When Tragedy Strikes–Midlife Recovery from Loss of a Loved One

Shortly after dinner on December 31, 2006, my wife Gloria and I settled into our family- room couch for a quiet, peaceful New Year’s Eve at home. Both of us were looking forward to a healthy and happy 2007. Only three days prior, Gloria had received a highly positive physician’s prognosis following four months of chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Her tumors had disappeared and the cancer was in total remission.

Around seven PM, our phone rang. Gloria answered then dropped the phone and turned to me in utter shock, disbelief and horror; a close friend was calling to inform us that our only daughter Kristen had been killed while piloting a small plane to fly an advertising banner over the San Diego Chargers football game.

Completely without warning, tragedy had struck home. Just one month earlier, I had published my motivational book, A Mid-Life Challenge–Wake Up!, that includes advice for recovery from traumatic loss of a loved one. Suddenly, I faced this enormous challenge myself!

In describing my path to recovery, I can assure anyone losing a loved one that the hurt will not soon go away. More than seven years after the tragedy, my wife still occasionally breaks into tears when she is reminded of our loss. From time to time, months even years after her death, emptiness engulfs me when I reflected on Kristen’s love of life and her shining future as a commercial pilot, snuffed out in a few brief seconds as her small plane tumbled nose-first into the ground, killing her instantly.

For some, like my wife and me, loss of a loved one is sudden and unanticipated. For others, a loved one’s final days are lingering, perhaps bittersweet. In either instance, the untimely loss of a spouse or offspring can darken a previously positive outlook  and bring a sudden halt to the search for a brighter tomorrow.

To shorten the period of extreme emotional distress and to re-ignite your quest for a full and happy life, I kindly suggest a shift in focus, at your own pace (recovery from loss can’t be rushed), from painful recollection of the past to a proactive game plan for the future. If asked for advice, I would counsel fellow survivors as follows:

1. Up front, accept the fact that you can never fill completely your present emotional void. The only worthy objective is to acknowledge your loss, grieve for as long as needed, then begin making plans to move forward, playing with the cards dealt to you.

2. Seek outside counsel as needed to advance beyond grief to acceptance. If like me, you believe in a Devine Presence active in human affairs, pray continuously for the strength to carry on. If it helps, contact a spiritual advisor or a qualified professional grief counselor. Join in a support group with others who have suffered loss.

3. Do all that you can to ease the burden on fellow survivors. Actively seek out and assist other family members and loved ones who grieve. From the start, a personal goal has been to travel that extra mile to make my wife’s sense of loss more tolerable. By concentrating on her emotional recovery, I have less time to worry about myself.

4. Remind yourself daily that your only realistic positive course of action is to actively plan out the remainder of your life. No matter how devastating the loss, you do not want to forfeit control over your own personal destiny. If you are a surviving spouse with children or teens at home, you will need to scope out a family recovery plan to meet the financial and emotional needs both of self and of offspring.

5. As difficult as it first may sound, the latter stages of recovery from loss is an ideal point in time to self-examine talents, aspirations and possibilities. As a survivor, you do not have the option of going back to how things used to be. Why not appoint yourself CEO in charge moving forward positively into the future?

6. Once the shock wears off, begin to test life’s boundaries. Ask yourself, “Going forward, what do I really want out of my career? How will I spend my free time? How best can I serve others? Where should I go to seek out new friendships and relationships?” If you lost a spouse, would you consider getting married again? If you lost a child, would you and your spouse consider adopting a child or serving as foster parents?  Above all, keep busy advancing a positive daily agenda you can both control and admire.

7. Dedicate yourself to pursuits that would have made your departed loved one smile. What causes did she or he cherish? For a surviving spouse with children, the most obvious cause is wise and joy-filled care and nurture of offspring. As father of a departed adult daughter, I routinely ask myself, “What causes would Kristen most like her mother and me to support? What contributions of time and money will best honor her memory?”

8. Celebrate the positives in your departed loved one’s life. I fought off initial periods of grief by preparing my daughter’s obituary and by presenting tributes at her two memorial services. Gloria and I willingly spoke with a reporter from a local TV station to recount our daughter’s life and accomplishments on the evening news. Even now, seven years after her death, I celebrate daily Kristen’s life as a Navy and civilian pilot, living out her dreams of soaring over the clouds.

The past seven years haven’t been easy, but Gloria and I continue to recover and are proudly moving forward in celebration of our daughter’s life. Similar to alcoholism, grief recovery is a continual process that must be acknowledged and overcome, one day at a time.  There will always be bad days, but overall life for us in 2014 is very good.  Life can be positive for you too as a survivor so long as you remain patient and optimistic. Take time to heal at your own pace, but when ready, take control and pursue an agenda that’s best for you and for surviving loved ones whom you cherish.

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