Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Hardest Journey of My Life

Series: Grief, Strength, Resilience, and Perseverance 

Installment One: The Hardest Journey of My Life

Last week Bjorn and I started going to the gym every day. I typically attend my regular Zumba or dance class while Bjorn jogs on the treadmill and lifts weights; however, this certain day, I had missed the morning Zumba class. I didn't want to end my four day streak of making it to the gym, so I asked Bjorn to come with me. My plan was to simply walk on the treadmill and lift weights if we felt like it afterwards. A little note about me: I HATE walking on the treadmill. Treadmills, running, jogging--those activities are not for me. Once I'm on a treadmill, my mind starts to wander, I've only been on this treadmill for 5 minutes! That's it! I'm done! I can't do this for 40 more!

To combat my wandering mind and to help the treadmill time go by a little faster, I decided to begin a new Audible book that I recently downloaded. I had heard a lot about the book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. I hadn't read a lot about the contents of this book, but I had heard a brief snippet about it on the radio once and decided I wanted to give it a go. I was excited to start a new book--after all, school was out for summer and I had lots of time to dive into a new book. Little did I know that this book would affect me in ways I never expected. 

As the book starts, Sheryl begins to tell her story. A tragic story of death and grief. Her story, her pain, her grief---they rang too true to me. Even though it has been nine years since my dad passed away from a rare brain tumor, her story was my story. Her grief was my grief. Her bottom was my bottom. Everything she said slowly brought up my feelings of grief, fear, and hopelessness after my father's death. I felt raw and transported back in time to May 2008 when my dad took his last breath. 

It had been awhile since these feelings surfaced in my being. My eyes began to fill with tears. I breathed deeply to try to allow the tears to pass. I needed to turn the book off, but I couldn't. Sheryl was telling my story in her story. My grief was there on display for all to see; I felt overwhelmingly struck with emotion. Whenever I meet someone who has shared such tragedy in their life, it brings my own grief to the surface. Someone else has been through this too--and it makes me incredibly sad. Knowing that other people in this world have suffered such a deep grief is so difficult. No one should have to feel the extent of this type of grief, but this is life. It is stories like this that remind me that I have gotten through the toughest parts of life--that I can make it through anything. I realize this now, but I did not always see it this way.

In August 2007, my dad was diagnosed with a grade IV glioblastoma multiforme. In other words, my dad was going to die from a rare brain tumor. My dad's doctors had originally believed that the spots on his brain were from his multiple sclerosis (MS) progressing. But with further tests, they discovered that the spots had nothing to do with MS.  The butterfly-shaped brain tumor spread completely across the back of his brain from the left side to the right side. 

I remember the day that I got the call from my sister, Rachael, about the diagnosis. I was teaching, our school year had just started, and I couldn't take off every day that my dad had an appointment. This day I went to school to attend a staff meeting for my department. At the end of the meeting my phone rang. I knew it was Rachael and I had to answer it, so I stepped out of the room. I remember bits and pieces of what she said to me, "It's really bad... It's not MS...They said he has 6 weeks to live..." I don't know how I remained standing. I don't remember hanging up or how I got back into the meeting room. As I entered to get my things to leave, my director and friend stopped me to ask if I was okay. I didn't know what to say. My hands began to shake uncontrollably. My words came out in spurts and stutters. I don't even know what I said. 

Before I knew it, my friends had collected my things. One of them took my car keys and they began to drive me to my mom's house where my dad was. The whole ride I thought to myself about how unreal all of this seemed. I tried to make a deal with God: please God, I will do anything to make this unhappen. This can't be real. Maybe if I didn't go to my mom's house, the whole thing would just disappear and my dad would get better. Nothing you think in moments like this ever makes sense. 

After talking to my mom, my dad's doctors, my sisters, and the good-old internet, I found out that my dad had a diagnosis that was responsible for a 14.6 month average lifespan among patients. As always, it's difficult to believe something so life shattering to be happening to your family, so hope prevailed in the beginning. But once I found out more about his cancer, especially the fact that only 10% of patients live 5 years or longer with the disease, it was hard to allow hope back in. 

I watched my dad's condition deteriorate for 9 months. At times the days felt long and difficult. At times they flew by and I wished for them to slow down so that I could hang on to my dad a little longer. Slowly the reality of his disease hit--by Thanksgiving he could no longer walk and was bed-ridden. A hospital bed was rented and added to the furniture of our living room. His vision began to fade. His tumor was pushing on his optic nerve causing blindness. He could not longer feed himself. He couldn't see his food in front of him. And slowly, his short term memory left. He could not remember what he ate for breakfast, the conversation we had 5 minutes prior, or that he was dying. 

Once he passed away on May 11, 2008, the grief hit hard. I never expected to lose my dad at 26. All the things that he would miss from my life, my sister's lives, and my mom's life hit me head on. He would never see any of us get married. He wouldn't be there to walk us down the aisle. He would never meet his grandchildren. He would never get to retire with my mom. His dog, Bella, would never understand what happened to her grampy. He would never see my youngest sister graduate from college or her Master's program. He never saw me move into my first house. There were so many "never-woulds," and it broke my heart. 

The grief lasted a long time. It took me years to actually begin to feel like myself again, and even then, my anxiety was heightened. Depression reared its ugly head as well, something I had never felt before in my life. This was something as unfamiliar as grief. Trying to navigate such extreme lows was terrifying, draining, and foreign. I struggled for years to right myself. When I felt like I was moving forward, the grief would wash over me like an ocean wave, knocking me to the ground leaving me breathless. Getting through the grief and pain of my dad's death was not easy. Years of ups and downs took their toll on my body, my emotions, and my mental health. 

Nine years later, I am on the other side of my grief. I am still living my life. I am here. I have found my passions in life again. It's hard to say exactly when things took a turn and my joy began to come back again, but it happened. 

I had never really sat back and thought about or reflected on my grief until the day I began to listen to Option B. As a teacher and a business leader, it is so important for me to take my life experiences and figure out how to learn from them and move on to make my life better-- to make me a better teacher and to make me a better business leader. And listening to the first three chapters of this book started the wheels turning. 

At first it may sounds ridiculous, but overcoming my grief by finding strength within myself and the perseverance of my spirit, I have learned that it is possible to grow and learn from even the darkest experiences in our lives. And this book helped me wrap my head around this dark journey in my life and how I can use this experience in future struggles, life adventures, and business ventures. Resilience is needed in all aspects of our lives, but until I began this book, I had not connected the dots to see that I have so much strength within myself that can be used positively in other aspects of my life. 

Coming soon: 

The Similarities Between Grief and Fear: How to Overcome Setbacks in Life and Business