This story is a followup to Dina’s first story, which can be found here.
“I have learned when faced with the fire, you have three options: you can let yourself be consumed by it, therefore falling victim to it; you can walk around it, which lets it define the path you take; or you can walk through it, and while you’ll suffer (a LOT), you will come out stronger and far braver than you ever thought possible. You’ll come out better than you were before.
It was five years ago, on March 6, 2015, that my story changed, and I was thrust into a new chapter which forced me to make decisions on how to manage the fire. A widow at 32, with a baby growing in my belly and due to arrive 10 weeks after my husband died, I became the main character in a story that didn’t make any sense to me. I found myself walking around the fire with every opportunity, trying with all my might to erase the tragic memories and just survive the numbness that had taken over. It was 3 weeks after my son, Jack, was born that I made the conscious decision to break up with grief and walk through the fire instead.
I wrote about this chapter of my life here, and while I was fearful of the reaction, the response has been nothing but positive and encouraging. It prompted me to write again, over 1000 days since that new chapter began.
The most common question I’ve received via social media is ‘How??’ My answer every time is, ‘I don’t know…. but you can, too!’ I honestly don’t know how, but I did learn (and continue to learn) a lot. And, in honor of the 5 years that have passed since I was forced to manage the fire, I thought to share a few things I have learned while on this journey:
We aren’t meant to live in this world alone – embrace your tribe. Our brains and bodies go into survival mode when faced with tragedy. In the morning hours of March 6, my sister told me what to do (‘Call your work, Dan’s work, Dan’s best friend, and then give me your phone’). My dad helped me understand the logistics I needed to manage even though I just wanted to hide under the covers. My mom and sister told me to talk to a therapist, and our dearest family friend Loryn gave me a number, and I found myself sitting on a doctor’s couch the following Tuesday. My mom slept next to me for 3 days straight, and my aunt Rana slept on a tiny love seat in my living room just because she wanted to be close by.
My house was filled with people who just showed up and made sure I was cared for. And when the dust from the tragedy settled, in the days and weeks after Dan was buried, when people moved on, but I was living in the thick of the fire, my tribe was there to hold my hand as I walked through. Those same friends who sat next to me while I sobbed tears of grief and agony, who helped me make sense of the madness, also encouraged me to feel again, then traveled from near and far to watch me get re-married two years later. They shared in my sadness and rejoiced in my happiness, and I know with certainty I would not have been brave enough to walk through the fire without each and every one of them by my side. Now, my best friends on this planet are my tribe. We lift each other up and support each other through anything big or small. The saying goes to find your tribe and love them hard – please do. You won’t regret it.
‘Most everything in life grows with time, except for grief. Grief gets smaller with time.’ My dad said those words to me in the days after Dan died, and I remember wishing so desperately that he was right. Just as my C-section scar from Jack’s birth fades, so does the deep pain of grief. Like my scar, the grief is there in the background, and every once in awhile, there’s a sharp pain that pops up in a way that takes my breath away, but it’s not the open wound it once was. And just like Jack grows and matures and is now a 4-year-old kid instead of the tiny tater tot he once was, I’m growing and maturing and finding my way as well. It took me a while to recognize this, but the fact I can watch a scar fade on my body as the grief changes in my heart, and I can watch my child grow in his own way while I do the same is an incredible visual reminder my dad was right when he said those words to me five years ago.
Pain and healing are not mutually exclusive. You can feel grief and happiness at the same time. You can feel confusion and excitement together. You can feel horror and optimism side by side. Our brains and hearts are incredible, and we have the power to process the most complex emotions at the same time, as long as we let ourselves. I live a happy life today – I am content, satisfied, and grateful for what I have. I also still have terrible nightmares, and my incredible husband has had to comfort me in the middle of the night more than once. After we first got married and this would happen, I would find myself feeling terrified (and let’s be honest, embarrassed), and I would automatically assume I was taking a step back in my healing. This is not a sign of failure or taking a step backward, it’s a sign of healing. It’s better to feel something than to feel nothing at all, and feeling the good and bad together can (and will) happen at the same time.
Gratitude beats guilt. For me, guilt was the dominant feeling after Dan passed away. I felt a profound sense of guilt for letting myself fall asleep for a few minutes, and then for not being strong enough to do a better job of giving him CPR. I still have these feelings today. But along with those feelings of guilt is also a constant feeling of gratitude. Despite the trauma and tragedy of that night, my body protected Jack. I was (and still am) immensely grateful for my body’s ability to protect my unborn child, even though I was feeling broken on the inside. I am in awe of my tribe, and I am grateful for the men and women who surrounded me then and still surround me today. I’m amazed at the complexity of our brains and hearts, and I am grateful for my brain’s ability to process and understand and my heart’s infinite capacity for love. I now have a husband – Rick, the captain of my tribe – who is my partner in parenthood and in life, and I am grateful for him as well as my ability to love again. Rick is Dada to Jack, and that is a daily reminder that true parenthood does not require biology, and I am grateful for that every day. One day, Jack will be, too. My list of gratitude can continue on indefinitely. Every time I start to fall into the trap of guilt, I remind myself of what I am grateful for instead.
I don’t have all the answers – not even close. And, I haven’t handled this perfectly – perhaps one day I’ll write about all the (many) mistakes I made along the way. But I do know it is our response to challenges that defines who we are, not the challenges themselves.
To anyone going through something hard: I promise you won’t always feel as badly as you do today.”
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