“I’ve reached a place where I can say that grief is not about recovery or resolution or being fully healed. It’s about living without someone, but still embracing life.”
I am pleased to introduce Natalie Taylor, a young woman who has unfortunately learned about the fragility of life way too early – at the beginning of her married life. While pregnant with her first child, Natalie’s husband, Josh, died suddenly in a tragic carveboarding (skateboarding) accident.
Ms. Taylor’s book, Signs of Life, is her powerfully written memoir in a very down-to-earth style, of her journey through sadness and joy, grief and hope, as she finds the strength and courage to rebuild her life with her son, Kai.
What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move forward in a positive direction?
One thing was that my husband was so excited about life and he was just really enthusiastic and spontaneous and lived in the moment. And after he passed away I was so sad all the time, and after a while I realized that this is not how he would want me to live. So I tried to channel his energy of appreciating even the smallest opportunities we get. I tried to force myself to appreciate the moment, not take for granted the time I have with my son.
The other thing is that my family has done a really good job of always asserting throughout my childhood this idea of work ethic which sounds really weird next to grief. It doesn’t matter if you have to go to plan B, you go to plan B. You do whatever you have to do to keep going, to survive, to get your head in the right place. No matter what I’ve ever participated in, whether I played soccer or was on a team or taking graduate courses, I always told myself, maybe I’m not the smartest person in the room or on the field, or maybe I’m not the most talented, but I can always be the person who works the hardest. I feel like I really had to do a lot of work with grieving. I made myself go to a psychologist; I made myself write even when I didn’t want to. All of those things paid off; not immediately because nothing pays off immediately. But I think over time they were very helpful.
Did you go through a period of self-pity? If so, what helped lift you out of it?
It was never a prolonged period, but I definitely felt sorry for myself. Growing up, my mom had this slogan, “get out of the pity pool”. If something didn’t go our way, she’d say, “you have to get out of the pity pool.” I tried to keep that in mind. I do think the pity pool is never a popular place; nobody wants to be there with you. So I tried to stay out of it. I never vocalized my self-pity. I would think about it or write about it. But I would never call anyone and say “I feel sorry for myself”. I would get frustrated and go for a walk or listen to a radio show or try to get my mind off of myself because I knew that wasn’t a good place to be. But sometimes I had to come to terms with thoughts like, ‘you guys, or X family has everything and I have nothing I wanted and isn’t that horrible.’
Was there a specific moment or epiphany that helped guide you to a better place mentally and psychologically? Or did it evolve?
It was like collecting pebbles. One thing would happen and I’d put it in my bag and feel, ‘all right’. And I’d just find more and more moments that were encouraging. For example, the first night I spent alone in my house, which was pretty early on, I woke up the next morning and said, I’m O.K. I did it; nothing happened, the world didn’t come to an end. And that was encouraging, especially because I was not a very independent person before all this. Any milestone I hit, like figuring out how to hang pictures with a hammer or drive my son up north by myself was encouraging. I completed a triathalon in Aug. 2008, just over a year after losing Josh. It was a huge milestone for me. You know my husband passed away, I was 24 and I felt like, my life is over, I won’t progress after this, I have nothing going for me in the future. So finishing the triathalon reminded me of a lot of things: I am very young and I do have a lot of potential that I don’t know about because I am so young; the future can hold exciting opportunities for me.
What are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?
One thing I try to say to myself when I hit a bad patch is this idea that ‘it will pass’. I won’t feel this way the whole day or the whole week. So I sort of embrace it and go through it because it will pass. It’s not that I ignore it. When I do get sad I remind myself that I’ll be happy again, eventually, or I’ll do something else in the day that will make me happy. I just know that things change quickly, although with grief they don’t change so quickly. At this point, 4 years out, my day-to-day attitude is so much more positive than it was 3 or 4 years ago obviously. When I do bump into things I say to myself, it’s O.K., you’re not going to feel this way forever.
This has also taught me that when good things happen they should be celebrated and shared because you don’t know when the next bad thing will come. And you never want to say, gosh, I wish we would’ve had dinner together or I wish we would’ve taken the time to go over and say congratulations to that person. I try to embrace those moments of happiness because they’re really important.
Even with birthdays or holidays where I would roll my eyes at them, now I say, come on, this is a big deal, you never know who’s last Christmas this will be or how many more of these we have left, so why not make a big deal out of it.
What thoughts propel you forward?
One thought I try to hold onto is the mantra, “wherever I go, there I am”, just to be there and appreciate what’s happening. That helps me because as a single mom I always feel like I’m juggling plates. It’s easy to get caught up in the, ‘oh come on we’ve gotta go, hurry, hurry.’ I try to tell myself, wherever I go, I’m there and I have to be 100% there if I want to get anything out of that situation. It’s so important because when I’m with my students I want to be 100% their teacher, and when I’m with my son I want to be 100% his mom.
I have a wonderful dad who was very much the disciplinarian. I feel like I didn’t prepare myself to be the disciplinarian of the equation. But I think in raising my son I tell myself, people can help me if I need it. I can call my mom and have her come over and help me balance things out. Or I can have a friend come over and watch Kai while I get the kitchen clean for the first time all week. I was so resistant to ask for help because I was such practical person; it was really hard because I felt like if I ask for help, that means I can’t do it on my own. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘hey, this is really hard, can someone lend me a set of hands for an hour or so.’ So I think I’m good at asking for help and I think I’m good at weighing when I’m overwhelmed; and I don’t have to be a hero everyday. People are so happy to help me.
What advice would you give someone going through a difficult time in their life?
People would tell me all the time that time can help; and I would always say, ‘you can stick time where the sun doesn’t shine.’ But now I cannot say enough that time has changed me in ways that I didn’t anticipate. I think that’s not an easy answer for anyone and I found it to be an incredibly frustrating answer. But you have to go through it and time has to pass for serious healing to happen. I’m even looking forward to where I’ll be 7 years out, where I’ll be 10 years out because I know I’ll continue to grow and change and time will continue to help me.
The other thing that really helped me was seeing a psychologist early on. My obstetrician ‘forced’ me to go. That was huge. I would have never gone on my own because it’s admitting there’s something wrong with you which is a stupid stigma we still have. And that was really helpful in ways I could never have imagined.
Another thing I did was once I had my son I started to adopt exercise into my daily regimen; and that just makes me happier in general. That was huge for me.
I signed up for a group called Team in Training which raises money for the leukemia/lymphoma society. To do something for someone else was very helpful for me because I met people who had leukemia/ cancer and it was good for me to meet people, not just to share stories but also to help me do a better job of appreciating my health and my son’s. Just helping people in general is helpful.
Grief can be a really egocentric emotion. There’s nothing right or wrong about that, it’s just how it is. Helping others made me get outside of myself and learn there’s a lot of other pain and suffering happening in the world.
I’m 28 – I felt really old for awhile but now I feel pretty young again, so that’s good.
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