Life takes unexpected turns and one year ago today I encountered a 180 degree turn that shook me to my core for 365 days. It has shaped my view of life, purpose, and work in ways that are tangible. This is the first time I’ve written about the tragedy on this platform and wondered about the appropriateness of it. I happened to hear Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech at U.C. Berkley and decided to lean in myself and write some of what I’ve learned from the tragedy in hopes that you might glean something from the lessons I’ve learned in the past 365 days.
365 days ago, I received the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call that no one ever wants to receive. My daughter-in-law and granddaughter had been in a “pedestrian-vehicular” accident. My daughter-in-law underwent surgery for life threatening brain trauma. After 3 months in a coma, she came back to us and has been recovering through intensive therapies and support from my son, her husband, ever since. The accident left her with memory loss which continues to come back bit by bit. A southern belle to her core, Belinda was and still is beautiful. The differences are slight between what I’ve come to know as “B.T”, before the accident, and “A.T.”, after the tragedy. One unexpected difference that is a delight is her lack of filter. She speaks her mind with no care of if you like what she is saying or not. She inspires me to be that free.
There is another difference in life from B.T to A.T; we lost my precious granddaughter, Bella. Bella was five years old and had just finished kindergarten. She loved to laugh and sing, draw and dance, and she was mischievous. She was the light in her father’s eyes and joy of our hearts. The pain of her loss hit deeply. As I watched my son struggle with the reality of what had happened, my heart ached with the pain of a mother who was at a loss on how to parent an adult through such grief. I watched as he walked with his own grief while celebrating that his wife was still breathing, and I was struck by his graciousness, his composure, his depth of love. How did I ever raise such a lovely human being?
It’s been a year of lessons learned. People said a year would make all the difference. Grief is still my companion; yet it has been joined by Healing which tempers Grief when he wants to rush in and consume me. Sometimes we walk together through this process. Other times we run, oftentimes we pause to reflect. It has been in those moments of reflection that I realize what they have taught me on this journey.
1. Live life to the fullest. It’s true what they say. You never know when life will end. Life has a way of marching along and before you know it, you are at it’s end. Or it comes to an end far too quickly and suddenly. Are you dreaming of traveling the world or writing a book? Don’t wait. Book the trip. I am at this moment researching a trip to London and another to Italy. It’s my very own Eat, Pray, Love trip and way, way overdue. Step outside your comfort zone. Embrace life and live it now. Live to its fullest.
2. Your most precious gifts in life are family and friends. My family and friends are my treasure, my lifeline. I now live closer to my family. I make every effort to arrange my calendar to be at their dance recitals and award ceremonies. I make time for ice cream parlor trips and walks on the square and building forts in the living room out of blankets. I may not always live in the same small town they live in now, but while I’m here I will be present in the “now” moments of their lives. Make time for your family. The small things you are missing matter. As for my friends, my extended family – I am blessed. I have a small circle that are scattered throughout the country. I’m flying to see one in St. Petersburg in a few weeks. I’m meeting another for lunch. My friends sustain me, laugh with me (and at me on occasion!), and while work keeps us all busy, we manage to maintain our friendships because they matter, because we are important to each other, and because we are real with each other and never “fake”. They are all a part of my Tribe of the Magic Sisters, my unique band of misfits, troublemakers, and super smart women who could run the world (some do run companies). They keep me grounded, give me space to be heard and seen. They make me want to be a better me. We carry each other and love each other. So, find your tribe. Cherish your family and friends. And to my tribe – I love each of you deeply.
3. Choose to be kind. We all have a choice that we can take on any given day, in any given moment. We can choose to be kind, to be helpful. I can’t tell you how grateful I and my family were for the kind strangers who went out of their way to be helpful while waiting at the hospital. Some had loved ones of their own they were waiting anxiously to hear news of. Since then, scores of wonderful, kind people have come my way, and I now look for opportunities to be kind, to be compassionate to others. And don’t just look to be kind to others who look and act like you. Who are the “others” in your life? Maybe they have a different faith than you, or live outside the exclusive neighborhood you live in, or look different than you. Be kind. Reach out across the man-made designs that divide us as humans and create kindness for humans being in your life. That’s really what all of us are – “humans being”. It’s easier to “be” in this life with kindness and compassion.
4. Feed your soul and nurture yourself. I’ve learned to spend time on me. I moved to a loft on the river where the river runs over rocks and kayaking is a norm. I call it my Soul Space. Any tension I have leaves me immediately when I get home. And, I joined a gym (fancy high heels are not allowed so I’ll need some fancy Adidas) and I’m learning to eat well and take care of myself after stress eating my way through the past year. My first goal is to lose 10% body weight and work on cardio. My reward will be a hike in the Appalachians with one of the Tribe of Magic Sisters. I’ve learned to meditate and I’m learning yoga (slowly, slowly, slowly). I’m looking for a faith community in my new town. What inspires you? Nurtures you? Do that.
5. Reach for your highest aspirations and find your purpose. My purpose has always been education and I transitioned to a new job during this year of grief. I made the decision to leave a school I loved (and still do) to work as a school designer/professional development specialist. It was a hard decision but, when Bella passed, I knew I had made the right choice. I could not have emotionally made it through each day if I had continued to be an elementary principal. My love for the students, the hugs of first graders and laughter of third graders would have been daily reminders that Bella was never going to run through the halls of her school, or have another field day, or win a spelling bee, or graduate high school. When I took this position, I fervently hoped that the mission of the organization was something that truly lived within and across the organization. You know what I’m saying. Many companies have beautifully written mission statements that are just that, statements. What I found after one year was an organization that truly lives its values. We work hard and we are there for each other in the messy, hard work. My colleagues support me fully and push me to deliver my best self everyday. We are crew in every sense of the word. And, in my region, we are coined our own hashtag, #baar. The Bad Ass Atlantic Region. They are my people, part of my tribe.
This has been the hardest year of my adult life. And it’s been, in many ways, the most wonderful year. I’ve learned to find “the beauty of survival, resiliency, and of hope in life”.