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At a loss: How losing a loved one can help you take stock of what really matters

I'd lost my husband and then both of my parents, but you have to keep on living, even if everything seems to be against you.
holding hands
One of the biggest lessons the author offers to individuals suffering loss of any kind is the fact that you’re truly not alone. PeopleImages / Getty Images

There is virtually no way to sugarcoat it. The past two and half years have been truly the worst, most traumatic and tragic time in my entire 47 years on earth. After filing for an unexpected divorce due to my husband’s infidelity and dishonesty in early 2016, I endured a long divorce trial process and felt I hit the proverbial finish line in August 2017 when the judge smacked his gavel and announced I was officially divorced. My five kids and I sighed a resounding sigh of relief that days would only get better from there.

Unfortunately, that feeling was short lived. In fact, it was only the beginning of my family’s literal and figurative trial. My elderly parents, and best friends, were first both hospitalized one month after the other, both in failing health. Due to all the personal stress I’d been under, I contracted shingles (for the second time) on my face causing debilitating eye pain that continues today. My new car was stolen from my driveway in the middle of the night in suburban Chicago and the police embarked on a 12-hour search to retrieve my car in the belly of the city. It seemed I had a black cloud over my head.

And the worst thing happened

While all of this was going on, I tried to put things into perspective and keep the faith. My kids and I were safe and sound and I kept repeating to myself that this season soon would be over. I imagined life would resume to “normal,” whatever that means. Then the worst thing imaginable happened. Right before Christmas 2017, my 86-year-old father and my dearest confidante (who held my hand every day in divorce court just months prior) unexpectedly developed sepsis and died. He was immediately and tragically gone from my life and I was devastated. The visceral pain I felt was unlike anything I could describe. Following his death, I had to also witness the indescribable pain and grief of my sweet 85-year-old mother who just lost the man she’d been sweethearts with for more than 67 years.

In hopes of giving my mother some joy in such a dark time, we began to plan fun things to do to keep her mind and heart occupied; watching my children in the winter choral concert, a much-dreamt-about trip to the ocean for mom to feel the sand under her toes one more time, my children’s upcoming birthday celebrations and my eldest child’s upcoming high school graduation in May. I tried to offer my mother opportunities to give her hope while she suffered a deep depression caused by such a massive and sudden loss of my father. Just three short months after my dad died, in March 2018, my mom complained of shortness of breath and I immediately called 911 and got her transported to the nearest hospital. She was declining rapidly and told me she did not want to go just yet — she pleaded with me to do everything I could to keep her alive and able to do the things we had hoped and planned to do together. On March 20, 2018, my mother also died in the ICU. The world as I knew it was swirling around me. In just two years I had lost my husband of 18 years, my dreams for the future with him, a large sum of money carved out for my children’s college education and most importantly, my two parents. How could anyone survive such compounding grief and loss? Why was I being put through this earthly test? My circle of colleagues, family and friends no longer even knew what to say to comfort me. How could I survive such loss?

You have to keep on living, even if everything seems to be against you

With millions of people shocked and grieving the sudden and tragic deaths of designer Kate Spade and culinary legend Anthony Bourdain due to suicide, it’s important for others to stop and take stock of the value of life and why it’s so vital to keep on living even when everything seems to be against you. From very personal experience both now and in my younger years, I can attest that there have been a few days that I simply didn’t want to go on. I wished a giant lightning bolt or a car crash would just wipe me off this earth to avoid the massive emotional pain I was in. However, through my own faith in God and the willingness to be vulnerable and ask and accept help from others, I struggled through many weeks and months of depression and can say that I’ve come through to the other side with a sense of peace and deep gratitude. Yes gratitude. I am now, more than ever, at a place where I can see the gifts that have come from the ashes of my many adversities. I’m also incredibly empathetic to others who have struggled with lifelong battles with clinical battles with mental illness that expands well beyond my own personal experiences connected to high school bullying, postpartum depression, divorce and death.

Your brain on depression

April 5, 201802:09

No matter the initial root cause, I offer the following tips for anyone who is suffering through the loss of a loved one or relationship or anyone considering harming themselves. I share what I’ve gleaned in an effort to help others gain perspective, support and, most importantly, hope.

1. You’re Not Alone

One of the biggest lessons I can offer to individuals suffering loss of any kind is the fact that you’re truly not alone. So many people offered up to me their own personal stories of loss and how they dealt with it. I’ve spent many late nights reading other articles and stories about grief and divorce. I’ve chosen to share my story or my worries with others that have walked in my shoes before me and they have given me great advice, empathy and tips to get me to a better place.

2. Take It One Day at A Time

In the midst of my trauma, I decided to only worry about the day I was living in. I couldn’t change the past and I couldn’t control the future, as much as I wanted to. In the beginning of my divorce ordeal, I worried about how I was going to pay for five children going to college in the next four years. More recently, I was anxious about being alone without parents or a husband to provide me with support. Instead of letting myself panic, I decided to just focus on positive efforts each day to get me to the safety of my bed each night. After some time, I started to find out it got easier and easier as the days, weeks and months went on.

3. Don’t Worry About Stigmas

It’s okay to ask for help. It’s more than okay to seek medical treatment or therapy. There is nothing wrong with you or embarrassing about taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications to help you transition through a tough patch in life or even take medication for your entire life. Therapy has proven to be very helpful to me to gain more perspective and understanding on how to direct my pain into positive channels like volunteering and spending even more time with my kids. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that no one is paying that much attention to my own struggles; they are more focused on their own.

Despite what you might see externally, everyone is running their own race and fighting their own private battles.

4. Grief Isn’t Permanent

When you’re deep in the mires of it, you don’t understand or comprehend you will ever feel happy again. I definitely believed that I would never find joy when I was at my lowest and saddest point. Yet, now I’ve now gained a new appreciation for what grief teaches you. Life is for learning valuable lessons to pass on to others, making other people’s lives better or happier. It is also for refining your values and where you spend your precious time. For your own sanity, lose the self-consciousness or concern about what others may or may not think of you.

Despite what you might see externally, everyone is running their own race and fighting their own private battles. We must not judge one another. There is no timeline for suffering or grief. Some people live with it for years. But it robs them of joy. Don’t waste your life wishing it was different. There is always hope and the opportunity for new beginnings. I’ve learned firsthand that you just embrace where you are today and keep on living and loving.

Kathleen Kenehan Henson is a contributor to NBC News BETTER and the founder and CEO of Agency H5, an award-winning public relations and integrated marketing firm based in Chicago. She is the mother of 5 children ages 18-9 and was recently featured in the new book Kindness in Leadership (Gay Haskins, 2018).