I’ll always remember a conversation I had with my mom shortly after my husband died, leaving me widowed at the age of 23.
“To me, you’re done,” she said. “If you do nothing else with your life this is enough for me.”
She had seen me nurse a cancer patient to his death; she’d watched me get married and, three weeks later, walk down a church aisle behind a coffin. I didn’t need to achieve anything else in her eyes.
At the time, I agreed with her sentiment. I believed that I was placed on this earth for one purpose: to be an “apprentice” carer during my father’s cancer — he was paralysed from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 17 years old — so that I would have the skills I needed to walk my husband through chemo, radiotherapy and a terminal prognosis.
Over the next few years, although I was still ambitious when it came to my career, I knew that anything I achieved in the future would come second to my most significant accomplishment.
On a good day, this made me feel proud; on a bad day, it made me self-destructive. I got into relationships with men who I didn’t like because I figured my greatest love had already happened. I told my best friend I would never have a baby because: “I’ve already served my time taking care of someone.”
At times I was selfish, thoughtless and angry, directing it at my friends and my family. I felt like I had the ultimate get-out clause to do whatever I liked — or not do anything at all — because I already had so many “selfless” credits in the bank.
In a sense, grief made me conceited. My sister once told me that I manipulated our parents with my drama. I played on it. I milked it. I would say, repeatedly, that I didn’t want to be defined as a widow, but I really did.
The worst day of my life was my greatest achievement. What accomplishment could make my family prouder or make society think more of me than that?
Do your struggles make you feel special?
Do you wonder who you’d be without them? This isn’t necessarily a bad way to feel about yourself.
As a writer, I’ve spent the past decade interviewing “empowered survivors” about their coping mechanisms, which became the basis for my book “The World is a Nice Place: How to Overcome Adversity Joyfully.” However, there is a downside to wearing your challenges as a badge of honor.
We live in a world where survivors are held in high regard. In movies, the female lead has to face hardship before she can find her happy ending.
On television talent shows, the most popular singers are the ones with the toughest sob story.
The problem arises when you use the past as an excuse to not to reach your full potential and accept it as your unique selling point.
Being a widow opened doors for me
The truth is that, although I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, being a widow opened doors for me.
When I was trying to break into the magazine industry, one editor only agreed to meet me for an interview because she’d recognized my name from an article I’d written about being widowed. I lost count of the number of times people called me “amazing” just because I’d watched a man die.
I was grateful for the compliments. Yet, I also couldn’t shake a niggling feeling — wouldn’t it be better if my greatest achievement was something a little more positive?
As a woman in her 20s, had I really hit my peak on the day they lowered my husband’s lifeless body into the earth? You’ve survived. You’re still standing. You’re no longer numb. You’re no longer angry. You want to move forward.
So … what’s next for you?
I’ve always been inspired by people who managed to use their toughest times as triggers. They don’t try to find “closure” but instead use the worst moment of their lives as step one on a path leading to an achievement that made them shine more brightly.
My friend Scott Maggs, the creator of a skin cancer awareness organization Beard Season, was inspired by the loss of his best friend Wes, who died of malignant melanoma like my husband.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of animal rights group PETA, was taken by her mother to a leper colony when she was a child so she could learn about suffering.
Social entrepreneur Jules Allen has fostered 32 children in the past two decades. Her journey began when she was just 22 and escaped an abusive relationship.
Whenever I asked such people about their greatest achievements, they didn’t focus on the worst thing that had ever happened to them. Instead, they talked about what came afterward. They had taken that life experience and not let it become static, instead allowing it to evolve, emerge and expand.
Turning pain into purpose
The reality is that turning your pain into purpose isn’t always easy. Although starting your own not-for-profit or caring for sick children is admirable, it’s not for everybody. So, what lasting skills have your early life given you and how can you re-package and re-gift them?
Even as a junior journalist, fresh out of college, I found that people opened up to me.
Because of my time spent in “Chemo Club,” I wasn’t afraid of tackling heavy subjects with strangers. I feel no awkwardness around discussing death.
Because of my years in therapy, I knew how to explain tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique, meditation and mindfulness, long before they became trendy.
A stranger once wrote under one of my online articles, “For god’s sake, will she ever stop writing about her dead husband?” To be honest, probably not! But it’s not all that I will do.
Although walking my husband from this earth was a great honor, if you asked me about my greatest achievement it wouldn’t be at the top of my list, or even in the top five.
Today, my greatest achievement is a lot less extraordinary than my past experiences — it’s contentment.
When I was writing my book, I was pregnant with my first child. One day, an elderly woman approached me as I typed in a cafe. “I just have to say, I’ve been watching you for a while,” she said. “You look so peaceful and contented. Your unborn baby is very lucky to be around that.”
An old echo in my head said, “Imagine if she knew what you’ve been through!” But I no longer feel like I need to use my past to make an impression. Instead, I thanked her and accepted the compliment, not for the girl that I once was, but for the woman that I am today.
Whether you’re in the middle of a breakup, health scare or career crisis, we all have the capacity to evolve and grow with every challenge and to create an even better future after a difficult situation.
Your greatest achievement — which could “just” be happiness — can always be ahead of you, no matter what’s behind you.
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