When I was 41, my husband Scott died suddenly in the shower of a massive heart attack.
That day, I was treating physical therapy patients in a room with no cell coverage. As I walked up the stairs to leave work, my phone went crazy with notifications ... When I got to the car, the phone rang. It was my mom saying Scott was dead. My boys had found him in the shower while I was at work and gone to our neighbors for help.
I sat with tears streaming down my face and tried to process what was happening. I was crying out to Scott; I was crying out to God. I needed to get home to our boys.
After his funeral, once the initial shock wore off, people began to ask me how I was doing. In our small town, most people knew what had happened; they were concerned but wanted to be respectful of the situation.
I focused on the silver lining of the sh***y cloud I was under and I usually gave them these answers:
1. I was happy that the "bad guys" didn't kill him. (Scott had been in the SEAL Teams and worked abroad for years, so there was a possibility of this.) I was grateful that my boys would never feel the need to seek revenge.
2. He didn't suffer. The coroner said it was clear he was gone before he hit the ground.
3. I was grateful that he was home, and that I never had to transport his body back from overseas. Four days before he died, Scott had returned from Africa.
When I meet people for the first time and they hear the story, they say how sorry they are. But they don't need to apologize for what I've gone through. It has molded me into the person I have become.
I did the work, and I took the time to be quiet, to observe and to re-learn who I was as Macara, not as a wife of a Navy SEAL. From this horrific experience, I am far stronger and wiser than I ever could have imagined.
I have learned the gift of being able to sit in the moment and listen with an open heart. I don't focus on the the problem, I focus on the bigger picture of where growth can occur. I try to be the calm in the center of the storm. If I get wrapped up in emotions, I come back quickly to looking for bigger lessons to be learned. I am able to calm friends, clients and patients when they feel unsteady.
We are here to learn. I now look for the lesson that can be gained when terrible things happen. I know there ALWAYS is one.
I've learned to trust the process, even when it makes no sense. I have learned that I will not be given anything that I am not able to handle.
What got me through my husband's death — and what has gotten me through every challenge ever since — was that I shifted my thinking. It's not an original idea. Several years before Scott's death, I had read a book by Elizabeth Lesser called Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, which includes several short pieces about people going through different tragic situations.
The premise was this: When something terrible happens, you can continue to live your first life ... or you can phoenix from the ashes of the tragedy and live a second life with meaning and purpose. The idea isn't to forget the past but to use the knowledge gained to help others. And so that's what I've been trying to do ever since Scott died.
The idea of "shifting your thinking" isn't limited to tragedy. It can be applied in day-to-day situations. For example, when my mom was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis years ago, she was put on Lasix, a medication to decrease fluid retention, which meant she had to pee a lot.
She told me how tired she was from getting up and down to go to the bathroom. I explained that she needed to shift her thinking ... She needed to think of transitioning from "sit to stand" as an exercise. It was an opportunity for her legs to get stronger.
At first she laughed. But now? My mom does not mention the Lasix side effects. If anything, she tells me how many "squats" get done during the day! She successfully shifted her thinking at the age of 80.
There is that old saying about looking at life through rose-colored glasses. I believe in doing this. Except that I acknowledge when crappy things happen. I simply choose to find the lesson that could be buried deep in the experience.
If you're going through an unwelcome experience, I invite you set an intention. Create small steps to shifting your thinking. The shift is the gift.
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