
If this New Year’s Day was another page in my story that’s unfolding daily, I’d have to say that it’s promising foreshadowing for an amazing year ahead!
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