When Things Fall Apart

Bouncing Back after a Major Life Setback


How do you bounce back after a major life setback? This is the question I’ve been pondering in the weeks since my brother died and as I recover from my third consecutive miscarriage.

Years ago my good friend Denise told me she believed that every tragedy, sadness and disappointment brings a gift.

She was a Legal Aid lawyer with a specialty in domestic violence and child abuse cases. Every day she saw the worst side of human nature and and I had asked her how she could live with all of the terrible things she had to see in her every day work.

No matter how bad things are, she said, there is always a gift but you have to look for it.

I remember at the time being skeptical of my friend’s philosophy.

Ten plus years later I see the wisdom in her outlook. In the short time since my brother’s death, I’ve already learned powerful lessons. While I am still yet early in the grieving process  I am learning that, in fact, it’s when things fall apart that life has the most to teach us.

What have I learned?

You can gain tremendous comfort from shared experience. 

When I blogged about Bart’s struggle with mental illness I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of support.

I received dozens of emails from people who had close family members who experienced mental illness and the stigma that is so often attached to it. Over and over people thanked me for shedding light on a disease that is often a source of shame for families.

One reader shared with me how both her mother and brother had committed suicide as a result of their bi-polar disorder.

Another shared how her bi-polar brother self-medicated with drugs and eventually died of an overdose before he turned 35.

Likewise, when I blogged about my miscarriages, women wrote to me to say they had never talked about the sadness they had felt and how happy they were that I’d written the post to give voice to something that so many women experience but rarely discuss.

The lesson? It’s important to talk about all of our life experiences, not just the good ones.

Your life lesson can be a blessing to someone. In turn, you can gain comfort knowing that as painful as the situation may be, there are many around you who empathize and share your experience.

Knowing are you not alone is vitally important in the healing process.

Resist the urge to be busy and just “be”.  

This is a hard one for me.

The double blow of a miscarriage and my brother’s death initially sent me into an activity frenzy.

I cleaned the house, went grocery shopping, baked a million dishes for the freezer and rearranged our master closet – anything to not face the reality of the pain I was in.

I would have continued down this unproductive road if my friend Mary hadn’t given me an incredible book by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Lessons for Difficult Times.

Pema Chodron observes that while it’s human nature to want to run away from painful situations, ultimately by not acknowledging and dealing with them, we prolong our suffering.

She writes that it’s important to experience suffering as a pathway to healing and renewal.That we should move toward painful situations with friendliness and curiosity.

This book has made me acknowledge my own grieving process and the pain I was experiencing while at the same time freeing me to be optimistic about the future.

Accept help when it’s offered. Seek help when you need it. 

There are times to be strong and self-sufficient but not when life deals you a knee-buckling blow.

When tragedy strikes, people will come out of the woodwork to help you. It can be hard for independent, high-achievers (and I’m definitely guilty) to accept help.

I know for me, I don’t like to burden people with my problems. I’m used to being the one who provides support. But what I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that people genuinely want to help. They want to bring you comfort and lift you up.

I was surprised at how relieved I felt when I accepted the kindness of others.

Knowing I had the support buoyed me in a way I didn’t expect.

Equally important is to seek out help when you need it.

I asked a friend of mine who lost his mother to ALS what he would have done differently after she passed.  Without hesitation he said he would have seen a therapist to help him through the grieving process.

This was echoed by a number of friends of mine who experienced loss who voiced how important it was not to deny feelings of grief and pain.

Accept that you aren’t in control. 

I’m a planner, an orchestrator. I’m thinking not just about this week, but three months from now, a year from now. My brother’s death and my miscarriage brought me crashing back down to earth. All of a sudden the next week, day, month didn’t matter. I couldn’t even think about it.

The grieving process has taught me to be grateful for the moment.

Being a mother to D2 right now is all the more sweet. Over the holidays while school was out and I was on vacation, we woke up late, played with his trains, hung out at the museum, and watched movies.

All that mattered was the moment and I was reminded that when I over focus on the future, I forget to be appreciate and be present in that moment.

I can’t control the future but I can control how I live my present.

Wait awhile before making any big decisions.   

It’s a natural reaction when a life -changing event has happened. You start to re-evaluate your life. You want to do something  to signal a change in direction.

When I was a college student one of my closest friends was involved in a number of intense romantic relationships that consumed her from the beginning of the relationship until the end. Each one ended badly and she’d be terribly depressed in the ensuing weeks.

I could always tell when she had ended a relationship because she would do something dramatic to her personal appearance. Usually she would color her hair a jarring color or get a new piercing or tattoo. As her friend, I’d try to talk her out of making big decisions, usually to no avail.

Invariably she’d regret the decision and the cycle would start again with the next relationship.

I can I understand how my friend felt though. Over the last few weeks I’ve been tempted to make a number of big decisions (some rational and some not so much) that I know I shouldn’t be thinking about right now.

Should I cut my hair off and go natural?

Should I start thinking about a career change?

Should we move to a new city?

Should we adopt?

The reality is that it’s far too early to make any big decisions right now.

So now I am content to “just be” knowing that I’ll know when the time is right to decide what needs to be decided.

If it sounds like I’ve got it all figured out, I don’t. I am still trying to get used to my new normal. I still have bad days (and some are really bad).  What I know for sure is that if other people can live through tragedy, I can too.  I won’t let it drag me under.

These lessons are helping me to live life more fully and in the end that is a gift.



Showing 8 comments
  • Myrdin Thompson

    “Fall down seven, get up eight” is my mantra at times. Now, there are times when you are on the ground and feel that if is physically impossible to rise up. The weight of grief literally pins you down. I wrote about this in one of my blogs as well, that grief and recovery are a journey that you walk at your own pace, no matter how fast others want you to go, it is your path to navigate. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with me. Stay strong my friend, but remember, when you feel weak I’m a phone call away. Peace & love.

    • bossmomonline

      Myrdin, I love that mantra! That really is life, isn’t it? Thanks for your continued support. It means a lot!

  • Cynthia Benin Lemus

    Pema’s book has been highlighted and dog-earded until it has almost fallen apart. I am glad you own it. Keep it next to your bedside and refer to it any time the going gets rough. Thanks for sharing and being open as it causes others to be open as well.

    • bossmomonline

      Cynthia, it’s such a great book and I’ve recommended it to others as well. Glad you found value in it too.

  • Wendy Smith

    Hi Portia – i’ve been thinking of you a lot. A book that’s given me comfort over the years is Rabbi Harold Kusher’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Take comfort as you can in knowing that there are many who care and are sending love your way.

    • bossmomonline

      Wendy, thanks so much and thanks for your email as well. I’ve ordered Rabbi Kushner’s book and plan to read it on the plane home to California.

  • bossmomonline

    Kajsa – we had so much fun those days, didn’t we? One thing though, it wasn’t easy. I just wanted to finish those killer runs! And you are so right, we do have to pick ourselves up. I always appreciate your wisdom and perspective.

  • Daria

    I am so sorry to hear of your losses. I have no wise words, just hugs and know I’m thinking of you.

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