Several years ago, as a CEO and busy working mom of five children (now ages 18 to 8), I recall devouring the book "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg. I thought I had found my personal Dali Lama, giving me sage wisdom and a comrade in arms who shared stories of breastfeeding babies while simultaneously leading conference calls and managing the other charming and sometimes crazy anecdotes that unite working leaders worldwide.
Bottom line from Sandberg? It’s not always easy, but it’s always possible to achieve whatever the world perceives as “balance” in business and family. What I didn’t know when I developed my girl crush on Sandberg, was that her second book was going to be even more relevant and incredibly important to me. In her best-selling book, "Option B," Sandberg chronicles how the devastating and untimely death of her beloved husband Dave Goldberg changed her profoundly from the inside out. I recall being incredibly saddened to learn of her loss, but became even more familiar with her deep pain when I lost my own husband to very different, but still incredibly painful, circumstances.
My Life Changed in an Instant
In February 2016, I learned that my marriage of nearly 20 years was over in a split second. An accidental unveiling of a single email unraveled a terrible tale of my husband’s secret double life. I had been living with someone that I didn’t know at all. Every element I took to be true — his love, his fidelity, his care of our financial safety — was false. My beautiful family, my entire life plan and the dreams as I knew them were gone. As a very prominent and visible business leader in my hometown of Chicago, I have always been viewed as someone who truly “had it all.” A self-made success story of a young working mom who forged out on her own to build a national, award-winning firm that worked with the biggest and best brands in the world. An adoring wife who was always by her husband’s side at charity events around town. An uber-busy woman who ran swiftly in her Jimmy Choos and was devoted to school functions and fundraising. I was the average, everyday Sheryl Sandberg who related to every bit of advice and insight in "Lean In." And then, all of a sudden, I related to the other Sandberg who spoke so eloquently about loss and the lessons that come from it.
The revelations of my husband’s choices, coupled with the awful ramifications of a costly divorce that included experts and witness testimony, numerous court appearances and countless sleepless nights, took a big toll on me. My heart was totally broken, my mind was blown, I stopped eating and taking care of myself and I physically and psychologically shut down. I even recall a few dark days when I wasn’t sure I could actually go on. I wished the world would swallow me up and I would be released from the indescribable pain I was in, but I knew I had to fight through it because of the five precious children at home who needed their mom to get back up again, be strong and help them survive this catastrophe.
My Broken Heart Became a Gift
With nearly two years of deep reflection and a lot of good friends, support of family and some therapy thrown in there, too, I have learned that my deep despair and total unraveling of life was a gift. Yes, I said a gift. That is actually the rather shocking part of my tale. I could have never predicted when I took stock of my personal situation, the devastation it caused my children who never saw conflict in our home, the impact my impending divorce took on my successful business and the soul crunching toll my personal loss took on the woman who everyone viewed as having it all figured out. I took away several lessons that have molded me into the happy person I am today.
1. Rally your troops and ask for help
As someone who always leveraged the vast connections and resources in my world to help others, it was incredibly hard for me to ask for and accept help when my life turned sideways. I learned a valuable lesson from others who had walked before me in divorce and other losses. It’s absolutely okay to be vulnerable and ask for help, something I had rarely ever done before. Others won’t start viewing you as weak. The important people in your life won’t judge. In fact, they will see your strength in acknowledging you need a hand. Part of the big lesson is also having the humility to stop and accept help, be grateful for it and not feel less for it. It took me a while to recognize that while I prefer being on the “giving” side of things, there are times in your life when you need to be on the receiving end. It doesn’t make you a lesser person. It makes you human.
2. Change your point of view
I will admit that for the first several months I was squarely caught in the “Why Me?” mindset. I couldn’t comprehend how my children and I could be in the midst of a family crisis of this magnitude. Then I decided to look at my life from the opposite perspective. I began being thankful. Thankful for everything including waking up in the morning, grateful that I had two parents in their mid-80’s that were still here to provide emotional and spiritual support, honored that I had so many friends and colleagues that loved and were rooting for me, blessed that I had five incredible children simply because of my now-broken marriage. I have decided to stay in a state of gratitude and its kept me going during some pretty tough times.
3. Embrace change, even when it's painful
No one, and I mean no one, wants to go through a life-altering event. Whether it’s a death, divorce, cancer or the loss of a job, life is going to throw you some pretty serious curveballs. Before my divorce, I thought that life was a long stretch of ‘good’ times with a few bad incidents thrown in there for good measure. Now, I firmly believe that life is generally a rocky, ever-changing, no-guarantees ride and you better have a strong anchor in place to get you through the high and low tides. I have strong faith in God and that has served me well. But for others, it might be meditation, yoga or journaling that help you process your life’s rockier moments. I know it might sound trite, but the only thing you can count on in life is that change is inevitable. So, embrace it and identify ways to cope.
4. Don't be afraid to edit your life
We often think that when our old life ends, it’s never going to be as sweet again. That is simply not true. I’ve found that it has offered me a rare chance to take stock of the people in my life, the causes I support and the time that I traditionally spend on things that don’t bring me as much joy and I’ve been able to release them. You truly find out who the people in your life are that deeply care about you when you are faced with tragedy. They are the ones that ask you “how are you, today?” and keep a consistent thread of contact with you. I have found that some people I invested in while married sadly weren’t as invested in the “single” me. I have learned its okay to say ‘no’ to things I used to regularly commit to. People that matter understand and they just want you to be happy and fulfilled. Edit out those that don’t have your best interest in mind.
5. Know the storm will end
Someone told me that it won’t rain forever. And while I’ve been living in a pretty tumultuous life climate for nearly two years, I have seen many sunny days and a few rainbows, too. Sometimes, when you’re right in the middle of a tough situation, it feels like there is absolutely no way out of it. And I’m living proof that no matter the size or scope of the storm, you will get to enjoy your life again. In the meantime, grab a good umbrella and boots and be prepared.
6. Accept and embrace the 'new you'
One of the greatest gifts that came from me losing nearly everything, is a clearer picture of what I actually needed in life. Long gone are the days where a day at the mall or a fancy new handbag defines my joy or provides me with a reminder of just how far I’ve made it from building my company out of my suburban basement. I have come to realize that I am very much happy with what I currently have. I value, much more, the company of and precious time with my quickly-growing children and I like the new me that’s risen out of the ashes of my former life. I am not going to say this process has been easy (or even over), but I am still here, standing tall and definitely more grateful for what my life has given me and what lies ahead in the future.
When faced with a devastating loss or your life plan completely goes off the grid, know that it doesn’t mean you’re cursed or that life is never going to be as good as it once was. I’m learning that it really is about appreciating the bumps and bruises (and scars) you get along this journey called life. It’s what you do with those lessons that allow you to stand stronger and hopefully share your story with others to stand stronger, too.
Kathleen Kenehan is the founder and CEO of Henson Consulting, an award-winning marketing communications firm based in Chicago. She is also the proud mother of five children ages 18-8 and the recent recipient of Purdue University’s 2017 Distinguished Alumna Award. Follow her at @KathleenHenson.